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Go West, Book Lover

If exhausted by shopping (for the moment), biblio-tourists can let the collections and exhibits at the San Francisco Public Library occupy an afternoon. West of Union Square in the city’s Civic Center neighborhood is SF’s main library. Though unknown to many local residents, its sixth floor houses the Marjorie G. and Carl W. Stern Book Arts & Special Collections Center. Most bibliophiles are immediately drawn to the Robert Grabhorn Collection on the History of Printing and the Development of the Book, but there are also significant collections devoted to calligraphy, humor, early children’s books, little magazines and ’zines, Robert Frost, and Sherlock Holmes. Thanks to continued care and acquisition, the sixth floor hosts a fantastic collection of fine printing highpoints. Visitors can handle and even read favorite chapters from the Arion Press editions of Melville’s Moby Dick and Joyce’s Ulysses, or flip through the first two editions of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a Kelmscott Chaucer, or a third edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

One of San Francisco’s greatest assets is its open space. This includes the Presidio, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and home to the non-profit Grabhorn Institute, sustaining San Francisco’s storied fine-printing tradition since 2007, though its history reaches back to the turn of the nineteenth century. Andrew Hoyem has owned the Arion Press since 1974 and was once an employee of and later a partner with Robert Grabhorn. Today, his team of approximately fifteen employees produces three to four limited editions each year, with all type made and hand-set at the M&H type foundry (housed in the same building). Each book is printed on fine or hand-made paper stock, then sewn and cased-in using the best materials. Hoyem has made two of the most famous editions to emerge from the West Coast in the last 30 years: the 1979 edition of Moby Dick featuring Barry Moser illustrations and the 1988 edition of Ulysses with Robert Motherwell etchings. (The Grabhorn is in the business of preserving these beauties, so no touching the editions here, but the main library mentioned above affords that opportunity.) Arion Press also serves as a showcase for literary events, including lectures, exhibitions, and a weekly tour on Thursdays at 3:00 p.m. The 1 1/2-hour excursion exhibits the historic machinery and tools still in use, and participants are invited to view (not handle) any edition, with advance notice. Reservations are required, and it costs $7.

Already in San Francisco (or nearby)?

The San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print, & Paper Fair is happening this month on the 6th and 7th. The hours on Saturday are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Who’ll be exhibiting? Book Hunter’s Holiday, Eureka Books, Lux Mentis, Ten Pound Island Book Co., Ken Sanders, and many more. Admission is $10. Also in February, Bonhams & Butterfields at 220 San Bruno Avenue, will be holding a Fine Books and Manuscripts auction on Feb. 14.

Nearby, the new American Bookbinders Museum is a special find—it is perhaps the only bookbinding museum in the U.S. On exhibit are nineteenth-century binding machines and hand tools, as well as marbled paper, photographs, and a collection of binders’ reference books, manuals, and journals. Open only on Saturdays, from 12 p.m. - 4:00 p.m. or by appointment with its president and founder Tim James, who also runs the Taurus Bookbindery.

At this point in the trip, a decision must be made: continue with the trip’s fine bookmaking theme, or strike out on to the bookstore circuit? For the former, head to San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB). If the city’s proper fine-printing movement began with the Grabhorns and has continued with Hoyem and Arion Press, then the SFCB is also hard at work to inspire a new wave of book arts enthusiasts and creators. Opened in 1996 and now occupying a 4,500-square foot facility in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, the SFCB offers more than 350 classes annually to 2,000 students. With an exhibition hall overlooking the printmaking studio, visitors can observe students at work while examining the ever-changing gallery of hand-made books on display. If a visit happens to correspond with one of the free monthly exhibitions or lectures, it’s sure to be something appealing. More ambitious book lovers can also enroll in an introductory bookbinding class, though these fill up fast. Long-term advance registration is recommended.

If heading out to more bookstores, don’t miss Green Apple Books, in the Inner Richmond district, a short drive from Arion Press. Opened in 1967, Green Apple has since grown to nearly 8,000 square feet divided between two shops within easy walking distance to each other. The main structure is a cozy two-story space replete with creaky wooden floorboards, a well-tended and maintained stock (no dead inventory here), and a maze of nooks, alcoves, and stairways. Two doors west is the store’s literature and genre lit store, attended by a music wing with listening stations. Though decidedly thin on antiquarian books, it’s otherwise well versed. Next up is the Booksmith, in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. They sell only new books, although they are constantly working to promote San Francisco’s literary lifestyle. The shop’s stream of readings makes it one of the best places to pick up signed copies of your favorite authors’ recent works. A third generalist bookshop is Aardvark Books in the city’s legendary Castro District. Though not as large as Green Apple, they carry an excellent, affordable, and well-selected balance of fiction and non-fiction.

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