How a 139-Year-Old Machine Found New Life at Bess Paper Goods

Kristin Joiner’s handcrafted greeting card business uses an old fashioned letterpress.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ODESSA JAMES PHOTOGRAPHY

There’s a simplicity to Kristin Joiner’s greeting cards that makes the white space seem brighter, drawing closer attention to the quality of the paper and the color of the ink. On one, two cherry-red striped candy canes form a heart. On another, nine pastel candles sit atop the words “Happy Hanukkah.” And on a third, icy blue snowflakes drift around a Christmas greeting.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ODESSA JAMES PHOTOGRAPHY

The cards, handcrafted on an antique letter press from 1882, are part of the 2021 holiday line from Bess Paper Goods & Gifts, Joiner’s shop. Joiner, who lives above her Reading storefront, studied graphic design. But college included a half-semester of letterpress, a relief printing technique that involves pressing an inked surface onto paper, sort of like a stamp, except with a tactile component—the pressing leaves its design in a shallow divot. “I thought it was awesome,” Joiner says. “When you’re an artsy person, you tend to be quite tactile.”

Joiner wanted a letterpress machine for years, but knew the devices tend to be expensive. Then, in 2008, she found out about a machine listed on Craigslist just 45 minutes away. And it was in her price range, too.

“And that does not happen,” she says. “Usually, you have to freight it across the country. [The machine was] sitting in a barn, covered in dead bugs and spider webs.” Luckily, Joiner’s father is good with machines. He knew someone who could weld cast iron, and Joiner knew where to get new rollers.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY KRISTIN JOINER

“I figured between the two of us, we could figure this out.” She spent that summer cleaning Bess—as in Bess the Letterpress, the namesake of the shop—and learning how to use her.

Over the years, Bess has still traveled by freight a few times: to Bermuda, where Joiner lived for five years, then to Cincinnati, where Joiner, who’s originally from Wisconsin, moved in 2019.

Today, Bess has pride of place in the shop, which doubles as the studio where Joiner makes her cards, paper flowers, illustrations, and nearly everything else sold at Bess Paper Goods.

“I do quite a lot of commercial work, and it tends to be very messy,” she says. “I’m the type of person [who tries] a new craft every six months.”

Bess Paper Goods, 321 W. Benson St., Reading, (513) 748-6955

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