Made in the South

Larkspur Press

In a small shop in Kentucky, Gray Zeitz creates books the old-fashioned way

Photo: Andrew Hyslop

Zeitz during a rare moment of repose.

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” Henry David Thoreau famously warned in Walden. For the last forty years, Gray Zeitz has been coming to work at his Monterey, Kentucky, print shop in some slight variation of old jeans, a comfortable shirt, and suspenders. Thoreau would have approved, but not only of that. He would have congratulated Zeitz for the care and deliberateness with which the printer has produced incomparably beautiful books in a digital age that seems determined to sweep letters off the page altogether.

Wander into Larkspur Press on any given day and you will find Zeitz feeding blank sheets of high-quality paper into a 1915 Chandler & Price press. An inking disk brushes over a plate of metal type, which then clamps down on the waiting page to give this “clamshell” press its name. Zeitz pulls out a newly inked poem and inserts the next blank sheet, over and over in a kind of slow, methodical dance of the printer and his press.

What you are watching—what I am watching—is the antithesis of commercial offset publishing. “There’s great pleasure in being able to pick up a piece of type and build a book one letter at a time,” Zeitz tells me of the letterpress technique. Such pleasure stretches back almost six hundred years to Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced movable type in Europe and who would have found himself very much at home in Zeitz’s print shop.

An illustration from one of Zeitz's books.

Photo: Andrew Hyslop

Book Keeping

An illustration from one of Zeitz’s books.

“Gutenberg printed on a wooden press and we print on a motorized press,” Zeitz says, “but we still feed each sheet in by hand.” Zeitz saw his first wooden press at the University of Kentucky’s King Library Press back in the early seventies. He apprenticed there for a couple of years, then moved to Monterey, where a small folk-arts community was forming. There he met his wife, Jean, who passed away in 2013. They were married for thirty-nine years. “Not long enough,” Zeitz says.

A few years ago Jean Zeitz told me, “The first time I ever saw Gray, he pulled up to a cookout with a pig in the backseat of his car. He and the pig were both covered in mud. I knew that was the man for me.” Zeitz set up his print shop in the back of a candle store in Monterey, then in an abandoned pool hall. But after several bad floods, Jean convinced him to build this thirty-by-forty-foot shop, a stone’s throw from their small purple farmhouse.

Over the last four decades, Zeitz, a fine poet himself, has published the best of Kentucky’s writers, including Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, Richard Taylor, and Mary Ann Taylor-Hall. He has also published the first books of many younger writers, mainly poets.

Feeding the press.

Photo: Andrew Hyslop

Feeding the press.

But making books this way obviously takes time. Sometimes Zeitz and his assistant, Leslie Shane, produce only two books a year. Zeitz doesn’t believe in deadlines, and when pressed for one, he is likely to reply, “Who knows when the phlox will flower?”

Consider the life of a Larkspur Press book. After the plates have been set, the pages printed, and the ink allowed to dry, the loose sheets move to an upstairs loft to be folded, sewn, and bound—all by hand. Zeitz will print between four hundred and a
thousand copies of that particular edition, and each copy takes about three hours to produce.

“People ask us why the books are expensive,” Shane says from the table where she folds pages, “but if you factor in that amount of time, they’re not expensive at all.” Imagine being a Larkspur author, knowing that such care went into every single copy of your book. Early on, when Zeitz decided to bind his books in-house, his accountant remarked, “Only you could figure out how to do a process slower.”

But Zeitz has a simple defense of his methods: “It’s a lot of fun and the quality’s better.” That is undeniable. In its elegant combination of craftsmanship and understated design, a Larkspur book perhaps best calls to mind a Shaker chair. The local monk Thomas Merton once wrote that the Shakers built a chair as if an angel would sit on it. To that one might add, Zeitz creates a book as if he expects the relaxing angel to read it.

For Zeitz, the idea of efficiency, so crucial to any form of mass production, is clearly beside the point here. He may be a true heir to Gutenberg, but he doesn’t have much truck with the legacy of Henry Ford. When I ask if he ever considered mechanizing the binding process, Zeitz replies, “If I used a sewing machine, then Leslie might get laid off.” Shane nods in mock sadness. It’s a joke, but one that gets to something very fundamental about what you might call Zeitz’s political economy: There’s more to production than efficiency and the bottom line.

That can also be seen in the fact that Zeitz doesn’t include ISBNs in his books. “They’re ugly,” he explains. “But without them, Amazon and Barnes & Noble can’t buy my books.” A friend set up a website for Larkspur Press (larkspur, where people can order books, but Zeitz rarely sees it because he doesn’t own a computer.

What all of this means is that Zeitz must disperse much of his stock locally. While he sells expensive limited editions of his books to collectors all over the world, he remains primarily a publisher of local writers to be read by local readers. He is his own distributor, a guy driving around in a white pickup truck. And one gets the sense that he likes it that way.

“Gray, more than anyone I know, has made a world and a living on his own terms,” says the former Kentucky poet laureate Richard Taylor. “Many of us think of him as a kind of Kentucky Buddhist in his single-minded acceptance of the world, his even-temperedness, and his desire to make the world of his readers better in a good-natured way—self-employed, self-sufficient, bossless, laborer, designer, artist, mechanic, aesthetician, poet. He is as much a natural resource as Mammoth Cave. He lives the song he sings just as many of us sing the songs we don’t live.”

Thoreau would have concurred.