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San Francisco's Arion Press: Fine books, great artwork, and good talk

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Here in San Francisco, we’ve got any number of iconic sites and sights. The Golden Gate Bridge. Lombard, “the crookest street in the world.” Coit Tower and those little cable cars—each highly visible, well known, popular with one and all.

I’m here to add one more unique item to the list, less visible but deserving of far more widespread renown: Arion Press, which is not only maintaining the historic tradition of letterpress printing and hand-bound books but, for almost 40 years, has been creating wonderful limited-edition artist books. I go to as many of its events, in Arion’s airy two-story building on the edge of the Presidio, as I can—not because I can afford any of the books, which have original artwork by the likes of Jasper Johns, Kiki Smith, and Wayne Thiebaud, but because I never cease to admire them, on display in steel-and-plexiglass vitrines in the gallery.

Also because the events—featuring artists, poets, and writers—are often very special (and free). The late, great poet Seamus Heaney, for instance, gave a reading here when Arion published Squarings, a sequence of 48 of his poems with 48 new drawings by the artist Sol LeWitt. In fact, Arion published Heaney’s last book, Stone From Delphi, not long before he died, last summer.

Most recently, I went to the book party for Arion’s newly published edition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Like all Arion’s artist books, it features an erudite introduction (by Stanford Orwell scholar Peter Stansky) and original prints (24 by former San Francisco artist—and bookbinder—Jonathan Hammer, who lives in Spain not far from where Orwell entered the country during the Spanish Civil War). This book features an extra suite of hand-colored prints in portfolio, currently on display opposite the vitrines. That night, as you made your way to the end of the room, where Stansky and UC Berkeley lecturer and author Adam Hochschild would discuss the Spanish Civil War and its influence on Orwell’s work (Hochschild is at work on a book about that war as seen through the eyes of volunteers, journalists, and others who were there), you might encounter Hammer himself, explaining why his prints have titles like “Trotter Trotsky” (pigs feet with shattered rimless glasses) and “Smoking Tongue” (a facelike tongue in profile with burning cigarette). In April, Hochschild, one of our best writers, will give an illustrated talk here on World War I, the topic of his most recent book, To End All Wars.

I haven’t even mentioned the printing and bookmaking facilities here. Downstairs is M&H Type, one of the few remaining typefoundry works in the country and, according to Arion, the oldest, biggest, and last fully functioning as part of a letterpress operation. Here are machines for creating letters, from hot metal, that can be set by hand or mechanically (that is to say, type). Here, too, are Arion’s 12 presses; many hundreds of different typefaces in more than 4,000 wooden drawers, or typecases—the largest collection in the country; and the bookbindery. The whole enterprise, named an “irreplaceable cultural treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, employs more than a dozen artisans in the crafts of typecasting, letterpress printing, and hand bookbinding.

It’s easy to reach, there’s parking, and there is always something fascinating to see and think about, thanks to Arion publisher Andrew Hoyem and senior editor Diana Ketcham. The next event is a book signing for novelist Diane Johnson’s new memoir, Flyover Lives, at the end of this month. The book is from a traditional publisher, but Johnson’s work can be found in two of Arion’s books, the introductions to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial.

The gallery, with its vitrines and the prints and photographs on the walls, is open during business hours and by appointment. Tours of the press are offered on Thursday afternoons or by appointment; for those, you need $10 and a reservation. Oh, and Arion’s 100th book will be published this year: Walt Whitman’s immortal Leaves of Grass. The book party should be a fun event, even without the author there to sign books.

Jan. 31, Diane Johnson book signing; April 16, Adam Hochschild lecture and slide show, Arion Press, 1802 Hays St., The Presidio, S.F., 415.668.2542, arionpress.com.

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