When it comes to journalism, Tim Fay is a purist.
In a crowded workshop attached to the home he and his brother built on his family’s 150-year-old Anamosa farm, 62-year-old Fay sits hunched over a printing press that’s nearly as old as he is. He’s working on the “Wapsipinicon Almanac,” a regional magazine he’s published for the past 27 years.
After graduating from the University of Montana with a journalism degree, Fay returned to his hometown of Cedar Rapids. It wasn’t long until he moved to his uncle’s farm in Anamosa, where he began working on small printing jobs in town.
Inspired by his uncle’s affinity for the “old days of printing,” Fay began collecting antique letterpress equipment in the hopes of combining his love of writing with old-fashioned print work. He wanted to divert from the daily news grind and dreamed of publishing his own magazine, with which he’d have “a little more time to reflect, absorb things and be careful,” he said.
“I have a lot of respect for daily and weekly newspaper journalism, but this is a little more reflective and not so urgent,” he explained.
His first “Almanac,” published in 1988, sold out. Today, in a cramped room filled with antique machines, Fay is finishing up the 22nd issue.
The printing process begins with a 1930s linotype, where Fay plucks into a keyboard that molds letters into melted lead, forming a line. The lines are then cast into slugs, or lines of raised type.
The slugs are proofread before they’re assembled on pages. Once organized, the pages are fed into the bed of the 12-foot long, 9-ton flat bed letterpress. The monster of a machine spits out hundreds of sheets, which are then folded, squeezed down as flat as possible, bound with stitches and fitted with a hand-glued cover.
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Although the equipment is “obsolete,” he said, the machines are “built to last.”
Unlike modern machines, letterpress equipment can be fixed and won’t just be thrown away when it’s old — a virtue he values and admires.
“It takes a lot of maintenance and could drive you crazy ... but this stuff is designed to last forever,” he said.
Fay produces most of the magazine himself — writing, editing, ad sales, design, production and distribution — but he’ll occasionally solicit help from others, including his longtime typesetter Eldon Meeks, proofreader Marge Hummel and a batch of local writers — half of whom come to him offering stories, the other half he said he has to “bother.”
The unique publication offers fictional stories as well as reviews, essays, poems and more. Stories address topics relevant to Midwesterners — particularly Eastern Iowans — including environmental issues, history and the health of small towns.
“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” Fay explained.
Each year after Thanksgiving, he distributes about 1,500 copies of the 160-page magazine throughout the state, just in time for gift-giving season. Many copies go to his loyal following who receive a notice through a mailing list, while others are delivered to local bookstores, co-ops and places where “people who would like them would find them,” he said.
Fay is able to live off the meager earnings of the “Almanac,” mostly because he lives simply.
“My motto is earn a little money, spend a little less,” he said, explaining that he has no expenses or debt. He didn’t take a big financial risk in his equipment, either.
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“Most of this stuff was being junked,” he said. “It was sitting in back shops gathering dust, and people just wanted to get rid of it. Often, people who owned the stuff were glad to see it would still be used because most of it got scrapped.”
Today, however, letterpress printing has become fashionable again, he said. Now his equipment might sell for thousands of dollars.
But he doesn’t intend to sell it. He’ll hold onto it until he’s buried, he joked.
But he said he’ll print the “Almanac” for only a few more years.
“I enjoy it, but I don’t want to do it forever,” he said. “Letterpress production is a lot of hard work. There’s a reason nobody does this anymore ... .
“Keeping this stuff running is interesting and fascinating, but it’s also time consuming and can be frustrating.”
He doesn’t plan to pass the business on, either. Not even to his two children because, although they respect his work, it just “isn’t their thing,” he said.
“I would think it should just be over,” he concluded. “It should be born and die with me.”