SWAN’S ISLAND, Maine — It’s during the summer when tourists and seasonal residents pack the ferry to this community off Bass Harbor, that Saturn Press tends to get the most visitors. They’re accommodated with 20-minute tours of the publishing facility, which prints in-house designed, vintage-inspired greeting cards.
Saturn Press gets a lot fewer visitors in the winter, but here it is December and there are three of them standing in the facility’s gift shop on Atlantic Road.
This, for Saturn Press owners Jane Goodrich and James vanPernis, is nothing but an annoyance.
“I’m fine on the phone but I don’t want to hand-hold someone, or go back and forth with someone, or get to know them in a very personal way, which is a different kind of business technique,” Goodrich said. “I don’t want a customer I have to nurture or take care of at all.”
On this particular day, a newspaper reporter and photographer want a tour of the place, and are asking a bunch of questions about printing presses, technology, ephemeral art and marketing.
Meanwhile, Joan Harding, a year-round Swan’s Island resident for the past five years, has walked into the middle of all this, looking to buy Christmas cards and thank-you notes.
As much as vanPernis and Goodrich say they don’t like to deal with the public, they do it. You can’t turn away too many paying customers, after all, and vanPernis seems eager to share the Saturn Press story, the telling of which includes four old printing presses, a collection of turn-of-the-century images, and a computer-free company. Saturn Press, with two full-time employees and one part-time, is now a worldwide business producing around one million letterpress greeting cards a year.
Three hours later, the tour has turned into a behind-the-scenes look at a small Maine business that has succeeded because of, and despite its quirks. It’s a business that has spread the name Swan’s Island all over the world.
In fact, if on Christmas morning you open up a card that contains a quotation from Walt Whitman or Rainer Maria Rilke, or has an image of a snowman on skis or woman in a red coat being pelted with a snowball, turn the card over; it has likely it came from Saturn Press.
If the card made you laugh or think, it might have come from Saturn Press.
And if you can’t exactly put your finger on what you like about the image, it is probably from Saturn Press.
Goodrich and vanPernis, who goes by “V.P.,” moved into their 5,000-square-foot Arts and Crafts-style building in 1995 after about 10 years of operating out of Goodrich’s garage.
“We designed [the building] so that visitors can look in at the presses, but to do it they have to stand in the gift shop so that any time they waste asking questions is paid for by what they purchase, hopefully,” Goodrich said. “We’re really bottom-liners in that sense.”
That few tour-takers are allowed to see the company’s four presses up close, is unfortunate, because the presses themselves are one of the unique aspects of Saturn Press.
Goodrich and vanPernis bought the company’s oldest printing press, a 1932 Miehle Vertical V-45, in 1985 for $850. The press still works the same as it ever did, although vanPernis performed earlier this year his first repair on the machine when its drive belt, which was also from 1932, had to be replaced.
“These machines were made to accommodate 500-year-old technology, which no one expected would change, so they built the machine to last,” vanPernis said, standing near his 1932 press, which still has the original motor. “This machine will outlive me.”
The 50-year-old vanPernis, a native of the Chicago area, started out in the business of managing newspaper printing and publishing. Goodrich, 49, grew up in Vermont and was formally trained in photography and graphic design.
The two met when they were both at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the 1970s, and they stayed connected by exchanging letters over the years. In the early 1980s, Goodrich and her husband bought a piece of land on Swan’s Island, and Goodrich wrote vanPernis, sharing tales about her life on a Maine island. Van-Pernis happened to write Goodrich about how much he disliked his job, which at the time was in California, and he had the idea of going into business together.
Together they bought the 1932 Miehle and a set of lead type from a monastery in northern Illinois, and vanPernis moved to Swan’s Island.
The presses are used for the old-fashioned method of letterpress, which fell out of fashion with the introduction of computer technology.
Letterpress printing is the pressing of letters onto a piece of paper, which causes the image on the paper to be in relief, or raised. VanPernis uses traditional lead type — the company’s name comes from Saturn, the mythological god of lead — and the raised surface of the lead type is inked and pressed to paper.
In the early days of letterpress printing, images were carved from wood blocks and printed along with the type. When copper plates became available, those were hand-carved or acid-etched onto the plate. After photography was invented in the 19th century, photos could be reproduced on metal plates with acid etching.
