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WNY Book Arts Collaborative Celebrates its Grand Opening

WNYBAC executive director, Richard Kegler (photo by Rose Mattrey)

Rip it up & Print it again

The term “book arts” must be confusing to a lot of people. In this day and age, a book, magazine, or newspaper is nothing more than a machine-made vessel for information and ideas, and a term for the virtue of art’s messenger seems as inane as saying “money-finance.”

Many years ago, however, before electricity (let alone the computer), a lot of thought and work went into the mass production of the written word. Every page that was pressed with a carefully constructed typeset, made of expertly carved or molded characters, required art and skill. The Western New York Book Arts Collaborative wants to remind us of this, and through its newly opened Book Arts Center in downtown Buffalo. There they hope to teach the public how to use arcane presses and type pieces, and put the art back in printing.

Artvoice visited the Book Arts Center at the corner of Washington and Mohawk to check it out, and met up with WNYBAC’s executive director, Richard Kegler. The first thing we asked about was the location.

“We opened downtown for a couple a reasons, one being that for a long time there has been a lot of blight and vacant buildings downtown, and we figured there may be something we could find that would be reasonable,” Kegler says. “And the other was living in Buffalo, we want to see the downtown come back. And this would be our little contribution to helping that along.”

The Western New York Book Arts Collaborative started three years ago, but the goal of finding a building to house the organization and its equipment materialized just a year ago. The collaborative is a nonprofit arts organization, but has received no financial support from the county or the state.

“A lot of local spending has been cut, with the whole economy the way it is,” Kegler says. “In our quest to get seed money, we are being told that you have to be around for at least a year, and basically swim before given a life preserver.

Once a department store, the building at 468 Washinton Street has been gutted and transformed into a compact arts center with a gallery floor, mini-library, and full printing work-space, and all without a single penny of government money. Most impressive, though, is the array of antique equipment the organization has acquired; it provides not only a historic showcase on the gallery floor, but also all the tools to run the workshop itself, which Kegler describes as a “functional museum.”

“Most the stuff we have here is between 1890 and 1940, and with a majority of it being from around the 1920s,” Kegler says. “We even have wood type that dates before the turn of the 20th century.”

He says that the greater part of the equipment was donated, but he’s found stuff at auctions as well, where he’d find drawers of type being dumped into 55 gallon barrels and sold for scrap.

“Part of my motivation of doing this project was to rescue such equipment,” he says. “One type face we got was the only one designed in Buffalo in the metal era. It was one that I previously did some research on, so I had seen a sample of it in book, but I had never actually seen the type itself before. Then there was a place that was going out of business in East Aurora, and in the basement they had a drawer of it. It was a nice surprise.”

Kegler believes explains that many older fonts and print styles aren’t recorded in libraries and computer databases, and so are in danger of being lost forever. He imagines the Book Arts Center as a place where those forms can be preserved and digitized.

“My day job was designing digital fonts, and most of what we did was revising historical forms,” he says. “There are tens of thousands of digital fonts out there, but the history of type is still only partly tapped. We have stuff here that no one has digitized.”

Asked what traditional printing adds to art in this day and age, Kegler equates book-making and artisanal printing to the slow food movement: “You could go out to McDonalds and Burger King to get a meal, or you can grow your heirloom tomatoes and have a meal that has seasons of planning behind it. It may not take much longer to consume, but the preparation and what has gone into it has a value to people that is worth something.”

As intrinsic as that sounds, what Kegler describes has a lot of public value. The personal touch of traditional printing has fostered a global do-it-yourself scene, with scores of private and independent presses producing and selling unique posters, business cards, notebooks, and wedding invitations. The Book Arts Center, therefore, won’t just be a place to pick up a new hobby, but a center for a burgeoning creative community that produces specialty goods.

The Book Arts Center marks its grand opening with a recpetion tonight (Thursday, May 21, 6-9pm). On exhibit is the collaborative’s first-ever members show. For more information, visit

geoff anstey

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