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.

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.

Other limited editions include: ``Cawdor,'' by Robinson Jeffers, ``Flight,'' by John Steinbeck, ``The Daring Young Man on The Flying Trapeze,'' by William Saroyan, and ``True Bear Stories,'' by Joaquin Miller. In early 1986, the Robertsons published ``The Winged Life,'' an examination of Henry David Thoreau by poet Robert Bly. Several of the books are exquisitely illustrated with woodcuts. The Robertsons are working on a limited edition of ``The Inland Whale,'' tales of California Indians told by Theodora Kroeber, the author of ``Ishi.''

Who buys Yolla Bolly limited editions? ``All kinds of people,'' says Jim, ``from the famous to retired schoolteachers. We had one person put a deposit of $50 on a book and is now paying just a little money each month.''

The Robertsons are willing escapees from Marin County, where they made educational films and published educational materials in the 1970s. ``It was the height of the back-to-the-land movement,'' says Jim, ``and we bought 40 acres in order to live and work here and not worry that development would engulf us.''

The Yolla Bolly barn, filled with the paraphenalia of printing and old, rattling, printing presses, is 50 yards from the Robertsons' comfortable redwood home and surrounded by a rolling meadow dotted with trees. In this setting they have escorted, pulled, and pushed about 80 trade and limited-edition books along the bumpy path to publication.

Yolla Bolly is an Indian name for a mountain area north of the small, rural town of Covelo, the mailing address for what Jim calls, ``the dream of a boy printer and a girl editor come true.''

Carolyn, the quieter one of the Robertson team, oversees the business side of Yolla Bolly as well as contributing her ``unerring eye for design and editing,'' says Jim.

``I like keeping the work on track,'' she says, ``and doing it as well as I can. It's very satisfying to be here doing this.'' She also maintains a combination crafts and bookstore in Covelo as a change of pace and to be part of the community.

Each year, two or three apprentices are invited to occupy the apprentice cabin at Yolla Bolly free of charge and learn the art of printing from the Robertsons. It's Jim and Carolyn's way of passing on knowledge and expressing hope that fine book publishing will not vanish.

``Book arts programs are springing up in colleges all over the country,'' says Jim. ``There's one at the University of Southern California, at Occidental College, at the University of California at Berkeley, and at three or four colleges in the East. If the book is supposed to be in retreat, these people haven't heard about it.''

Because Yolla Bolly books are made to last 300 or 400 years, ideally what response would Jim like when someone comes across a dusty Yolla Bolly book in the year 2287?

Seated in canvas chair in the barn, in front of a table covered with books that may be on shelves in 2287, he pauses a long time and then says, ``I want him or her to read it, and to feel that the object in hand is an accurate and beautiful reflection of the writer's intent. I want the book to be an invitation to read it, not because it's a quaint relic of the past, but because it reflects what the writer intended.''

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