MacArthur Park Print Shop Keeps Old Technology Alive

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For 40 years, a print shop near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles has kept the letterpress alive. It's a printing technique that computers nearly killed off. The owners are a Mexican immigrant and his family; they're celebrating the shop's anniversary this week by launching a series of Los Angeles-inspired art prints. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: In a mostly Central American section of MacArthur Park, hot type rules at Aardvark Letterpress. If it weren't so busy, a visitor could easily confuse the place with a printing press museum.

[Mechanical sound of printing press]

Guzman-Lopez: A 60 year old Heidelberg windmill press sits in front of the storefront window. It's one of the shop's workhorses, and it's a youngster compared to the century-old Chandler and Price hand press next to it.

[Mechanical sound of hand press]

Guzman-Lopez: Aardvark's one-ton linotype machine, as tall as a basketball player, stands across the pressroom. Its leather seat resembles a worn saddle. On it, 70 year old Luis Ocon hunches over a metal keyboard and cranks a metal handle. The machine melts and molds lead ingots into letters.

[Letters falling]
Luis Ocon: That's my own computer. (laughs)

Guzman-Lopez: Human hands remove the letters and arrange them into words. Another machine rolls them with ink, then presses them onto paper. It's a thousand-year-old technique. Before computer menus empowered people to choose their font sizes, typefaces, and the number of copies they wanted, this was the only way to print. Ocon learned to master a linotype when he was 16 years old in Mexico.

Luis Ocon: I was an operator, in 1954.

Guzman-Lopez: He worked for newspapers and magazines all over Mexico. The pay was great, but the lure of the United States was even greater. He followed a couple of friends to L.A. and landed a job as busboy at a Fairfax district cafeteria. There he met Helen Kaplan, a waitress and his future wife.

Helen Kaplan: He was handsome and good looking and what else, so our eyes met, and there was a fire and passion.

Guzman-Lopez: She was 10 years older than Luis, Jewish, and divorced with four kids. Eventually they married and he adopted the kids. English classes, son Cary Ocon says, helped his dad land linotype jobs, eventually at Aardvark Letterpress.

Cary Ocon: I mean, he worked for the original owner for many years, and then the guy offers him the business. I sort of wonder if that offer was made with the guy knowing the typesetting business was about to die and he was selling my dad sort of a sinking ship.

Guzman-Lopez: Computers were poison to printing shops all over. Instead of modernizing, Ocon bought the century-old press. At the time he bet there'd always be a market for letterpress. Barely, says Cary Ocon.

Cary Ocon: We used to get the mariachis who had been performing the night before, Friday night, then they'd come here Saturday morning all hung over needing business cards, they'd order the cards, and then they'd go across the street on the grass, crash out. You know, wait a couple hours for us to print their cards.

Guzman-Lopez: Ocon's eyes well up when he talks about how tough those years were on his family.

Cary Ocon: Financially... and, you know the culture differences, back then, to marry, to marry a white woman with four white kids, and to raise them.

Guzman-Lopez: Cary Ocon's brother and father struggled it out, while he went to law school. He practiced law, but he didn't like it, so eight years ago he joined the family business. Now, high-end announcements with an artisan look and feel are the shop's bread and butter.

Aardvark printed wedding invitations for actors Kevin Costner and Eddie Murphy, and announcements for the Golden Globe awards. To celebrate the shop's 40th birthday, the Ocon family commissioned 18 artists to create small poster-sized prints inspired by L.A.'s people and landmarks.

Cary Ocon: And we wanted to do something that celebrated what we do and to leave something behind for the city of Los Angeles, to leave our mark on it.

Guzman-Lopez: Those prints resemble loteria cards, for the bingo-like carnival game popular in Mexico. Cary Ocon says his family's L.A. loteria game has paid off, and opening the shop for artists to create these works is their way to say thank you to the city.