A Card to Remember

By Raed El Rafei and Jackie Snow
Originally published in February 2012 in Aishti Magazine

Some mornings, Robert Warner takes an Ibuprofen before going to work. The craftsman does take pleasure in printing cards everyday, but he sometimes needs painkillers for his right knee. “At 55, it’s not bending as easily as it once did,” he says.

Warner uses his knee for pumping treadles of manually operated, 19th-century letterpress machines. He hand prints everything from stationery to notebooks at Bowne & Co. Stationers, a shop in downtown Manhattan owned by the South Street Seaport Museum. Christmas and Valentine’s Day are Warner’s busiest periods. Around those times, he prints thousands of holiday, greeting and love cards.

Letterpress is a printing method that dates back to Gutenberg in the 15th century. The printing uses reusable blocks with engraved images and texts. The blocks are set in a machine with ink and paper and pressed together, leaving an imprint of the block on the paper. Each print is unique, with ink settling differently on every card.

“People appreciate the hand quality of the printing. It leaves a slight kiss to the page,” he says.

Warner uses designs from the museum’s collection that date back to the 1800s. Once the press is set up, he can print 400 cards an hour at top speed. After the ink dries, Warner carefully sprinkles a pinch of glitter on some of the cards as a final touch. He then leaves them to dry on racks behind the counter.

For Valentine’s Day, he prints hundreds of cards depicting things like cupids, hearts and flowers. One of the most popular motives is that of the word “love,” featuring the letters LO – with the O tilted sideways – stacked over the letters VE, as it is depicted in Robert Indiana’s famous Manhattan sculpture.

Warner says his clients like celebrating special occasions traditionally – including writing and receiving letters. After the shop closed for seven months in 2011 because of a budget crisis at the Seaport Museum, his loyal patrons came in with cookies and sent wine at the reopening last October.

For Valentine’s Day, Warner plans to hold a workshop where people will make unique gifts for their loved ones. They will design their own cards by assembling several print pieces into a collage of motifs.