San Francisco Center for the Book Hits Milestone

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The San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB), located on 375 Rhode Island Street, has stood the test of time; 25 years to be exact. Jeff Thomas, executive director since 2012, attributes the nonprofit’s longevity to a strong constituency as well as the organization’s flexibility and nimbleness. 

“There’s a real legacy and tradition here that has been a major source of keeping us going all these years,” he said.

Mary Austin and Kathleen Burch co-founded SFCB in 1996, the first facility dedicated to the art of the book on the West Coast. 

“People see the word ‘book’ and think about a specific thing,” Thomas said. “But we were founded as a gallery for contemporary artists using book form as medium.”

These days, SFCB offers 300 workshops on subjects such as bookbinding, letterpress, and risograph; a marriage of silkscreen and photocopying. The nonprofit also has exhibitions, galleries, and an annual steamroller printing festival. The old school, hands-on, approach is SFCB’s appeal, according to Thomas.

“Because we live in such a technological, digital world, letterpress and bookbinding are a break from that,” he said. “People come to us who want to work with their hands.”

Some are designers who are employed by big technology firms. Instead of working with hundreds of typefaces, they have to be creative in a set, physical space with metal type that offers a different sort of challenge, according to Thomas. 

SFCB’s workshops generate about half its income, with the rest coming from donations. With such a large portion of SFCB’s budget derived from earned income, the nonprofit must tap into public interest and change with the times to stay afloat. When letterpress was hot, SFCB offered numerous classes for it. When that interest petered out, the organization focused on bookbinding. Other topics du jour, like hand lettering, augment the core schedule. 

“We sense what people are into and try to offer it,” Thomas said. During the pandemic that meant venturing into online classes for the first time. “We never really seriously considered online classes because we’re so hands-on and machine-based,” he said. “And it seemed like a steep learning curve to move online. However, in the first weeks of the pandemic in March we said, ‘Well, we have to do something.’” 

They translated their easiest lessons, such as paper marbling, into online courses, offering pay-what-you-can entry. Suggested prices ranged from $20 to $50 depending on class length, with an all-in cost of between $100 to $200 for the most expensive courses. 

“We weren’t really doing it for financial reasons,” Thomas said. “We were doing it more to stay on people’s minds and be out there. The classes grew gradually, and we were very popular.” 

Since the start of the pandemic SFCB has offered 192 virtual classes with attendance topping 2,614, similar to the nonprofit’s in-person participation in the before times. Class size has expanded from fewer than eight for in-person events to 16 online. 

In September 2020 SFCB started mailing out kits containing hard-to-find materials to diversify its class offerings. 

 “We started doing more classes with the type of master teacher that might be brought in as a visiting instructor if we were in-person,” Thomas said. “The expensive classes were popular and generated more revenue than we ever would have expected.” 

SFCB resumed in-person classes in July. It plans to keep its virtual programs and create hybrid offerings to minimize travel time. 

“There was always this limitation of having to come to the space and it’s a hassle to try to get here for a class on 6 p.m. on a Tuesday from Berkeley,” Thomas said. “If we could make one portion online, it’s easier for people.”

SFCB will also maintain its online events, workshops, and interactive artist panels.

“We’re committed to innovation, to taking what we have learned and continuing to develop and move forward,” Thomas said. 

A part of that learning is in the realm of diversity.

“It’s a big issue in the book arts worldwide, and certainly in the U.S.,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to make some progress there and keep that in front of us. We’ve developed programs that would increase accessibility and one thing we started offering is more scholarships. We’re reaching out to different communities who might be interested in what we’re doing.”