Among the most trying aspects of the process is color printing. Some of Saturn Press’ cards have up to seven colors. For each color, each card must go through the press, one at a time, and then a final time to create a fold. Of course, computers now can print in full color, which vanPernis said has been the downfall of printing the way he does it.
“So it’s a labor-intensive process but we have a niche market for people who appreciate the tactile quality of letterpress,” vanPernis said.
The press is tidy this particular morning, but there is an errant envelope lying on a ledge in the room. The envelope has one line of type: “Valentine Greetings.”
Christmas 2009 may be less than a week away for most of us, but Goodrich and vanPernis are already thinking about Christmas 2010. In fact, they’ve finished the winter holiday cards for this year and are now planning their 2010 cataloge, which will come out in April, and the spring holidays. Then come Halloween cards, which are among the company’s most popular.
The conference room
On this particular day, the touring party had a chance to see Saturn Press’ stockroom. For most of the public, however, the tour continues upstairs at a large table inside a conference room. The table is covered with copies of the cataloges and press clippings in which Saturn Press cards and other items have appeared.
Several years ago, at the same time, Saturn Press was featured in the gift shop of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, had cards in Whole Foods stores and Paul Smith’s menswear shop in New York City, and got a mention in a cooking magazine called Saveur.
“I know of no other card line that has that breadth, that appeal,” Goodrich said. “It’s male fashionistas and women who are willing to pay more money for organic produce. They’re the same person. So that’s how I do it. I walk around and I have my mind on those people, and that’s how I do it.”
Saturn Press cards are now sold in around 4,000 shops in the U.S., and Goodrich estimates another 500 overseas in countries such as Japan, England, Australia and New Zealand.
One place Saturn Press hasn’t traditionally sold well is in Maine. That, Goodrich believes, is because Maine on the whole doesn’t fit the company’s demographic of mostly urban, educated buyers.
The cards have, however, had strong sales in the four years Jeff Charland has been director of operations of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland and a buyer for the museum’s gift shop.
“You know when someone is reading the Saturn Press cards, because they’re usually laughing out loud,” Charland said. “I think they strike a great balance between a handmade product and one that is beautiful, meaningful and often quite hilarious.”
Even though they keep out the clippings on their conference table, Goodrich and vanPernis don’t believe the publicity translates to sales. They’d rather be seen at wholesale trade shows in New York City. Either buyers see Saturn Press there, or the buyer gets ready for a ferry ride.
Standing in the balcony that leads out of the conference room, where vanPernis keeps his collection of old typewriters, Goodrich and vanPernis told their Timberland story.
A few years ago, the New Hampshire-based outdoor apparel company called Saturn Press to inquire about the vintage images that Timberland had seen on greeting cards. Timberland employees wanted to know if they could view any of Saturn Press’ images online.
Sorry, Saturn Press told Timberland. If you want to look at our images, you have to come to us.
Although Goodrich uses a computer in her personal life to track genealogy, Saturn Press does not have a computer on the premises. In fact, there are few acknowledgements in the building of a modern way of doing business.
“We did have to break down and buy a fax machine in 1994,” vanPernis said.
They also have a color copier and a credit card machine, but other than that, Goodrich and vanPernis don’t believe in computers. They don’t need them. They don’t want the worry that comes with anti-virus software or the waste of used printer cartridges or increased electrical bills.
Saturn Press sticks to the trusty typewriter. There are a few IBM Selectrics around the office, but from time to time when the power goes out on Swan’s Island, vanPernis will take down one of his collection of older, nonelectric machines and bring it into the office. Power outage thwarted.
“Computers are not green by any definition. I don’t care which part of the political spectrum you come from,” vanPernis said. “People talk about having laptops and I have to laugh. I have one too, and it never needs new software, I never have to worry about the electricity.”
A Web site would be a waste of time, Goodrich and vanPernis believe, because the greeting card business doesn’t lend itself well to the Internet. Customers seem to prefer to stand in front of a rack and pick out a card themselves.
As far as they can tell, not having a Web site hasn’t hurt their business, and their fellow cardmakers tell them Web sites don’t necessarily help.
“If it gets to the point where people refuse to do anything but e-mail us orders, well, hopefully, I can retire, but I suppose we can do it,” Goodrich said. “It hasn’t gotten that far yet. And I don’t know that it will.”
