Two things you will not learn about Henry Evans upon visiting the cozy Union-Square-adjacent fifth floor rooms of the Book Club of California: in 1955, Evans passed up the opportunity to publish Allen Ginsberg's Howl; and in 1990, when he died, Evans was a celebrated botanical printmaker.
These are details withheld, along with many others, from Henry Evans, The Peregrine Press & The Porpoise Bookshop, because it is a curious show. As in, it makes one want to learn more. But where to gather that additional information is on you, because this particular exhibition isn’t offering free history lessons.
In two large glass cases and one flat vitrine, fine prints, books and ephemera produced by Henry Evans, his wife Patricia and their daughter Judith during the ’50s and early ’60s charmingly illustrate the output, in their own letterpressed words, of a small press devoted to printing original, contemporary work by living artists, writers and poets.
Without wall text or expanded artwork labels (beyond titles, dates and names) the display signals “important stuff!” without actually telling viewers why the stuff is so important. A brief paragraph on the exhibition’s image list claims Evans’ work was “singularly influential on California’s small press movement.” But sans context, compelling corroboration or any sort of editorializing on the part of curator John Crichton (owner of local antiquarian bookstore Brick Row Book Shop and former president of the Book Club of California), the viewer sees only the primary materials of a particular press during a particular period, a presentation that, while pleasing, led to a lot of question marks in my notebook.
You might have a similar experience, unless you're a subscriber to the Book Club's Quarterly News-Letter and happened to read Crichton's two-part essay, published in 2015, on the history of the Evans family and their publishing operations. I am not, but I did. So let me fill in some blanks.
Porpoise Bookshop wasn't Henry and Patricia Evans' first bookstore. When the couple moved to San Francisco from Tucson in 1944, they sold antiquarian, rare and secondhand books out of H.H. Evans Books. Except for a 1950 bust by a Yakima, Washington Postal Inspector for selling a copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (a.k.a. obscene literature) through the mail, book sales went well. But Henry's long-held dream was to run his own printing press, a dream fulfilled with the purchase of a Washington iron hand press and the establishment of Peregrine Press.
Henry, Patricia and Judith were all intimately involved in the writing, illustrating, typesetting, printing and selling of their products. The press’ catalog included portfolios of prints by Rick Barton (an ornery fellow known for refusing to cut his blocks in reverse), a book of mushroom recipes by Patricia, a series called Poems & Pictures (including work by Robert Creeley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti) and a booklet titled Curious Lore of San Francisco's Chinatown, illustrated by old prints.
The “voice” of Peregrine Press, found in introductions and the bits of ephemera advertising the press’ output is, without a doubt, delightful. The introduction to the 1950 publication First Duet, a collaboration between the married Evanses, reads, “With unmitigated pleasure we hereby advise you of the completion of First Duet, a difficult to classify work of unruly dimensions and unflinching demeanor.”
Patricia’s books are a highlight of the Book Club show. In addition to the aforementioned Mycrophagists’ Book, she was responsible for a series of booklets on the game of hopscotch, jump rope rhymes and one titled Who’s It?—available to customers of all ages for just 25 cents each.
Two particularly curious publications focus on specific subjects: a Gold Rush-era emporium and the work of printmaker and typographer John Baskerville. Both books contain, bound within them, pages physically pulled from the material they discuss. ("Was this normal???" ask my notes. Crichton's essay does not provide an answer.)
In the case of the former, Champagne and Shoes, it’s a double leaf from the emporium’s ledger, sales and figures recorded in delicate looping script. And in the case of the latter, John Baskerville, the Gracious Infidel, it’s a pasted-in page from another book, an example of Baskerville’s type. “It is not his best or his most beautiful book, and it is not his poorest work,” writes Henry in his accompanying essay. (Peregrine Press used Caslon exclusively as its type of choice, so this is generous of him.) “It is a typical page out of an average book, giving the reader, at one glance, a fair idea of what he did.” The insertions function as acts of radical collage, earnest and unpretentious gestures that refuse to be precious about historical materials.
The item that elicited the most question marks in my notebook (interspersed by exclamation marks), follows in this irreverent vein. Earth Manuscript, Discovered by the 16th Cridor Expedition for Intergalactic Exploration, dated "3682," is seemingly a time-traveling relic from the far far future—a testament to the ingenuity and playfulness visible throughout the Evans family business.
And while that particular "??!?!!" wasn't cancelled out by the supplementary reading provided by the Book Club's Quarterly News-Letter, I heartily impart this pro tip: Request a copy of John Crichton's lovely and informative essay to accompany your own Henry Evans, The Peregrine Press & The Porpoise Bookshop viewing experience.
'Henry Evans, The Peregrine Press & The Porpoise Bookshop' is on view at the Book Club of California (312 Sutter Street, Suite 500) through July 31. Details here.