The fine art of handmade books. Yolla Bolly Press publishes limited editions of California authors
`YOU can judge a book by its cover,'' says Jim Robertson, eyes wrinkling in the delight of debunking the well-known clich'e, ``and by its spine too.'' He is seated in a lumpy-floored, redwood barn, hands resting on a short stack of handsome books, handmade with paper that invites touching and beautifully printed words that ignite thinking. Outside the barn, oak trees filter sunlight on a cold, Northern California morning.Skip to next paragraph
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Jim and his wife Caroline own and operate the Yolla Bolly Press, often called a book farm, where handmade, limited-edition books by California writers such as John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, and Robinson Jeffers have been crafted since 1983. Despite the $85 to $850 price for these books, book lovers around the world eagerly buy them.
According to Sandra Kirshenbaum, editor of Fine Print, a San Francisco quarterly magazine about fine printing, ``Yolla Bolly is right at the top in the country in terms of quality and the quantity of fine books.''
Between 1974 and 1982, as computerized printing made the letterpress obsolete, commercial printers simply wanted to get rid of old type and presses. Hundreds of small, garage-style printers used the old presses to publish limited-edition books, booklets, and chapbooks. ``There are thousands of them today, coming and going,'' says Ms. Kirshenbaum, ``but maybe only ten or so that make any money.''
Beside Yolla Bolly, other well-known and flourishing independent presses include Arion Press in San Francisco, Bird and Bull in Pennsylvania, the Pennyroyal Press in Massachusetts, and the Janus Press in Vermont.
In a TV age surfeited with throw-away paperbacks and conglomerate publishing that favors entertainment over ideas, when reading is alleged to be on the wane, why are the Robertsons publishing fine books at the end of a mile-long dirt road 200 miles north of San Francisco?
``The big question is, why books?'' says Jim. ``The act of reading, whether it's a fine book or not, is an incredibly important act.... You can't maintain a culture or a political system if people do not exercise their minds. And reading does this unlike any other experience.''
Since 1974, with the help of a small staff, the Robertsons at Yolla Bolly have edited and designed books for many trade publishers. ``We place literary works with publishers,'' says the bearded, good-humored Jim, ``and then we work as editors and designers in collaboration with authors and photographers to make the books ready to print.''
Either way, trade or limited edition, a Yolla Bolly book is marked by ideas and images that value the human condition and the fragile globe we inhabit. Last year, for example, in collaboration with the Sierra Club, Yolla Bolly edited and designed ``Mountain Light,'' a book of photos and text by Galen Rowell.
The most recent limited-edition book printed at the Yolla Bolly barn is ``Where Shall I Take You To,'' the love letters of Una and Robinson Jeffers. The collector's edition of 225 slipcased copies is printed on Ragston book paper, bound in German bookcloth with handmade end sheets, and priced at $245. The deluxe edition of 25 is printed on handmade Umbria paper, bound in full English calf, and signed by editor Robert Kafka and also by Garth Jeffers, Robinson Jeffers's son. The price is $585.