Under the Sun

Under the Sun: Hazel and Violet Keeps Letterpress Alive on Grand Avenue

Hot off the presses.
Hot off the presses. Robrt L. Pela

“Every article of clothing I own has ink on it,” Nancy Hill admitted to a friend one recent Saturday morning. “Well, not my underwear, you’ll be pleased to know.”

Hill had long ago taken to wearing black clothing to hide the smudges that come with owning Hazel and Violet, her Grand Avenue letterpress print shop. “I got tired of hearing, ‘Oh, look, Nancy’s here and she’s got ink on her shirt,’” she said.

Students who take her letterpress workshop are asked to wear aprons. There were three of them there that morning, all young women busy lining up small metal letters, known as “type,” on metal trays they’d later smear with ink and use to print letterhead or calling cards or, as Hill put it, “whatever the hell else they want.”

“I wouldn’t recommend going smaller than 24 point on that,” she told a young woman named Senyhon who was making a poster that read, “Your skin is 90 percent of your selfie.” It was, Senyhon said, a saying she saw on Pinterest and liked.

“I can’t find an upper-case I,” she complained. “Use a lower-case L,” Hill called from across the room.

After Hill retired from a career in corporate food service, she and a friend bought the contents of a local letterpress shop that was going out of business. “We bought everything he had,” she recalled. “You can’t just buy a little tabletop press. There’s so much other shit you need to make it work. Spacing materials, the right kind of ink, the proper trays. It’s just endless, the stuff you need.”

She used that stuff, she explained, to print custom stationery, wedding invitations, and event announcements. Hill has sold letterpressed coasters, calendars, and small-run art prints. Naughty-word greeting cards are a Hazel and Violet mainstay. “It comes down to finding new and creative ways to use the word ‘fuck’,” she said. “That’s what sells.”

So do her letterpress workshops, which used to commence with a tour of Hill’s several antique presses, she said. She demonstrated each machine and explained the history of letterpress, the earliest form of printed language dating back to AD 175.

“I thought I’d do Letterpress 101,” she said, and rolled her eyes. “We would go through as a group and try different machines and learn what things were called and discuss the process. No one was remotely interested.”

Hill learned not to mind that few shared her love of letterpress. “I no longer worry that people call the type cases ‘drawers’ or say ‘letters’ instead of ‘type.’ Correcting everyone was a pain in the ass. So now I say, ‘I don’t care. Call it George if you want to!’”

People didn’t want a history lesson, Hill said. “They wanted a make-and-take. They get to make posters or cards or drink coasters, and then they get to leave. So I adapted.”

Young people had recently taken an interest in letterpress, Hill said.

“Yeah, thank God for hipsters,” laughed a woman named Mikyla, who was making personalized stationery.

“You’ve got a nice design,” Hill told her. “But it’s wider than your paper. Take another look.”

This was a small group, Hill said. Only three people. “Usually I have at least four. It’s seldom that any of them have done letterpress before.”

One of the workshop women worried that her letters were too tiny. “That’s because you’re using Cooper Black,” Hill explained. “Try Times New Roman 24 point, that’ll let you use spacers from any tray. But if Cooper Black is your favorite font in the world, then go for it.”

Hill paused to look over the shoulder of another student’s work. “Your letters need to be backwards,” she said. “They’re not going to print that way. There’s a little mark on the bottom of every piece of type to show you which end is up.”

One of the women had spelled out her name alongside an image of a bicycle. “Bicycles and cactus,” Hill said to a friend who stopped by to watch her teach. “They’re the most popular image. I have finally just given in to the whole Southwest thing. I fought it for years, but people kept asking for it. People want stationery with cactus on it.”

Lately customers had been asking for Arizona-themed Christmas cards. “Do I have them? Fuck no. But apparently I should.”

Hill was helping Mikyla ink her project. She spread ink on a metal plate, then pressed the tray with the letters and spacers — called “furniture,” Hill explained — onto the ink. The tray went into a large contraption with a metal roller and a crank that pushed paper through it. Mikyla watched, then tried the process herself. Another student, standing nearby, announced plans to make a drink coaster with Santa’s face on it.

“In the internet age, people take pictures of my greeting cards and text the photo to their friends,” Hill said with a chuckle. Those who do bother to buy the cards don’t mail them, she swore. “They hand them to other people.”

Hill showed one of her students a pile of vintage paper she’d just purchased. “Look at this,” she said. “I just love the edges. Nobody makes this stuff anymore.”

She rubbed the paper with the flat of her hand. “I’m going to have to print something on it.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela