Traditional Methods

Owen County’s Larkspur Press makes books one page at a time

Hand-operated press may be among
last left in the nation

MONTEREY, Ky. (November 2016) – Since the digital revolution or longer, people have speculated that the making of books is a dying art.
This is not the case at Larkspur Press.
Thanks to the vision and artistry of Gray Zeitz, 66, Larkspur Press publishes two or three books a year on a hand-operated press using handset type. This remarkable press celebrates the voices of Kentucky.

Photo by Alice Jane Smith

Gray Zeitz, 66, operates his handset type, hand-operated press, believed to be one of the last of its kind still working.

“I don’t know of a press anymore that puts out a local writer in an affordable edition,” Zeitz said. Larkspur prints paper and cloth editions of each book and a limited edition with decorative covers. Since 1991, he has operated the press in a loft-style building on his 60-acre farm in Owen County.
His friend, Wendell Berry, the poet, author and environmentalist, describes the shop in a new book about Larkspur Press. “The shop with its presses and drawers of type, work tables, stacks of printed and unprinted papers, with Gray and Leslie (Shane) at work in it, is Larkspur Press. It is a workshop. Sometimes, rightly it is also a school where the tradition, the standards and the skills of making fine books are handed along to other people.”
In 1974, Zeitz opened Larkspur in the back of a candle shop in Monterey, a river town 15 miles north of Frankfort, Ky. Soon thereafter, the Kentucky River flooded. Zeitz moved the press into the old Monterey Market. After a second, devastating flood in 1978, he and his wife, Jean, moved the press to a farm they had bought south of Monterey.
Zeitz is a tall man with a long wispy bear, glasses and a gentle manner. He dresses simply as a monk, usually wearing jeans, suspenders and a T-shirt. Larkspur Press stands next to his lavender house, surrounded by gardens and enlivened by his black Labrador retrievers, Leila and Sadie. His late wife, Jean, once said he had wanted a job where he could walk to work.
“I’m usually in the shop around 7:30 a.m., and I knock off around 4 or 5 p.m.,” Zeitz said. Jean died in August 2013. The couple have two children, Jesse Zeitz, and Laurel Simo, and four grandchildren.
He has no computer or cell phone. “I don’t do email.” A few years ago, a friend set up a webpage for him, but its purpose is not to sell Larkspur books.
In the print shop, Zeitz mixes inks, sets each piece of type by hand and feeds completed pages one at a time into one of his four presses. His newest press is a Vandercook, a flatbed letterpress dating to the 1940s or ’50s. Engravings by Carolyn Whitesel or Wesley Bates grace the covers of many Larkspur books. Zeitz often uses his large Chandler and Price clamshell press because of the quality of its printing. He has a table model of the Chandler and Price and a Washington hand press.
In 2005, Zeitz started binding books at the shop. Leslie Shane folds paper, sews, glues and binds books, often with her dog, Winston, nearby. Whitesel also binds many of the special editions in her decorative papers.
An Alabama native, Zeitz grew up in Elizabethtown, Ky. He earned an associate degree from Elizabethtown Community College in 1969 and attended the University of Kentucky. He apprenticed with Carolyn Hammer at the Margaret I. King Press and published a small literary magazine.
Richard Taylor, teacher, writer and poet, of Lexington, Ky., said he likes to discuss his friend of 44 years. He was Poet Laureate of Kentucky from 1999 – 2001.
“Gray is a genuine artist,” Taylor said. “He is insufferably modest. He has a zen-like character. He is even-tempered and has a wonderful sense of humor.”
A manuscript may sit around for months while Zeitz considers design and typeset and confers with authors, artists and poets. “He is very content to work six or seven days a week,” Taylor said. “He is painstaking in the design and production of books. Each book he makes is more gorgeous than the last. Larkspur books are works of art.”
Although Zeitz eschews labels and titles, his friends see him as an artist and a poet. They call him a patient teacher, a modest, even-tempered man, one who is pure of heart, and a “cross between Santa Claus and his elves.”
“I never paid much attention to terms and labels,” Zeitz said. “I never considered myself a book artist when the term came in. And then the Arts Council gave me the Governor’s Award in the Arts.” In October 2012, former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear honored Zeitz with a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts.
For many years, Berry has considered him a poet of “considerable note.” Zeitz’s three books of poetry include: “Finger Ridge,” “No Time Lost in Whetting” and “No Fool, No Fun.”
In 2011, Nathan Montoya and his wife, Anne Vestuto, co-proprietors of Village Lights Bookstore in Madison, Ind., met Zeitz at the Kentucky Book Fair. They thought Larkspur books would be a perfect fit for their store, located in Madison’s National Historic Landmark District.
Village Lights Bookstore became the only bookstore in Indiana to carry Larkspur books. In Louisville, Ky., the books are sold at Carmichaels, the Kentucky Museum of Arts and Crafts, and Craft(s) Gallery. Poor Richard’s Bookstore carries the books in Frankfort, Ky. Booksellers, Black Swan and Morris Bookshop, handle them in Lexington, Ky.
“A Larkspur book comes from a long and deep tradition of bookmaking,” Montoya said. “One does not buy it to read and throw away. It is to keep and cherish.”
Are books on the verge of extinction?

“I don’t know,” Zeitz replied. “The world is changing. Who knows? We’ve still got the doors open, and we’ve had no big ups or downs. People will miss a lot if they lose books.”

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