The Book Club of California

Friends! Book pals! Fellow worshipers of Shar!

A few stressful interviews this week, two dozen hours thrown into Baldur’s Gate to recover, and I just finished the ever-so-great Dolly Parton’s America this morning. First up this week there’s a new book I have my eye on and then we take a stroll to the Book Club of California. Let’s do this thing.

Keith Houston has a new book out this week called Empire of the Sum and it’s all about the fascinating history of counting and the evolution of the calculator. I’ve been following along with Keith’s blog for at least a decade at this point and if you’ve never read anything by Houston before then I’d highly, highly recommend The Book and Shady Characters, two of my all time favorite typography-adjacent books.

I just picked up Empire of the Sum for my lil Kobo so I’ll get cracking on that tonight.

Last Monday I made the perilous trek up north to the Financial District in San Francisco to join Paul Shaw’s study group session at the Book Club of California. But when I got to the address my anxiety spiked: was this the right place? This busy street? With a parking lot over there and a spa downstairs? It’s all so loud and mean and anti-bookish...

After a call to the librarian and a quick jaunt through the entrance and up the elevator, I realized, of course, this is the place. The elevator doors opened to reveal an old printing press and hundreds of beautiful books behind regal glass cases. The walls were lined with beautiful typeset things and it felt like I was suddenly underdressed: someone needed to get me a whiskey and a cravat, ASAP.

Before seeing a note on Paul’s blog, I had never heard of this place before. How is it even legal for there to be a book club like this in San Francisco without me knowing about it?

The absolute nerve.

Paul Shaw greeted us in the foyer and it was strange since I knew him in that internet/San Francisco way you can know someone without having met them in person. I’d been reading his work since I was back in college so it felt wrong to introduce myself but there he was, Paul: a wiry guy with thin glasses, a blue shirt, dark pants, and bright blue sneakers. Besides the now-physicalness of Paul—which felt weird since I’d always seen Paul as a great website—it’s important to note that Shaw is always, permanently, halfway through explaining the minute chronology of an ancient typographer. His mind works in the exact opposite way to mine as Paul can track the precise date and place where Claude Garamond was born and how, in fact, it was this other chap he worked with that was the real Claude all along.

We shuffled into a back room, another hidden library packed with more delicate little books, and before us was a banquet of type specimens and ephemera spread out on an enormous table. Paul jumped right in, walking us around the collection and letting us poke and prod things, but also explaining an entire galaxy of type history that I’d never heard of before.

Paul compared the thickness of serifs in these books and how they marked a quiet protest of folks from the likes of the Doves Press and William Morris who hated seeing thin seriffed letters.

Paul also grabbed this beautiful book by Jack Stauffacher out of the archives that I can’t find any good scans of anywhere online but is perhaps the most beautifully typeset thing I’ve seen in years. When I close my eyes and hope for the future, this is the work that I want to see myself make...

Then there was the curious work of Anna Simmons who I had never heard of before who made these absolutely bonkers letters as if she was stealing them from the future somehow...

...and unusual wood and metal type specimens...

...or the ever-so-lovely Kennerly which I hadn’t heard of either...

After the three hour walkthrough I headed home, my mind spinning with fonts, and I find that yes, ugh, the Book Club of California store is full of wonders, just as I expected. How exhaustingly beautiful and wondrous this all is. Sigh.

Sadly I couldn’t make it to other sessions since I didn’t feel so grand the next two days, so I was effectively locked in my apartment playing Baldur’s Gate 3 and feeling sad for myself.

What did I learn from this little trip through? A few things. There’s this tiny boy energy about me that believes I know everything about typography at this point. That I’ve already become the grand master, the old sage, the font guy. Talking with Paul reminded me that I know so very, very little about typography. Both in terms of style—what was available and when—but also technically, too. Wood type is a whole universe, a dimension filled with universes in fact, that I have basically no knowledge of whatsoever.

This trip to the Book Club of California was a reminder then that I should always be the intern. I should always keep my eyes open, ask dumb questions, and find even more Pauls to teach me.

In Shar We Trust,