My first contact with Glenn House, the man often described as the center of the book arts in Tuscaloosa, ended with a rejection letter. It was the kindest of such: that ‘to fulfill the backlog of present commitments will place my hassled, beleaguered, flustered, agitated, bothered, vexed, stressed, beset, and plagued body well past the century mark, no matter how small my contribution to this worthy task might be.’
I was disappointed, but amused. A few days later, I received another message from Glenn, suggesting I let him know when I’m nearby: ‘Hell, I might be reborn again by then and just might feel up to something.’
I call Glenn when I return to my room at the Gordo Motel. ‘Sure, come on over,’ he says. ‘Drive down Main Street, past the railroad tracks, turn left, look for my red pickup, and beep your horn. I’ll come getcha.’
Arriving, I beep, then get out of the car, walk around the side of the building, where a garage door is open, and bump into Glenn, who’s coming out to meet me. A baseball cap covers his short hair, a few days’ white beard, and a smile.
We begin an elaborate hand-off, me turning on a light while he closes the garage door; he guiding our way through a shop crowded with woodworking & clay tools, including three large kilns. He gives me two small pieces of lumber to carry, but doesn’t tell me what they’re for. ‘Just hold on to ’em,’ he says.
We move from wood and clay to ink and paper. We stop in turn in front of several old printing presses — two platens and a handpress. Each one he gives a loving caress, gives it a little push — foot on the treadle, or hand on the crank — and says ‘This is my favorite press.’ He says that for every press in the room.
I ask him a question, and he quickly stifles it: ‘I’ll tell you later, when you’re taking notes.’ Thinking perhaps I should be, I pull out a small pad and pen, but he laughs and pushes my pen away.
I’ve completely lost my sense of direction. We’ve been circling around so many dark corners I wonder whether we’re still in the same building. We emerge into a large room with high ceilings, with seemingly every inch covered by posters, photographs, sculpture, rocks, bottles, and an infinite number of geegaws. A half-dozen large work-tables are spread across its volume, but all are covered with dropcloths — to keep the dust off, or to keep eyes out? Unknown.
He is often putting an object into my hand, then telling its story. We’ve been talking about glass bottles, which he’s collected for many years. He puts a blue-green block of glass into my hand. It’s not a bottle, nor random slag, but clearly functional. He asks me what it is. I think I disappoint him slightly by answering correctly: ‘It’s a glass electrical insulator.’ Yes, but not just any old insulator: it’s an insulator from the first telegraph line run between Washington DC and New Orleans, in 1845.
We take another cycle round the collection. Looking at three rattlesnakes in a glass case, he relives the experience, the strange night of the hurricane when the snakes appeared in his yard. One was shot with a pistol, but the bigger one needed a shotgun. Now they lie tranquil, flattened, made art.
Glenn and Kathy occupy another space in town, another old storefront, a vast space filled with more presses, type, paper, and many ongoing projects. This is Glenn and Kathy’s workspace, but they also occasionally play host to visiting printers and MFA students from the U of A book arts program who need a somewhat quieter place to work.
Next door to the print shop is a laundromat, and I recall that I have a load of laundry in my car that needs washing. I ask Glenn if he would mind if I popped over and started a wash.
Glenn gives a quick look to two men sitting in the laundromat, leans in close to me, and suggests that I remain present with my laundry, else my duds may be found missing. He passes me a book, given to him that morning by the mayor of Gordo who runs an occasional bookstore in town that everyone calls, simply, ‘the mayor’s bookstore.’ The book is an old textbook on the history of printing.
Sitting in the laundromat, I flip through the book, browsing images of letters on mediums from clay to papyrus to lead. In the section on Benjamin Franklin, who was a printer before he was a statesman, I find a curious passage: Franklin has already apprenticed as a printer and engraver, and is setting up shop as an independent printer. His first customer arrives, referred to by an acquaintance of Franklin’s. Here’s Franklin’s account:
We had scarce opened our letters and put our press in order, before G. House, an acquaintance of mine, brought a countryman to us, whom he had met in the street inquiring for a printer. All our cash was now expended in the variety of particulars we had been obliged to procure, and this countryman’s five shillings, being our first-fruits, and coming so seasonably, gave me more pleasure than any crown I have since earned; and the gratitude I felt towards House has made me often more ready than perhaps I should otherwise have been to assist young beginners.
My laundry finished, I fold the warm clothes into my backpack, and go next door to the print shop, where I find Glenn fiddling with an ancient iron hand press, cap cocked gansta-like atop his head, and already starting to relate a new story.
Am I looking at a distant descendent of a friend of Benjamin Franklin? Or am I looking at G. House himself, the self-same character, who showed up in Philadelphia in 1728, when Franklin started his printshop, spinning his yarns in his warbly drawl? Is this the pressman of the eternal, the typesetter immortal, the actual printer’s devil? I show him the passage in the book; he reads it, and nods, cocks his hat, grins. ‘Well, I do remember young Gutenberg…’