‘People are finding that, because of the way the machines are changing the world, more and more of their old values don’t apply anymore. People have no choice but to become second-rate machines themselves, or wards of the machines.’
— Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
Once, letterpress printing machines were the pinnacle of communication. The presses added a layer tactile dimension, lending a now-forgotten depth and texture to words forcefully pushed into hand-cut pages. Now, everyone just goes to Staples.
In a world where the centuries-old art of running a printing press has been replaced by things that use lasers and making pages on computer screens, Mark Herb of Mark IV Printing will soon dot his last I’s and cross his last T’s. Next month, once he finishes his final orders from loyal customers, Herb will be closing up shop after over 50 years of production in Saugerties. Operating in Malden-on-Hudson since 1966, the plant remains largely unchanged since Robert Herb, an old-school Linotype operator, established the business and passed it on to his son.
“I’ve been here every day, all day long,” said Herb, 64, of his last 30 years running the plant since 1988.
With no one interested in housing his still-functional linotype machine, Herb was forced to scrap it this year. Nostalgic collectors, including the proprietors of Color Page Printing in Kingston, will take on the remaining antiqued equipment. An old platen press, crank-powered and whirring when in use, waits with cabinets filled with metal hand type, a drill press, vertical press and a paper cutter (“It kept my dad in shape,” said Herb) for whatever their future holds. The whole workshop feels like a soft, creaking armchair, the cushion of which bears the dent made by your reclining father. Duke Ellington’s music and the smell of a peculiar cleaning solution (“we used to use kerosene”) commingle; visible on the walls are hand-printed posters with messages like “Small details make the big difference” and “In raising your children, spend half as much money and twice as much time.”
Local police and courts once called on Herb to print forms. Most Saugerties congregations, including St. John’s and St. Mary’s, had the Herbs print their weekly bulletins and programs. Still using his services are the Saugerties Animal Hospital, Sawyer Motors and Saugerties’ town and village governments, including letterheads and business cards for all the departments.
“The industry has changed tremendously,” said Herb. “If someone has a computer and a printer, they have a letterhead. And who needs tickets printed anymore? In local elections, everyone got palm cards and bumper stickers printed — who wants to pay $40,000 to buy a car and then put a bumper sticker on it nowadays?”
Herb’s father, Robert Herb, graduated from Saugerties High and worked in the printing industry starting in 1942 after attending the New York School of Printing. He operated linotype machines in the shops of a series of newsrooms, including that of the Catskill Mountain Star, working throughout the Hudson Valley from Albany to Poughkeepsie. In an article published in the January 10, 1988 edition of the Old Dutch Post Star, he was quoted as saying, “I guess I’m the last of the old-time printers around, but Mark will carry on the tradition. We love this business, that’s why we’re in it … There are traps you can get into in printing, and I’ll be there to bail [Mark] out if he needs it.”
But after Robert’s death, the final trap was the slow march of modernization, out from which one cannot be bailed.
“People have been telling me ‘you’re going to be busy,’” said Herb of completing his remaining, stacked orders before he retires. “I say, ‘Well, I used to be busy 20 years ago.’”
Earlier than 20 years ago, Saugerties High’s guidance counselors told Herb that he would be well-suited as a teacher, but Herb’s father got him a scholarship to his alma mater. Ultimately, as a result of the success of his father’s business, he stayed working at the presses.
In his only stint away from Saugerties, at a printing job in Austin, Texas, Herb learned his final set of skills: offset printing with the assistance of digital programs that he still uses to this day.
“When I came back from Texas, I asked my boss down there what the best typesetting program was,” said Herb. “He said Corel; his son said Quark. Back then, they only had Quark for Macintosh computers, and I wasn’t about to get one with my wife working at IBM.”
With retirement on the books, what is to become of the factory building itself? After growing up right down the street from the plant, he and his wife constructed a new home as an extension of the building in 1982, after Herb met his wife in a Saugerties church in 1970. While the plant is now on the market, Herb has expressed his wishes that someone interested in living and working there might take it over. A lifetime of creative work and family tradition has filled the building with quirks like a shuffleboard court in the basement. Herb hopes that whoever occupies the space lives and creates on the premises, as he has for many years.