Arion Press stretches one's notion of a book

''Books come out so fast I can't even read their title pages,'' Alfred A. Knopf once complained. The speed of printing today is breathtaking. In the time it takes to say ''Knopf,'' a computer can set and indent the editor's dismay in eight-point Times Roman across the top of this story.

A printer like Andrew Hoyem, on the other hand (and by hand), would take considerably longer. Wrapped in his printer's apron, he would stand before his compartmentalized typecase, hunting down each letter, space, and quotation mark, much the way Johann Gutenberg must have for his famous Latin Bible of 1456.

In this age of cathode-ray tubes and photo composition, Hoyem looks old-fashioned, even antiquated. Yet this latter-day Luddite is a pioneer in the revival of fine book printing in America.

''Twenty years ago, I decided to spend six months learning how a book is made ,'' Hoyem says. Who'd have guessed that the same person who nearly went broke publishing San Francisco's beat poets in the early '60s would be the first in the 430 years since Gutenberg to break the $1,000 barrier for a work of fine printing? That was the price his Arion Press charged for the limited edition of Herman Melville's ''Moby Dick,'' hand-set and bound in blue goatskin. Last year, Hoyem's elegant rendering of ''The Apocalypse,'' the Book of Revelation from the King James Version of the Bible, went for $1,500.

All 150 copies of ''The Apocalypse'' have been sold. ''Moby Dick'' sold out prior to publication and, among collectors, is now worth twice the original price. Hoyem's edition of Allen Ginsberg's controversial poem ''Howl,'' sold in 1971, was a relative steal: a trifling $60. Today it is said to be worth 10 times that amount. After a couple of close scrapes with bankruptcy, Hoyem is very much in the black. Over the last few years of solvency, Arion and a growing number of other fine presses in the United States have moved the profession from glorified hobby to a going commericial venture.

Admired and celebrated in the fine-book trade, Hoyem is still considered a rare bird who ruffles the flock's feathers with the eclectic and experimental. Hoyem has made important contributions to the tradition of beautiful books, but has no intention of spending his life perfecting it. Among other things, he has devoted a healthy dose of his iconoclasm to publishing a 33-foot accordion book of science fiction encased in aluminum bookends. One wag called it the ''first bulletproof book.''

He has printed a suite of ''shaped poems.'' Among them was a mouse, a swan, a necktie, and the Empire State Building. Hoyem is now at work on John Ashbury's poem ''Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror.'' It will be printed on circular, revolving pages, turned like a lazy susan. On the cover Hoyem will mount an actual convex mirror for self-reflection.

Hoyem selects titles that are ''belle lettristic'' and ''worthy of preservation in conservative or radical dress.'' The printer worthily preserves himself in conservative dress. Bundled in a tweed jacket and gray flannels, Hoyem hits his midmorning stride down Commercial Street to his downtown print shop at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid. His clothes are natty: yellow button-down oxford shirt, a cadmium raw-silk necktie, and wingtips. He drives an old red Alfa Romeo and could pass as an art history professor at Princeton.

''The original line of the Bay stopped at my front door,'' Hoyem said. They began filling in the harbor in the 1850s. He paused in front of the three-story brick building where his six-member staff sets type and cranks up the old hand-fed platen presses. ''In the 1870s, this area was all printers. They used to run a steam line down Clay and Sacramento Streets to power the presses. Most of the printers, however, have gone South to the Sunbelt. We're the last ones around here,'' Hoyem said, bounding up the stairs.

On the third floor are his presses, black and beastly. Beyond are drawers upon drawers of type; Palatino Italic, Goudy Modern, Optima, Thannhauser, Jenson Old Style, Kabel Bold, Inkunabula, Lutetia, and Poliphilus. Like crows on telephone poles, a row of plastic clothespins are strung out on wires in front of the upstairs windows. The clothespins stand empty now. When the presses roll, pages are individually hung out to dry, and flutter like sheets in a washday breeze.

That particular day, Glenn Todd and Gerald Reddan, two of Hoyem's assistants, were proofing the text for the deluxe edition of Dashiell Hammett's ''Maltese Falcon.'' It was going to press in a few days. By the window, Christopher Stinehour was glueing the wooden covers on one of the 150 copies of ''The Apocalypse''; nearby, Lawrence Van Velzer, wearing a printer's apron, was sanding the edges of a palm-leaf edition of a poem Hoyem wrote called ''What.'' The '' 'What' wood,'' Hoyem points out, is scrap from ''The Apocalypse'' covers. ''We use everything here but the squeal.''

