Northampton, MA – New England’s center of the book arts
n the second week of April 2002, I had the pleasure to visit the area around Northampton, MA, to learn about book arts activity in the area and report on it for the Caxtonian. Variously known as “western Massachusetts” or the “Pioneer Valley,” the area is as much a state of mind as it is a place. It is an excellent place to attend school. In the immediate Northampton-Amherst-Hadley area, you will find Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Hampshire, and the University of Massachusetts. The region has a very high per-capita concentration of authors and turns up as a backdrop or subject of many books, notably Tracy Kidder’s Home Town. There are plenty of tourists, but they are well-distributed throughout the year and only reach an uncomfortable level during autumn, when the area makes an excellent home base for tours of fall foliage in the nearby Berkshires.
So it was with great anticipation that I flew into Hartford airport and drove the hour or so up to Northampton. My first engagement was a poetry reading at the Smith College library on a Sunday afternoon. I stayed through Friday morning of that week, and managed to interview 11 book artists, a librarian, and a bookseller. But in so doing, I only scratched the surface of the activity in the area.
One of the most interesting questions I tried to answer was how such a concentration of the book arts turned up in one place. There are, of course, many answers. Rents on studio space are reasonable in the area, due to numerous mills and factories, which are no longer used for their original purposes. Having all those authors around means that manuscripts are not hard to locate. But the most important reason is the presence over time of some of the country’s best book-arts teachers, who, of course, created books of their own. Among these:
—Harry Duncan, whose Cummington Press was located in Cummington from 1939 through 1956, when it moved to Iowa City.
—Leonard Baskin and the Gehenna Press, which started in 1942 and is still going. (At Baskin’s death in 2000, he left several completely planned books, which are being gradually produced.)
—Harold McGrath, Baskin’s printer, who also died in 2000, was a mentor in his own right for a large number of craftspeople in the area.
—Arno Werner, a bookbinder who taught many of the myriad practicing binders in the area, and who died in 1995.
Many of the book artists I interviewed also teach, have apprentices, or have taught.
One of the interesting consequences of this concentration is that people are more specialized. In other parts of the country, many a private press believes that it has to do everything from make the paper to bind the book, but in the Pioneer Valley, with so many superb craftspeople around, it hardly seems sensible to do something yourself that someone else could do better.
My interviews appear chronologically, in the order I was able to arrange them.
Editor's Note: All photos by and from the collection of Robert McCamant.
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