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Printing and Preserving the Book in the Far Backwoods of California

June 15, 1986|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer.

COVELO — Carolyn and James Robertson print books with technology out of the 19th century in hopes of helping keep the love of reading alive into the 21st century and beyond.

"There are certain values in taking what we consider to be a classic--and there's lots and lots of room for discussion about what is and isn't a classic--like John Steinbeck's 'Flight' and putting it into a fine edition and making sure it gets into libraries so it'll always be there," says Jim Robertson. "The books are designed to last a long, long time."

In their way, the Robertsons and their crew at Yolla Bolly Press are throwbacks to a day of independence and craftsmanship in an era of high technology and bottom lines. Jim admits to being obsessed not only by why "we are located in the middle of some cow pasture in a barn full of antique machinery" but more fundamentally with why the woods are filled with people who print books in an age of lasers and computers.

"A book delivers many messages besides the one the author put on the paper, "he says, " and that's a form of communication that I think is valuable. You can make a thing--a book, or a house, or a camera--in such a way that it commands respect. Those things are better taken care of than a thing that is made poorly. I hate to think that the only people who care about the way things are made are a couple of oddball craftsmen out in the woods. The culture needs the attitude of making things with purpose, attention to detail and a certain kind of love."

The Robertsons grow their books, as they put it, on a 40-acre farm at Round Valley in northeastern Mendocino County. Emerging from the 1960s with a sense of wanting to integrate their life and work more completely, the Robertsons moved there from Marin County in 1974. They live six miles outside Covelo, pop. 1,500, a cattle and lumber community. Folks initially weren't quite sure that the Robertsons weren't doing something illicit back there in the woods but small-town curiosity was satisfied once the newcomers became printers as well as independent producers of books.

Workmanship is expensive. Prices for the California Writers of the Land limited-edition series are about $275 per book. The second series will rise from $300 to $500. Yolla Bolly Press (pronounced YO-la BO-lee) has also just issued "The Winged Life: The Poetic Vision of Henry David Thoreau" by Robert Bly with engravings by Michael McCurdy. It's $475. Because of these prices, you won't find Yolla Bolly books most places, only at Zeitlin & Ver Brugge on La Cienega, The Nature Company in South Coast Plaza or in the libraries at Occidental College and USC.

Why print a book that only the wealthy can buy? Or that only collectors of Steinbeck or Thoreau will prize? Or that stays in a humidified room in a university library? These limited editions are "showcases for typography, showcases for the artists," Carolyn Robertson said in an interview that wandered from farmhouse to town to print shop. "It's a way of presenting the book that's going to keep it preserved for a very long time."

The press name comes from the Yolla Bolly Indians who once roamed the nearby hills. Now tree frogs dominate the area in spring and summer; they are commemorated in the Indian design that serves as the press logo. Chickens wander freely outside the weathered redwood building where the presses and trays of type look straight out of Dickens.

And in that workshop, the Robertsons spend months planning a book's layout, determining what artist could best illustrate it, and selecting a type face. They buy high-quality paper, perhaps from the Fabriano or Magnani mills in Italy. For binding, they have used California latigo saddle leather for Joaquin Miller's "True Bear Stories" and Amish horse denim for Robinson Jeffers' "Cawdor."

They have the type set, do the printing and have the book assembled. At this pace, they do two or three limited editions of 250 or fewer copies each year.

They are equally committed to their efforts as independent book producers for less expensive trade books. With the Sierra Club, Yolla Bolly Press published "The View from the Oak," winner of the 1978 National Book Award for Children's Literature, by Herbert and Judith Kohl. Now the press is working on a book on the San Francisco Opera.

Caring about the look and feel of books has long been part of their lives. Jim, 50, printed a neighborhood newspaper, the Pearl Street Gazette, when he was a boy in Alameda. It had a circulation of 15 or 20. Later he worked for a printer after school hours, then turned to designing and graphics work.

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