Gazing at a row of vintage mechanical printing presses at work can conjure a feeling of Old World romance. It certainly did for Joel Benson, owner and operator of Dependable Letterpress, located in Dogpatch.
Benson fell in love with “the experience of working on the machines and making things this way” while he was studio art student, focusing on printmaking, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After an apprenticeship at a fine art limited edition bookmaker, and a stint with a commercial print shop in San Francisco, he opened Dependable in the Mission District in 2002, with the goal of becoming “the best local provider” of letterpress work. The shop relocated to Third Street two years later.
Letterpress printing is a centuries-old relief printing process, in which ink is applied to raised letters or images, and then transferred to paper. “It has a particular, graphic quality that is not reproducible by any other printing technology,” stated Benson. “[It is] really the original printing technology, basically what Gutenberg invented, although the presses we operate are products of the Industrial Revolution.”
Over the years, Benson has developed a long list of trade clients — designers, publishers, corporations, even wineries — mostly through word of mouth. Still, he itched to do more. “I’d been bugging my landlord for a ground-floor space for years,” reported Benson. “They finally came up with one for me.” But there was a catch. The property owner, American Industrial Center, wanted “everybody on the ground floor to have some kind of aspect that’s open to the public.”
“I’d always been a commercial operator, to the trade, in a way, and was kind of reluctant to make a big change like that,” explained Benson. “Then I thought, well this could be good. It could be a good opportunity to work with the neighborhood and change with the neighborhood and, maybe the business will evolve because it will be a little more open with a little more random, or public, interaction. So I decided to embrace it rather than struggle against it.”
The new space, at 21st and Illinois, is across the street and down the block from the company’s old location. Vintage presses have been installed in the rear; the storefront features an art gallery. “We’re going to show works on paper,” announced Benson. “That will be a draw to get people to come see what we do. It will also be a way of giving back to the creative community that is our clientele.”
A glass, roll-up door divides the gallery from the workshop “so [folks] can see in and see the machines working….It will allow us to explain more what we do,” said Benson. “The presses I operate are 50 or 60 years old, and they still run incredibly accurately and reliably. Heidelberg presses from Germany, Nebbiolo from Italy, and Chandler & Price [from] the United States.” Though the machines are no longer manufactured, parts are readily available; repairs can be made by any competent machinist or mechanic.
While its machines are a cherished symbol of the past, Dependable is changing its business model to keep up with the times. “We’ve really been working for designers,” said Benson. “People would come to us with a design ready to be printed. Now…I’m working with a graphic designer so that we will be able to offer design services, which we haven’t done in the past.”
Business cards and wedding invitations have long been the shop’s bread and butter. The prospect of retail clientele has prompted Benson to develop new products. “We’re looking at having a little line of stationery and notecards, customizable personal notecards, that you can just order but also custom design,” he said. “At the new [location], we’ll have a really nice space for meeting with people and talking about a project and having everything at hand to be able to talk about the design and the production at the same time.”
Customers who have a design already prepared can typically expect a two- to three-week turnaround. “Adding design time [adds] another two to four weeks, depending on how laborious [the design] is, and how many iterations it will go through,” said Benson.
Over its nearly 14 years in business, Dependable has attracted some well-known clients. “I did a memorial book for Steve Jobs when he died,” related Benson. “It was a book that was done after the private memorial service… a book of speeches from that ceremony. It was only given to people who were there. So that was a special project. One of my favorite clients is the Musee Mecanique. I printed fortunes for the fortune-telling machines there, and that’s one of my cherished projects.”