Hoyem is part of a century-old line of first-class San Francisco printers. Many - including Hoyem - believe the city has become ''the center of fine printing in America.'' Some attribute the excellence to a local breed of art patrons, others say it's the inclement weather: The foggy air lends the proper dampness to render crisp typography on handmade paper.

Those who subscribe to the ''great men'' theory of history point a deserving finger at John Henry Nash. He was the Canadian-born typographer who moved to this ''Baghdad-by-the-Bay'' in 1895, started printing businessmen's stationery, and graduated to lavishly designed limited editions for which he became internationally known.

When Andrew Hoyem arrived in the early 1960s, San Francisco was aflame with the avant-garde. North Beach, the city's Greenwich Village, was inundated with Bohemians and beat poets, boppers and oddballs. A North Beach photograph taken in 1965 shows local literati gathered in front of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore. Poets pepper the crowd: Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and Richard Brautigan. Gazing from the right border of the photograph is a young Andrew Hoyem.

Back then he was a Pomona College political science major who had just gotten out of the Navy and had begun reading Oriental philosophy and writing poems. He joined Midwesterner Dave Haselwood at Auerhahn Press. Auerhahn, named after ''a large game bird that lives in the Black Forest,'' published, in fine format, the works of young writers ''too revolutionary for the New York houses.''

Around the corner from Auerhahn on Sutter Street were the Grabhorn brothers, Robert and Edwin, then considered the finest printers in the United States. They had come from Indiana to San Francisco in 1920. The brothers gained a worldwide reputation for striking design and fine craftmanship; the Grabhorn edition of Walt Whittman's ''Leaves of Grass'' is legendary among fine printers.

In 1965 Hoyem closed Auerhahn, ''before our contributions to culture forced us into bankruptcy,'' Hoyem said. ''We couldn't afford to stay in the crazy business of publishing new work. It was somebody else's turn. That's how the culture moves along: The young give over time, sort of like the draft.''

About the time Auerhahn dissolved, the Grabhorn brothers were separating and Robert enlisted Hoyem's help. After Robert's death in 1973, Hoyem started Arion Press, named after the legendary Greek poet who was rescued from the sea by a dolphin. Arion's first publications were modest and close to home. Hoyem opened with a catalog of his own drawings exhibited at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. He followed with ''A Commonplace Book of Cookery,'' a collection of Robert Grabhorn's favorite eating and drinking quotations with an introduction by M.F.K. Fisher. As the third course, Hoyem published Shakespeare's ''Venus and Adonis,'' with excerpts from Ovid's ''Metamorphoses.''

Arion's subsequent publishing venture was a gamble. Entitled ''A Travel Book, '' it made a quantum leap in fine print book prices. The limited edition (225 copies at $350 apiece) was a complex hand-set text with artist Fred Martin's illustrations, some requiring nine press runs. ''A Travel Book'' was bold business. To many book buyers, the price sounded outrageous, and Arion almost went under. Hoyem, however, stuck to his guns: ''I was determined to charge enough to adequately cover our costs, regardless of the constraints of the book market and the competition of other presses' subsidization from institutions, grants, and private funds. The prevailing prices of press books could not serve as a guideline if we were to survive independently.''

After Hoyem's printing of a previously undiscovered Elizabethan translation of the Book of Psalms came the handsome ''Moby Dick'' folio, which made publishing history. Two years in production, the Melville classic was printed on handmade paper (''the blue-gray of an overcast day at sea,'' says Hoyem), with a sperm whale watermark on each page. The book was set in a bold, black, masculine 18-point Goudy Modern type accompanied by 100 black-and-white woodcuts by Barry Moser, all bound in blue goatskin.

Hoyem asked Moser not to show the characters or events of Melville's narrative, but to portray the sea, the ships, and tools used in whaling. ''We didn't want to impose a visualization on the book, which always becomes dated,'' Hoyem said, flipping the sturdy, handmade paper. The book opens with one of Moser's woodcut waves breaking over the ''C'' of ''Call me Ishmael . . .'' and ends with an engraving of a calm sea and the final line of the book: ''The great shroud of the sea rolled on, as it rolled five thousand years ago.'' Added Hoyem: ''You can almost see, can't you? The whirlpool where the Pequod went down.''

''Barry Moser and I went to Nantucket and New Bedford to dig up ideas. We had a dickens of a time trying to figure out the right number of sails on the whaling vessels, because most of the visual records came after 1850 and were very different from the period Melville was writing about. The same was true of harpoons.''

As the crowning touch of the ''Moby Dick'' edition, Hoyem commissioned Kirstin Tini Miura, who lives in Tokyo and is one of the world's leading bookbinders, to fashion two leather book covers using inlaid blue and purple leathers. ''The design is reminiscent of the Hokusai wave,'' Hoyem said. ''One of the bindings sold last Saturday for $10,000.''

