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A Letterpress Treasure: Ashley Town of Bay View Printing Co.

Nov. 9, 2018 at 7:59PM

The whole thing started out as a treasure hunt of sorts, an ambitious and industrious young woman named Ashley Town was on a quest. She had written a book; a work she was immensely proud of and was simply trying to get it printed. She was going to school in Chicago and teaching at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design at the time, many roads traveled, many creative paths taken. She wasn’t pleased with early attempts at printing the book.

A colleague at MIAD had suggested that letterpress printing was what she was looking for and heard of a man who worked in a basement full of letterpress printing equipment. It seemed improbable, yet ridiculously intriguing. The irony of it is that in all of her travels this company was only about a mile from her house.

The glorious letterpress. Photo by 414 Photography.
The glorious letterpress. Photo by 414 Photography.

The building, or at least the building that Ashley thought it was in was overrun with greenery, slightly unkempt. There was no visible signage around the outside of what looked like a house, or a business. It even resembled an old church in a way. Then in the corner of a basement window, she saw the sign, finally: Bay View Printing Co.

It was the sign that marked the end of a journey, and the beginning of another.

Once inside she met the owner, Jim. Ashley remembers the day very well. “I asked Jim about printing the book – he thought I was a little misguided,” she told me. Jim took Ashley downstairs into the basement – a time capsule full of antique type presses and equipment. She recalls how awe-inspiring it was for her. “I couldn’t believe it existed in Milwaukee. We have a treasure chest right here. At that moment I decided I was going to be Jim’s best friend. I kept coming back bringing coffee and donuts and sandwiches and he taught me how to set type.”

“The universe was saying this is where I’m supposed to be.”

It was a search for treasure that ended like so many; with great fortune. Today, the building is adorned with a beautiful mural on the side, the landscaping is in shape and the sign is much more prominent.

Print like it's 1919. Photo by 414 Photography.
Print like it's 1919. Photo by 414 Photography.

It has been about four years since the day she walked in and met Jim. I find Ashley on a weekday afternoon on the main floor of what is still called Bay View Printing Co. – refreshed, renewed and frankly, thriving in more ways than one. Ashley bought the building and all the equipment, lock, stock and wood type. Custom wedding invitations, business cards and other assorted print jobs flow through here regularly and the demand keeps growing. The act of printing with letterpress is romantic, and has changed Ashley profoundly.

“I had never printed anything before until I found this place. And for me it was like this magical experience where everything was new. I had never inked something up by hand or even seen a can of real ink – I remember the first experience I had I thought, this is amazing. The physicality of printmaking is really intriguing, the experimentation – hand inking – every iteration is different – I wanted to share that feeling with people – of accomplishment.”

Of course this treasure was something worth sharing. How could you not? Thus the “Drink & Ink” was born. It was an idea that was sparked by Ashley’s Mom and it’s the engine behind getting the community involved in what Bay View Printing Co. does every day, now, like clockwork. Ashley used her background in teaching to orchestrate how these singular evenings of imbibing (responsibly) and printing would go and tried it out on a few friends. The classes are a hit, mostly because the idea of making something – that aforementioned sense of accomplishment in a creative sense is something not a whole lot of people get to experience in their daily lives.

The Drink & Ink is good times. Photo by 414 Photography.
The Drink & Ink is good times. Photo by 414 Photography.

Ashley, a fierce creative spirit, reflected on why making something is so enriching for people. “The reaction I get in classes, some will typeset a poster and bring it to the press and we lock everything up and I say ‘ink it up’ and they’re like ‘I’m doing that part?’ and when I say ‘yes’ they’re surprised. You do the whole thing.”

It’s the culmination of a dream, to see people making things from scratch using a technique that’s over a century old. But our technological culture has changed people. They expect things to happen quickly, and time is something we frequently have trouble finding to pursue a new and unique experience.

“We don’t make things anymore,” Ashley told me. “Everything is over saturated – you can buy anything on your phone, and people don’t use their hands much anymore. And at Bay View Printing Co. it’s not just that it’s a skill that requires using your hands, but it’s also that those hands that are doing the work are holding history. This type is 100 years old – the idea is crazy to people.”

Sounds like at Bay View Printing Co. a new treasure is unearthed every day.

To visit Bay View Printing Co. and learn more about Drink & Ink, go here.