In the Trainsong neighborhood of Eugene Ore. there is an unassuming house, with a small sign out front that reads BnS LETTERPRESS. The BnS Letterpress is the home of Bob Giles, and out beding his home is a working museum to 20th century typesetting.
Early 20th century typesetting was defined by what is today called hot type. Which involved casting lines of type from hot lead. In the ’60s when Giles began typesetting, the art was going through a transition from hot type to cold type. Giles is of the last generation of typesetters to have a foot planted firmly in both schools of typesetting, both knowing how to operate a Vandercook proof press, and use Adobe InDesign.
Typesetting is in the blood of the Giles family with Bob’s Giles’ grandfather starting a press in 1915. Followed by Giles’ Father and then Giles’ began working as a printer. Both Giles’ grandfather and father were master printers. With Giles’ father being a master Linotype operator, the Linotype being the workhorse of the later years of hot type setting.
Typesetting like many artisan occupations worked on a apprenticeship structure. Even before Giles worked as an official apprentice in 1962 he was still working in the print shop. With distinct memories of prepping paper at age 9. Many of Giles early days as a typesetter were spent at the Corvallis Gazette-Times operating a Ludlow machine for hours at a time.
Although Giles finished his 6 year apprenticeship in just over 4 years to become a journeyman, he feels that he never quite became a master typesetter, “I don’t know everything, and I make too many dumb mistakes,” Giles said pointing to his Linotype which is currently broken do to a mistake made during maintenance. With only one left person in the United States who is a Linotype mechanic, Giles must rely on himself to repair his Linotype. Making it a very slow process.
Post Gazette-Times, Giles became a union substitute printer for the Eugene Register-Guard. “Those days you would just move to where the jobs were, even a small town had a newspaper with the need of printers,” Giles said reflecting on “Tramp Printers” who would travel from shop to shop around the country. “Some would be bums who just wanted to work to get their next drink, but most were just people who loved to travel and see the country.”
Giles retired since 2003 has been running the print shop out of a converted behind his house ever since. Like his father Giles plans to run the shop as long as he can. “My father was [printing] until four months before he died, and I will be doing this until I’m gone,” Giles said as he walked the shop. The walls are covered with one of two things, posters printed by Giles himself or thousands upon thousands of mats (molds) and lines of type.
Giles is still actively typesetting, doing small jobs and doing a monthly piece for the Amalgamated Printers’ Association a group of hobby and professional printers who exchange pieces every month.
Yet it seems that hot type may soon be done forever. As the older generations that trained Giles are gone and his generation is a dying breed. None of Giles children caught the “bug” as Giles calls it to become printers. So with no one to pass it on to what will become of his wonderful collection when Bob Giles is gone?