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Gary Arber’s Collection

February 27, 2010
by the gentle author

I returned to Gary Arber’s printing shop in the Roman Rd to collect the correspondence cards he has printed for me in the Perpetua typeface that I like so much. On this visit, Gary graciously permitted me the opportunity to take more photographs, recording the extravagant poetry of the old printing works and toy shop opened by his grandfather, W.F. Arber, in 1897 and of which he is the last custodian.

Gary is an extraordinarily talented man, not just an ex-flying ace, but also a skilled technician who has maintained the printing presses for the last half century and done all the typography in the printing works too, including drawing illustrations for print jobs. This is in addition to doing all his own plumbing and wiring here and at home, always undertaking car repairs himself, and leaving time over to be an expert wildlife photographer and RSPB conservation warden at weekends. It is refreshing to meet a man with so many varied accomplishments, it gives Gary a certain confidence. And he demonstrates an appealing modesty too when, for example, he shows you the sash window he is in the process of renovating. As you are probably aware, a sash window is a complex piece of joinery but Gary had already disassembled one, replaced the rotten timber and reinstalled it, when he showed me the next one he was going to tackle.

Once upon a time, six printers worked here in the printing shop, alongside compositors, trimmers, shop assistants and managers but now there is just Gary knocking around on four floors of the works doing a little printing, playing patience on his computer and repairing the sash windows when he feels like it. Alone, like Prospero on his island, surrounded by his secret kingdom, Gary does as he pleases – when not interrupted by a string of admiring young visitors who come to wonder and in hope that Gary will tell more of his beguiling tales. I count myself among this group of devotees who appreciate Gary Arber for his dignified flippant philosophising as a palliative to the earnest literalism of modern life.

As anyone who has visited the shop will already know, the strings above the counter once suspended a fine display of box toys. This was more than generation ago. I love the way that Gary has carried on working here without ever tidying up. Our culture is puritanical where it comes to order and organisation. We are taught to believe there is innate moral value in tidiness, but it is an entirely spurious notion. I have often wondered what it would be like if you never changed anything, never threw anything away and never cleared up. Gary’s printing works conscientiously illustrates the result of such an independent-spirited approach. Almost everything from the last century of business remains and the textures of human activity are vivid. You might assume that the past is gone, vanished like the wind, but in Gary’s world time is manifest in the layers and layers of things used by all those who were once here. Gary accepts that his existence is contingent too, confiding to me that, in spite of multiple leaks, he will not be shelling out for the new roof that is required because he would rather leave that for the next owner who comes along. A sentiment that is touching in its unsentimental realism.

In the meantime, Gary is the custodian who alone knows the stories, who alone knows how everything works, who can pick up anything and tell you what it is and why it is there. For example, Gary pointed out the Alto Lagonda printing press, one of six in the basement (you can see it pictured below piled with boxes), the machine that printed the handbills for the Suffragettes. It is accompanied by a Wharfedale, a Heidelberg, a Supermatic, a Golding Jobber and a Mercedes Glockner, all from the early twentieth century except the Supermatic. I photographed Gary beside this and he described the machine as “new” because it was manufactured in the nineteen fifties. Only the Heidelberg is in use at present. This is the one that printed my cards, and when Gary set it in motion for me, it whirred into life with all the easy grace of a vast sea-beast twirling in deep water.

Gary’s grandparents, Walter and Emily, lived on the floors above the shop but, once they died, Gary’s father, also Walter, turned their first floor living room into a compositor’s room (the “comp room”as Gary terms it) and the rest of the living space became storage for the print works. The golden nineteen thirties wallpaper and chocolate colour scheme make an attractive background to the tall cabinets of trays of type and compositors’ desks set on either side of a compositors’ stone. A Healthy and Safety Inspector, with a bureaucratic mania worthy of Peter Sellers, once insisted that the walls must be whitewashed because people have to work in white rooms, apparently. However, Gary stood his ground like a true Englishman and the thirties wallpaper remains today in all its shabby glory.

Most of the type here is worn out with use and we walked upon a layer of thousands of tiny pieces of dusty grey metal type spilled onto the floor of the comp room, undulating like the surface of the moon and crunching beneath our feet. Gary delighted to snatch a case of type from the cabinet and show me the V and J compartments in the bottom right corner – apart from the rest of the letters because they were added to the alphabet later, after the design of printers’ cases had been standardised, centuries ago. This case was all capital letters.“This is the upper case”, announced Gary gleefully before putting it back and pulling out the one beneath with a flourish, “And this is the lower case!” In an instant, I understood the origin of the terminology I have used all my life to distinguish what in school were referred to as” the big letters and the small letters.” I shall never forget that as long as I live. Neither shall I ever forget my visits to this unique printing shop and now, every time I use my correspondence cards (that he printed for me so kindly at the price they were thirty years ago) I will always think affectionately of Gary there in the eternal magic kingdom that is W. F. Arber & Co Ltd.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. A Spark in the Cosmos permalink
    February 27, 2010

    Written with knitted brow, your impartiality is admirable.

  2. February 27, 2010

    Superb! And absolutely marvellous photos, particularly the one at the beginning of this post.

  3. February 27, 2010

    wonderful photos! job well done!

  4. Anne permalink
    February 27, 2010

    The National Trust would have a field day here! It should be saved for the nation.

  5. February 28, 2010

    Thank you for letting me know that this man and this place exist.

    You are so lucky to have those cards.

  6. Harry Rogers permalink
    May 20, 2010

    As a young lad I used to work in Gary’s shop on Saturdays at Christmas when he used to sell toys. (I am now 63) I used to get 10 shillings and fish and chips at the end of the day from the fish and chip shop accross the road. Many well known customers used to shop there for their childrens toys because that is where generations of their family had always bought their toys. Gary’s shop may be messy but I can assure you his home is spotlessy clean. His wife Ruby makes sure of that. I am prividged to have Gary as my brother-in-law.

  7. Chris F permalink
    February 25, 2011

    I agree wholeheartedly with Anne… Gary should leave this in trust so that it doesn’t find its way onto the tip like so much of the old printing paraphenalia has. The art students at my university college have just aquired a large box of metal type and are having a whale of a time experimenting with it.

  8. February 26, 2011

    this is an enriching account accompanied by intriguing photos. thank you for sharing.

  9. February 13, 2014

    Yes! National Trust really should preserve this wonderful place, it’s a treasure-house of history. The ‘digital age’ will leave nothing so impressive behind as a witness to the skill that the production of printed communication once was! And the amazing wallpaper too.

  10. Roger Tiller permalink
    February 21, 2014

    Great great memories

  11. Shawdiane permalink
    February 7, 2015

    Gary, once again, Please make enquiries to preserve your wonderful historic shop.
    This is a treasure trove which I am sure someone will be interested. I worked for the
    National Trust when I was Custodian of & lived at playwright ‘George Bernard Shaw’s
    home Shaw’s Corner, they could be the one to advise you on the shop & it’s contents.
    Would be a terrible shame to lose the lot. I think the whole shop & contents should
    be preserved, you have some fascinating history & background stories. Good Luck.

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