It’s summer again (at least that’s what they tell us here in Portland despite the record rain in June and a totally blown Independence Day forecast which has ended up with cloud cover and no sight of the sun today) and time for cleaning out the boxes and corners of the house and garage.
Twenty years ago this summer I was in New York City for the first time. I’d just graduated from Reed (eleven years after getting out of high school, after attending three other institutions of higher education, and having spent five years out of school, a good portion of that unemployed). Barbara and I had just bought a house but we hadn’t been able to move in before I left for NYC, because the closing check hadn’t been paid to the previous owner yet, and she needed the money for deposits on the apartment she was moving to (the rental house we moved out of on my graduation day just sold for $228,736).
Back then I was working for Powell’s Books, as was Barbara (after leaving her legal practice) and her sister Lori (who lived with us). I was fairly proud of my position within the company. I’d started off working in company-wide returns and stocking the downtown store’s pop fiction section (everything from Tom Clancy to Barbara Cartland), then standardized the shipping for downtown (which had been more or less a free-for-all) and basically became the shipping department. All the while I was going to school at Reed I was working full-time at the store. I proposed a desktop publishing department to management around 1988 or 1989 and they spent $10K to buy a Mac II, a LaserWriter, and software with which I did signage, advertising, and an employee newsletter. I had big plans for the company, including a magazine that reviewed new and old books, in keeping with the Powell’s philosophy.
So during my last year at Reed I started looking for how to burnish my publishing credentials and I found the New York University Summer Institute in Book & Magazine Publishing. I applied and was accepted and then the whole thing with the house happened and I had to head out, leaving barbara in the lurch to complete the move (most of our stuff was in the new house’s garage, Barbara and Lori were staying with out friend Paula).
I carried my Mac Plus to New York, and I ordered this neat little printer from Kodak. The Diconix M150 is probably the smallest printer I will ever own. It weighs less than three pounds, it’s smaller than a thick book of history. And it’s twenty years old.
It’s probably a bit difficult for some folks to remember the tech environment of two decades ago. It’s even hard for me to come to grips with it sometimes and I was there. Lots of people are used to working on laptops that weigh next to nothing these days (not to mention iPads or smartphones) but the physical act of printing still requires non-virtual elements: some sort of mechanism that moves a printhead across a piece of paper and a type of ink or toner at the minimum. The Diconix was slow and its output was far from ideal, but for me, in an NYU dorm on Third Avenue printing out comps of cover graphics or proposals for books, it was like having some piece of spy paraphernalia.
After NYU I proofed a couple of books for Random House, but even though I had the key to his office, Michael Powell wasn’t down with the idea of a book review magazine. At least not with me at the helm. After I left the company and started up Plant’s Review of Books a couple of years later, Powell’s came out with their own literary magazine, and of course now their critically-acclaimed web site is full of exactly the type of thing that I was trying to get off the ground twenty years ago, but them’s the breaks.