Talking Up Downtown with Robert Warner, A Master Printer

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By Anam Baig

Robert Warner has been the master printer for 17 years at Bowne and Co Stationers, a modestly sized stationary store and printing press that is part of the South Street Seaport Museum. This piece of New York City history stands on cobble-stoned sidewalks, giving New Yorkers and tourists alike a little taste of the 19th century, with its hand-cranked printing presses. Back when printers were tradesmen, not machines hooked up to computers, press printing was a skill and a trade essential to Downtown, which has always been a printing, publishing and finance district.

What does Bowne and Co offer the Downtown community?

This community that's down here is unlike any other community. There's a school and then there's all these businesses and then there's all these old buildings, which some people have inhabited and restored-there is a whole sense of renewal and community in this part of the city. This is where New York begins.

We have to learn from our history, preserve it and actually embrace a neighborhood so many people have passed through, like [Herman] Melville and [Walt] Whitman and Joseph Mitchell.

What do people expect when they walk in or pass it by?

When people enter the shop, oftentimes they say, "Oh, it reminds me of the way my grandparents' house smells." And I'll ask, "Well, were they printers?" and they say, "No, it's the wood." I'm so used to the smell of the wood after 17 years that I barely notice it.

[When I first started here] I just loved walking in and smelling the ink and the oils. There were two women in the back printing and there was a sense of industry and tradition. I want to continue to convey that. I like people to have an experience when they visit here that they wouldn't have in any other store.

Why does printing matter?

This neighborhood was the printing and publishing district for many, many years. And as much as we'd like to think that we're a paperless society, we still rely on paper now. Ink on paper is all the more beautiful when it's letterpressed because it leaves a kiss on the paper and an impression on the page.

I am a firm believer that humans need the human touch, which is what Bowne and Co. Stationery does. You can buy a handmade $3 card here. Why spend $4.50 at a Duane Reade on a glossy American Greetings card?

Do you have any letterpress workshops coming up to get some people coming in? You have to pass on the printing tradition eventually, right?

Occasionally I do workshops. The next one will be letterpress collage, and I'd like to do it weekly. Workshops sound so serious, like you have to work. I just want people to experience paper and composition. It's not really playtime either, it's an assemblage, but people don't really know the word assemblage.

I could consider the next generation, take on an intern, pass on my knowledge. I'll do what I can, but being here, unlocking the door and having normal business hours, people know and depend on me to come here. I'm not expecting millions of people-I don't know if I want a global network. I think Downtown is enough.

What's the appeal of an antiquated letterpress, especially in this technological age where everything is on a screen?

[The letterpress] is hand-operated and hand set, so every letter is an individual body of type. You can print 500 copies from one letterpress and 200 of them might be very similar, but the beauty of it is that they're never going to be exactly the same. It's the difference between something that is hand-embroidered and something that is machine-made. What's beautiful about printing on letterpress is the ability of the viewer to actually see a hand process.

I think more and more, the way the public views a computer screen or a tablet, people long to actually feel paper and run their finger across it. I know that the Kindle is very important because people are reading it and it's accessible, but I've noticed that when people pick up paper or books, they run their finger across it and you see them taking it in. People will always hunger for something that has a texture to it.

Bowne and Co. Stationers, 211 Water St. (betw. Fulton and Beekman Sts.), 212-748-8651.

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