A beautifully crafted book, printed by letterpress on handmade paper and illustrated with printed engravings.
This is what Helena author and professor Aaron Parrett plans to create at his Territorial Press, a new letterpress studio at 201 1/2 N. Rodney St.
Although the studio is new, the press most definitely is not.
It’s a C&P platen press built in 1920 that Parrett found in Black Eagle.
Most of his lead and wood type came from White Sulphur Springs.
Some are in an old wooden type cabinet with 20 drawers, or cases. Each holds a different typeface. Altogether, Parrett now has 70 cases of type.
All his equipment is neatly arranged in a tall, skinny storefront business next door to the Vanilla Bean.
Through the studio’s glass door, obscured with a quadrant map, one finds Parrett in winter hat, heavy boots and printing apron fitting lead letters into an iron “type stick” that he will use to make a “form” that he locks in place on the press.
Once that is rubbed with ink, it’s raised and pressed against another plate holding the paper. The speed and movement are operated by Parrett pressing a foot treadle.
Today Parrett’s print job is simple -- labels for his wife’s band, Doolittle Shack.
“This is just for fun,” he said.
As are some classy, distinctly irreverent business cards printed for friends.
But he’s also printed limited editions -- 65 copies -- of “Charlie B’s, a Triptych,” containing three poems, one each by Mark Gibbons, Kurt Sobolik and Dave Thomas.
All the words were set by hand, letter by letter.
Each Triptych is a single sheet of heavy cream stock printed with rich black and red lettering of the poems. And each sheet was passed through the press a total of seven times before it would later be folded into the attractive three panel publication.
But what Parrett’s most excited to talk about is the first “prototype” book he’s printing at his studio, “Curses.”
“It’s a collection of 40 very vile expressions with a Latin commentary,” said Parrett, who teaches Latin at Carroll College and is a tenured English professor at the University of Great Falls.
Parrett will be following in the footsteps of J. Allen Hosmer, who wrote and printed “A Trip to the States in 1865.”
“He’s our muse,” said Parrett. Hosmer was the first Montanan to write a book, print it with handset type page by page and then hand bind it back in 1867. “I’m going to be the second.”
The first real Territorial Press book will be either a book of poems by Brynn Holt or a collection of short stories by Parrett with wood engraving art by Seth Roby.
“This is the way it would have been done in the 1860s,” Parrett said of his press. “It’s quite an undertaking to handset type for a book. This is not a commercial enterprise. It’s an art.”
He quickly admits, “It’s an obsession that makes no sense.”
But it’s one that is taking hold across the country -- to resurrect the book arts.
Parrett equates it to the rising popularity of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement.
To his knowledge, Parrett is the only letterpress printer in Montana doing all handset type, he said.
Parrett’s small press can only print an 8X10 inch area, he said, which limits what jobs he can print.
But his eye is on quality, not quantity.
The Territorial Press’ mission, he said, is “the idea of preserving book arts in the age of Kindle and eBook.”
As an English professor, he appreciates the mass production of books and making them accessible electronically.
But there’s something different about reading a real book.
“I don’t think the book will go away. It will be art. The typography changes the way you read,” he said. “All those aspects of the book are part of the experience. It’s beyond the acquisition of information.”
One could say Parrett’s been on a path to the Territorial Press most of his life.
He remembers growing up in Helena and making small books as a kid.
In high school, he figured out how to use his typewriter to type book pages into different quadrants. By using carbon paper, he could make multiple copies and then cut the pages apart to make several books at a time.
He’s also a collector of old leather-bound books and has learned how to do rebinding.
When he decided to pursue his Territorial Press studio, Parrett traveled to Berkeley, California, to work with Peter Koch, a Montana native who is one of the premiere printers and letterpress artists in the world. He prints limited editions of handmade books as works of art.
“He’s the patron saint of Territorial Press,” said Parrett. “He’s sort of our mentor.”
So Parrett was very honored that Peter Koch Printers and the Territorial Press are releasing a letterpress edition of a novella by Montana author Matt Pavelich, who Parrett calls one of Montana’s finest writers.
The book, “Himself, Adrift,” is a fictional account of the mysterious disappearance of Thomas Francis Meagher.
This spring the Territorial Press and Bedrock Books plans to host a reception for Pavelich and Koch.
Parrett, it turns out, is a man of many fascinations.
Just a few of them include printing, teaching, writing books and essays and also music.
He has authored three books: “Literary Butte: A History in Novels and Film,” “Montana Then and Now,” and “A Princess of Mars" (E. R. Burroughs) annotated by Aaron Parrett.
A musician and songwriter, he also performs across Montana and has recorded two albums or CDs: “The Sinners,” and “Stumbo Lost Wages.”