The end of the Timberland story goes like this: The Timberland design team did take the ferry to Swan’s Island. They spent time combing through the company’s collection of images and found one they liked. They used the image on their holiday packaging that year.
Down the hall from vanPernis’ typewriters and Saturn Press’ media clippings is Goodrich’s studio, where she creates the images that go on the front of the cards. Those images all originated as art created more than 60 years ago, and in some cases, centuries ago.
Goodrich and vanPernis are collectors of ephemera, which is printed matter originally intended for short-term use. Now, collectors go to ephemera shows and antique shops for material, and there’s even an Ephemera Society of America of which the Saturn Press owners are members.
Goodrich and vanPernis have their own extensive collection of thousands of pieces, housed in 15 file-cabinet drawers. Each subject has its own file, from alcohol and benzene to yarn and zinc ointment. The images come from matchbooks, advertisements, old magazines and even toilet paper.
When she’s creating cards, Goodrich will start with one image from a piece of ephemera, and then remove or add text or other elements, and redo the color scheme, depending on the purpose of the card. VanPernis gets a mockup of the card so he knows which colors to use in the printing process.
Goodrich and vanPernis are well aware of potential copyright issues with their images, most of which are so old that the copyrights have expired or are so ephemeral that no one thought to extend the copyright. The advertising artist in 1910 could probably never have imagined his image would be used as a greeting card in 2010.
Goodrich has focused on a period from the 1870s to the 1950s, with styles such as the Victorian, art deco and Arts and Crafts, and she has even gone back as far as the 1490s.
“As far as we’re concerned, things were better in 1910,” said vanPernis. “Nostalgically we probably both yearn for the early 20th century when the world was probably a better place, in our minds. People can say that’s a retrograde attitude and [people say] the world is always progressing and you have to embrace the new.”
Goodrich has produced hundreds of images. Among the 2009 series were farm-stand animals, illustrated haiku, dogs, and a line called “Upcountry Sketches,” which includes Saturn Press’ most popular card over the years called “Animal Tracks.” The whimsical chart of animal prints in the snow is a big Christmas seller.
Goodrich also uses quotations from notable figures, and the list includes people such as Satchel Paige, Emo Phillips and Winston Churchill. That a baseball player, comedian and British prime minister could all appear in the same line of greeting cards, and make sense — it’s just so Saturn Press.
Of course, most of those cards are for sale in the Saturn Press shop.
Gift shop … and the exit
A few minutes after vanPernis and Goodrich took their lunch break, Joan Harding entered the gift shop and scanned the shelves looking for Christmas cards and thank-you notes.
“These cards are just so fabulous,” Harding said as she paid for her purchases. “I love the paper and the printing and the message, and I buy cards here of all kinds. Plus, they’re so wonderfully timeless.”
It’s the perfect customer interaction, one imagines, for vanPernis and Goodrich. Harding didn’t linger with her hellos, she asked straightforward questions and she picked what she needed, paid and left.
It’s not that Goodrich and vanPernis won’t be helpful. Earlier in the day Goodrich filled an order — an activity normally done by Saturn Press’ part-time employee, who happened to have the day off — for a customer who called from Colorado because Goodrich knew the customer needed the cards as soon as possible.
But the customers and tourists who wander in and ask for tours, and the media who think their stories can make a difference to a small business, are merely time away from the real work of designing and printing.
You’ll never find Saturn Press making something like wedding invitations. That would mean too much interference from brides. And to do so would take away from Saturn Press’ mission of publishing their own designs in their own way, which has worked for nearly 25 years.
“You know a Saturn Press card when you see it on the rack but you can’t describe it, which gives it the aura of being something special,” Goodrich said. “There’s a story being told within a line that’s identifiable, but not necessarily describable. The best and skilled companies have a certain look and a certain feel, and that’s true of all creative artists.”
A few minutes after Harding left, Goodrich and the rest of the visitors piled into a Land Rover and headed back to the ferry terminal.
It’s easy to imagine what happened from there: VanPernis returned to the presses, Goodrich headed back to the studio to work on a new card or cataloge. Maybe she prepared a few more shipments.
And somewhere, Christmas morning, someone will open a Saturn Press card and get a laugh, or be charmed, or be forced to think.
To be added to the Saturn Press mailing list and receive a 2010 cataloge, write to Saturn Press, P.O. Box 368, Swan’s Island, Maine, 04685