My love affair with letterpress began long before I ever understood the technology—there was just something about the way it felt and looked that made it seem special. Letterpressed greeting cards were the last to be used, and invitations and posters were stacked and stored on my book shelves, even if I’d never made it to the advertised event. Ben Webster, founder and owner of The Mandate Press, nails my infatuation with the medium easily. “The appeal is that impression, that tactile quality. It becomes literally a little more intimate of an experience,” he says. “You experience something that has been letterpressed: You can see it, you can feel it—it has some character to it. It has some soul.”
Webster, who founded The Mandate Press in 2004, studied graphic design in college, graduated to land a job working in a modern print shop helping with pre-press, and eventually took a letterpress class through the University of Utah’s Book Arts Program. “I was hoping to get a history lesson on type, which I did, but along the way was introduced to these old presses, which fascinated me,” says Webster. Shortly after the class ended, Webster stumbled upon an old press that someone was trying to get rid of and purchased it for the price that the owner would have gotten if he’d sold it for scrap metal. Eventually, Webster opened up a space in Poor Yorick studios and began printing business cards, art and greeting cards. “It grew to the point that the hobby was big enough that it was encroaching on the day job,” he says. “I happened to be in a spot where I didn’t love my day job.” Using his 2004 tax return to jump-start the business, Webster officially opened The Mandate Press in 2005 with two presses, only one of which really worked.
The Mandate Press’s current digs are a world away from their humble, one-room beginnings. Last year, Webster relocated the business to a brick building just under 8,000 sq. feet on 1077 S. Main Street. The new building features an impressive storefront that doubles as a gallery, and also displays five pieces of older printing equipment—two hand-cranked Vandercook 4 cylinder presses (one which Webster says is in a state of perpetual restoration), a paper cutter and two almost-identical, 10 x 15 platen presses—one from the ’50s and the other that is over 100 years old, the oldest press in the shop. The older of the two presses was actually retrieved from a basement a few blocks away from Mandate’s current home. Webster explains that, while still housed in Poor Yorick, an ancient man came through, saw his existing press and asked if he was interested in another. “Turns out his dad had been a printer and printed out of his basement,” says Webster. “I used to print a lot on it. I’ll never get rid of it. It has some local history. To me, it meant something that it was his father’s press.”