Andrew Hoyem believes that when books are concerned, style can enhance substance—that riveting tales and profound truths benefit from refined presentations. At Arion Press, his San Francisco publishing house, he employs the centuries-old letterpress method of printing because it imparts a three-dimensional quality to the ink, and the cotton paper that he prefers feels more like a fine shirt than the product of wood pulp. The appeal of a freshly printed Arion Press book extends to its aroma, which mingles the scents of ink, goatskin, and rag paper. “The sensual aspects of the books enhance our customers’ pleasure in owning them,” Hoyem says. “Our goal is not craftsmanship for its own sake, but a perfect amalgam of design and execution that honors the text and, in the end, creates a book that aspires to art.”
Arion Press releases include Einstein’s The Theory of Relativity, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, and a vellum-bound copy of the U.S. Constitution. Press runs rarely exceed 400 copies, many of which are claimed by subscribers who purchase the two or three publications that Arion releases annually. Prices range from $450 for Richard Brautigan’s novel Trout Fishing in America to $16,500 for one of the 40 copies of Poems of W.B. Yeats, which includes illustrations by Richard Diebenkorn and a collection of signed etchings by the artist. This summer, Arion will mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin, founding father and professional printer, with a $600 edition of his autobiography.
Hoyem first became involved with book printing in 1961, when, after having served in the Navy, he joined Auerhahn Press in San Francisco. He intended to work for six months before enrolling in graduate school, but he never left the profession. “I became fascinated by the way in which imagery and written text could be brought together,” says the 71-year-old Hoyem. In 1964, printers Edwin and Robert Grabhorn hired him and made him a partner in the Grabhorn-Hoyem printing company. (Hoyem changed its name to Arion Press one year after Robert’s death in 1973.) Grabhorn-Hoyem and Auerhahn were among several small presses in San Francisco that published the writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and other Beat Generation talents whom mainstream publishers in New York ignored. “If you published avant-garde literature and thought that you would make money, you were crazy,” he recalls. “So, we did it for art’s sake.”
Later Hoyem began republishing classics, including an edition of Moby-Dick in 1979. He set the text by hand, illustrated the book with engravings by Barry Moser, printed it on handmade paper, and bound it in leather. Though it cost $1,000, which was considered an exorbitant price at the time, all 250 copies sold quickly. Today, a collector might pay five times that amount for an Arion Press Moby-Dick. Arion has since released editions of Ulysses, Paradise Lost, and the Bible, and Hoyem plans to publish a version of Don Quixote based on Edith Grossman’s recent translation. “I choose what I want to publish,” he says, “giving myself the freedom to pick books that mean a lot to me.