A Nashville Company Keeps its Letterpress Going.
By Beverly Burmeier | Online Only | May 11, 2007
In this age of cheap ink-jet printers, some people have lost appreciation for the intricate work of old-fashioned letterpress printing. But not Hatch Show Print in downtown Nashville, Tenn., which has been churning out advertising posters since it opened in 1879. Using techniques from the 1500s that meld designing and printing into a creative art form, this shop is still producing concert posters for a medley of stars: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Shania Twain, Wynona Judd, and Coldplay.
One of the oldest letterpress poster shops in America is once again coming into glory. Part working print shop and part historical archive, Hatch annually attracts more than 25,000 visitors, people casually drawn in by the assemblage of placards featuring their favorite performers, the building's museum-like appearance, and the bustling work-in-progress atmosphere.
"Preservation through production" is the motto of current manager, chief designer, and self-proclaimed curator, Jim Sherraden, who for the past 15 years has been running the shop and creating original artwork based on the antique process\without computers. An established songwriter, Sherraden was enthralled by the archives at Hatch, including a conglomerate of more than 10,000 old-style wooden typeface blocks, and in 1984 began efforts to revive the store's past.
After Will T. Hatch, the last family manager, died in 1952, the business struggled through several ownership changes and was in danger of being sold piecemeal. Gaylord Entertainment, which operates the Grand Ole Opry, acquired it in 1986 and donated it to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992. Hatch Show Print has now moved into a second golden era as a nonprofit dedicated to perpetuating this Nashville icon.
A 19th-century hand-routed wood block of a baseball player, which had been turned over and used as a shelf, is the oldest print in the shop. Some type has been dated to 1885 from the paper on the back on one block: a telephone page from that year. Sherradan, who rescued these and other artifacts, says visitors become as enamored of the archives as the contemporary work created there.
Walk inside, and you'll see an entire wall covered to the ceiling with posters for Grand Old Opry stars like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Bill Monroe. Hatch recently created the CD cover for one of its best customers, Willie Nelson.
Resembling a library, the shop is crowded with shelves and cabinets filled with basswood and maple wood blocks, thousands of photo plates, countless drawers of wood and metal type, and 14 historic printing presses\seven of which are still working Saved from destruction, these antique blocks and the presses that use them are once again being used to produce handcrafted posters that are in high demand from entertainers and the private sector. Amid the constant whoosh and click of presses closing down on design forms, staff and interns work quietly in smudged red aprons, setting type for anything from concert or wedding posters to advertisements for jeans or barbeque sauce.
The process starts with a client's text. Designers then select and mix ink dyes in hand-held bowls, sort through and select font sizes and hand-carved images from methodically organized drawers and shelves, and create a custom look that captures the ambience of the band or product. Hand-operated presses roll and click over inverted designs of metal and wood.
Started by Charles and Herbert Hatch in 1879, the same year Edison invented the light bulb, the business flourished during the early 20th century, a time when posters created the excitement that sold the show. Using artistic vision and skillful printing techniques, the brothers created posters that adorned buildings and barns to announce any circus, minstrel show, vaudeville art or carnival that came to town. They captured the magic of country music with their simplicity and balance between text and style, honing an unmistakable Hatch look.
Sherradan is passionate about preserving the old method. "The ultimate preservation comes from encouraging young people to learn and use this process," he says. Toward that goal, he trains up to six interns at a time at the shop and drums up interest through programs and workshops at universities across the country, "The printer is the designer, and the designer is the printer."
Housed in an historic building on Broadway (only 60 feet from the original location beside the Ryman Theater), the shop strives to print posters that are affordable for today's clients. About 60 percent of the business consists of orders for 100 to 250 posters, but it's not unusual for a repeat client like B. B. King to order 7,000 a year for sale at concert concessions.
Americana collectors love the look and feel of Hatch's vintage posters of country music from the 1940s and 1950s. Artistic monoprints, layered collages Sherradan created based on detailed woodblock images left by Will T. Hatch, are also popular. Sales of these items, purchased only on site or the Web site (www.hatchshowprint.com), comprise 30 percent of the shop's total revenue.
"There's a humanity and organic feel to these posters that's missing with modern print technology," Sherradan says. Like the restoration of a historic building, Hatch prints are artistic collaborations of past carvers and present designers.
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