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Printing and Preserving the Book in the Far Backwoods of California

<i> Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer. </i>

Carolyn and James Robertson print books with technology out of the 19th century in hopes of helping keep the love of reading alive into the 21st century and beyond.

“There are certain values in taking what we consider to be a classic--and there’s lots and lots of room for discussion about what is and isn’t a classic--like John Steinbeck’s ‘Flight’ and putting it into a fine edition and making sure it gets into libraries so it’ll always be there,” says Jim Robertson. “The books are designed to last a long, long time.”

In their way, the Robertsons and their crew at Yolla Bolly Press are throwbacks to a day of independence and craftsmanship in an era of high technology and bottom lines. Jim admits to being obsessed not only by why “we are located in the middle of some cow pasture in a barn full of antique machinery” but more fundamentally with why the woods are filled with people who print books in an age of lasers and computers.

“A book delivers many messages besides the one the author put on the paper, “he says, " and that’s a form of communication that I think is valuable. You can make a thing--a book, or a house, or a camera--in such a way that it commands respect. Those things are better taken care of than a thing that is made poorly. I hate to think that the only people who care about the way things are made are a couple of oddball craftsmen out in the woods. The culture needs the attitude of making things with purpose, attention to detail and a certain kind of love.”

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The Robertsons grow their books, as they put it, on a 40-acre farm at Round Valley in northeastern Mendocino County. Emerging from the 1960s with a sense of wanting to integrate their life and work more completely, the Robertsons moved there from Marin County in 1974. They live six miles outside Covelo, pop. 1,500, a cattle and lumber community. Folks initially weren’t quite sure that the Robertsons weren’t doing something illicit back there in the woods but small-town curiosity was satisfied once the newcomers became printers as well as independent producers of books.

Workmanship is expensive. Prices for the California Writers of the Land limited-edition series are about $275 per book. The second series will rise from $300 to $500. Yolla Bolly Press (pronounced YO-la BO-lee) has also just issued “The Winged Life: The Poetic Vision of Henry David Thoreau” by Robert Bly with engravings by Michael McCurdy. It’s $475. Because of these prices, you won’t find Yolla Bolly books most places, only at Zeitlin & Ver Brugge on La Cienega, The Nature Company in South Coast Plaza or in the libraries at Occidental College and USC.

Why print a book that only the wealthy can buy? Or that only collectors of Steinbeck or Thoreau will prize? Or that stays in a humidified room in a university library? These limited editions are “showcases for typography, showcases for the artists,” Carolyn Robertson said in an interview that wandered from farmhouse to town to print shop. “It’s a way of presenting the book that’s going to keep it preserved for a very long time.”

The press name comes from the Yolla Bolly Indians who once roamed the nearby hills. Now tree frogs dominate the area in spring and summer; they are commemorated in the Indian design that serves as the press logo. Chickens wander freely outside the weathered redwood building where the presses and trays of type look straight out of Dickens.

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And in that workshop, the Robertsons spend months planning a book’s layout, determining what artist could best illustrate it, and selecting a type face. They buy high-quality paper, perhaps from the Fabriano or Magnani mills in Italy. For binding, they have used California latigo saddle leather for Joaquin Miller’s “True Bear Stories” and Amish horse denim for Robinson Jeffers’ “Cawdor.”

They have the type set, do the printing and have the book assembled. At this pace, they do two or three limited editions of 250 or fewer copies each year.

They are equally committed to their efforts as independent book producers for less expensive trade books. With the Sierra Club, Yolla Bolly Press published “The View from the Oak,” winner of the 1978 National Book Award for Children’s Literature, by Herbert and Judith Kohl. Now the press is working on a book on the San Francisco Opera.

Caring about the look and feel of books has long been part of their lives. Jim, 50, printed a neighborhood newspaper, the Pearl Street Gazette, when he was a boy in Alameda. It had a circulation of 15 or 20. Later he worked for a printer after school hours, then turned to designing and graphics work.

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Carolyn, 44, remembers riding a bus to the Salt Lake City library by herself as a young girl. “I’d go to the adult section when I was old enough. I would pick the book by the look of it, and if it had an interesting cover and spine and the title was catchy, I’d read it. I picked some pretty good books, usually above my reading level and certainly my mother wouldn’t approve if she knew what I’d checked out. But at that age I was already impressed by the look of the book.”

For the California series, they chose writers whose work seemed to warrant production in their format. They also picked contemporary writers with an affinity for that work to do accompanying commentaries. And they picked California artists to illustrate. “So everybody had to be a Californian, but as far as the choices were concerned, they were books that we had liked,” Jim said.

He had read Steinbeck’s “Flight” in high school and was struck by the tragic tale of a young boy who kills a man while defending his honor. Another author selected, Joaquin Miller, “described a time in the life of California history that no one else really wrote about.” Next in line is Theodora Kroeber’s “The Inland Whale,” about the California Indians, with a foreword by her daughter, Ursula Le Guin.

“There’s a lot of very strong, worthy California literature that’s never appeared in fine editions . . . so we’ve kind of marked out that territory as something that’s of interest to us personally. . . . We want to do an edition of Nathaniel West’s ‘The Day of the Locust.’ We’ve been looking for an artist for that. We want to do Raymond Chandler. We’ve got a list a mile long.”

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The Robertsons acknowledge that they are sometimes criticized for not printing original works. The criticism comes from young printers who always do original work, Jim said, although “it may not sell very well.” And it comes from older printers, such as Ward Ritchie. “He’s told me, ‘You people ought to be doing original work.’ Well, maybe we should. When he was young, he was publishing Robinson Jeffers before he was famous. Perhaps we should be doing the same thing.

” . . . We’ve chosen to continue to exist in the publishing business by taking on something that we feel reasonably certain we can at least break even on,” Jim adds. “We don’t publish anything we don’t care about. And at some point we hope we can care as deeply about original work and have the ability to do it and be reasonably certain we have the market. That’s one of the reasons we did the Bly, to see whether having done five books that have received some attention, we could then do an original work by two recognizable authors, Thoreau and Bly, and get away with it. And it’s broken even.”

In Jim Robertson’s eyes, “a book is the life of the mind made concrete. All that the mind is capable of has been, is being and will be written in books.” Books “are power objects--icons, if you will, that . . . represent what is valued in the culture.” For that reason, the future of writing and publishing, and therefore reading, draws the Robertsons’ attention.

“I believe that if anyone writes a book which is honest, tells a story in a new way, it has its own destiny,” Carolyn says. “Someone will recognize the truth of the work and it will find a home and will eventually get out to the world and find a place because people yearn to hear what other people think.”

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And he says: “It’s a time of transition. It’s difficult to know how the computer is going to affect the act of reading, the absorption of information. My hope for the future of books in any form lies in that intimate connection, the contact, between a reader and a writer where you in effect invent the world when you read what he’s writing. It’s a creative act, reading.”


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