The entire ''Moby Dick'' edition of 250 copies sold out before publication at had ever asked for a typographic book. Did Hoyem feel immoderate? Hardly. He barely broke even on the venture. Looking back, he said, ''Fifteen hundred dollars would have been a more justifiable price.''

His next outing was more commercially successful. After ''Moby Dick,'' Hoyem printed ''Coronado's Children,'' by Frank Dobie, a book of Southwestern tales of buried treasure. It was printed on handmade Italian paper, the initial letters were 22-karat gold, and Neiman-Marcus sold all 300 copies at $700 apiece through its 1980 Christmas catalog.

Hoyem's next project, ''Flatland,'' was a bold departure from Melville and Dobie. It was a science fiction satire written by English schoolmaster Edwin A. Abbott in 1884. It is the story of a two-dimensional world inhabited by plane-geometrical creatures. Hoyem wanted a design consistent with the plot, so he chose the accordion format, and flattened the text out over 33 feet. In the pages he made die-cuts of triangles, hexagons, and circles to portray the citizens of Flatland (each geometric shape corresponds to a particular social rank). Hoyem then recruited Ray Bradbury to write an introduction and autograph each of the 275 copies.

Poetry followed fantasy. In a portfolio of 30 broadsides, the Arion Press anthologized the literary convention known as ''Shaped Poetry.'' It contained examples spanning 23 centuries: from Simias's ''Egg'' written in ancient Greece, to a rebus Hoyem banged out on his typewriter two years ago. Each of the 30 poems is set in a different type and printed on different handmade paper, ranging from a Japanese wood-veneer paper to a transparent rice paper from Nepal. They are printed in shapes appropriate to the subject. The collection inludes Guillaume Apollinaire's ''Il Pleut'' set in diagonal trails of raindrops; E.E. Cummings's ''Grasshopper'' in the shape of the insect on handmade green paper; Lewis Carroll's ''The Mouse's Tale'' in the form of a mouse's tail (using every size of Garamond type, from 48 point right down to the six-point tip of the tail); and Stephane Mallarme's ''Un Coup de Des Jamais N'Abolira le Hasard'' (''A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance'').

''Mallarme's poem, written in 1897, was a revolutionary poem,'' said Hoyem, walking around the poem printed on a circular accordion of paper. ''It read in circles and across the fold. Never before had poetry been splayed around the page in a way which didn't relate to the versification. After Mallarme, everything went wild. He created the shaped poem and made E.E. Cummings possible.''

Despite the extraordinary quality of Arion's books, ''there is still a certain animosity from people who say I'm making books for elite,'' said Hoyem. ''They ask me, 'Why don't you print more copies and bring the price down?' They say I'm creating an artificial scarcity.''

Hoyem has generally kept his press runs from exceeding 400 copies for a number of reasons - some professional, some personal. First, most of the work is done by hand, and any decrease in unit cost for larger printings is negligible; second, 400 copies appears to be the saturation point of the market. ''I have to make sure I sell out each edition. You can't have books hanging around. They're like old fish,'' said Hoyem. Finally, 400 seems to be Hoyem's own saturation point. ''When I decide to work on something for three to six months, it has to keep my attention, which shifts all the time. Four hundred copies is about the limit on how long we can hold our interest. Beyond that, quality control suffers.''

Who buys Arion's books? Libraries, museums, collectors, and a list of 75 ''subscribers'' who guarantee to purchase whatever comes off the presses. They are given a 10 percent discount for their patronage.

What projects does Hoyem have up his tweed sleeve? ''Though I don't want to appear as a press of gimmicks, I think stretching the notion of what a book is can be a useful exercise.'' After he's through setting John Ashbury's poetry, Hoyem imagines a volume of ''self-containing boxes,'' and the ''modernization'' of such historic forms as the scroll and leaf book. He also talks of printing perhaps ''an American drama series including Tennessee Williams,'' and ''of course, some Emily Dickinson, which we will set in Original Old Style Italic, a 19th-century American typeface that has all her quirkiness. It will be printed on paper made by a company in Brookstone, Ind., run by women.''

Hoyem is always stumbling onto new ideas. While showing me his prize copy of the Grabhorns' ''Leaves of Grass'' edition, he spots a book called ''The Temple of Flora,'' published in 1805 with delicious color mezzotints. ''Just imagine,'' said Hoyem, beaming, ''this was the first book to show plants in nature, as well as their native habitat and culture. It's one of the great botanical books of all times. He flashed an elfin grin. ''It ought to keep our interest for a few months.''

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