Soon, Googlistas could roam a building that once served the Black Panthers, police officers, underground cartoonists, sexually open swingers and many more. Luring all these groups to one location was the promise of professionally printed pages from a massive off-set printing press run for 51 years by the Howard Quinn Printing Company.
The family-owned company operated at 298 Alabama Street from 1961 until it closed in 2012. Although The Financial Times reported that Google plans to create office space there, its future tenant remains unconfirmed. A spokeswoman for Google said the company does not comment on rumors. A real estate source who does commercial leases said the building sold in January and that there have been talks between Google and the new owners.
Regardless of who lands there, they will become part of a building that reflects the changing currents of San Francisco’s history.
A union shop, Howard Quinn’s presses produced both impassioned calls to fight the police in newsletters from the Black Panthers as well as updates for police officers in newsletters of a different sort by the San Francisco Police Officer Associations. Last Gasp Publishing used Howard Quinn to print underground comics by R. Crumb while the Nob Hill Gazette used it to report on the soirees of the city’s well-to-do. The Spectator Magazine printed news for sex workers just as The Catholic Monitor printed there to keep San Francisco Archdiocese parishioners informed.
“We didn’t have problems with anybody,” said Indar Prasad, one of Howard Quinn’s three managers from 1973 until it closed. “They paid, we printed.”
This democratic attitude meant that in the 1960s and 70s, the press became known as a reliable place for politically radical groups — its thunderous printing machines always friendly to any cause.
“They were a foundation of the progressive printing community, in the city and the Bay Area,” said Hilton Obenzinger, who was a member of the San Francisco Printing Cooperative, an organization that included numerous progressive groups and organizations that ran a smaller print shop at 968 Valencia.
“Whenever you find an alternative newspaper, it’s very likely they went through Howard Quinn — they were community located, they didn’t censor, there was no obstacles when you printed there,” said Obenzinger, who is now a professor at Stanford University. “It was also a terrific looking place, with all this great, big machinery.”
Freedom of the Press
The underground newspaper The Berkeley Barb reported from the front lines of the counterculture and the Free Speech Movement. The newspaper of the socialist-leaning Union of Democratic Filipinos, Ang Katipunan, published essays criticizing the U.S. government for its support of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The San Francisco Print Cooperative ran articles supporting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the American Indian Movement and the National Farm Workers Association. Coming Up!, which eventually became the San Francisco Bay Times, was a pioneering LGBT newspaper advocating gay rights.
All of them printed at Howard Quinn at one point.
“It was our way to get our voice out,” said Elaine Elinson, a former editor-in-chief of ACLU News, which also made use of Howard Quinn. “It was a place where you knew you weren’t going to get turned away because of what was in the paper. It was absolutely crucial that we knew what we wrote would get printed, that it would look good and get sent out.”
For various groups, their voice got out far and wide. According to Obenzinger, a set of pamphlets criticizing the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, printed in Farsi at Howard Quinn made it to Tehran, in the luggage of visiting Iranian students. Obenzinger believes these mostly secular students did not fair well after the Revolution in 1979, in part, because of the progressive materials they had imported from San Francisco.
Of course, Howard Quinn printed much more than just prose to incite revolutions during its operation.
“It was a kind of fun place,” said Lois Lehrman, publisher of the Nob Hill Gazette, which printed at Howard Quinn in the 70s and 80s. “We always had pictures of high society events and all the guys on the printing floor would always look for pictures of this one lady who had a great build….they’d all be disappointed when she wouldn’t show up!”
The press provided for many startup publications with a neighborhood focus. In its early days in the 1960s, the San Francisco Bay Guardian used Howard Quinn to print. In the Mission, El Tecolote‘s neighborhood news printed in Spanish and English hit the presses at Howard Quinn. Neighborhood papers like The Potrero View, SF State’s The Guardsmen, and the Bay View Reporter, all reported on their various communities and used Howard Quinn to produce their papers.
“The Gazette would come off the press one day, and the Tenderloin Times would come off the next day,” Lehrman said. “That’s the range they were dealing with.”
Howard Quinn’s Last Days
Machine Made Family
Originally a mattress factory built in 1923, printer Howard Quinn took over the building and started Howard Quinn Printing Company with his business partner Robert Winkelstein in 1961. After Quinn died in the late 70s, Winkelstein’s daughter Lori Lusted as well as managers Craig Wold and Indar Prasad took over the business’s operation. In addition to providing printing services to numerous groups, the press provided a close-knit workplace for the pressmen who spilt ink there over the years.
“We were like a family,” Prasad said. “It was sad, very sad when we closed.”
“There’s a really tight, close relationship between presses and pressmen, they know all the idiosyncrasies,” said Sean Dana, a photographer who created a multimedia project documenting Howard Quinn’s last days in 2012. “They knew the machines better than their own wives at times.”
“I liked working there because of the people that worked there…they were all nice and helpful, we kept an eye on each other,” said Michael Saverio, who got a job as a pressman for Howard Quinn when he first immigrated to San Francisco in 1978 from Fiji. “We had workers from all different races, we had Chinese, we had white people, we had black people,” he added.
For Saverio, working at Howard Quinn as a recent immigrant was an education in the range of people and perspectives in the United States.
“We didn’t have any Playboy magazines in Fiji, when I came in 77 there was no TV as well….it was eye-opening to see how open this place was,” he said of a community of clients that included lifestyle magazines for the underground hip-hop community and swingers.
For former press foreman Terry Scroggins, who came from a family of printers and worked at Howard Quinn from 1973 until it closed, the radical papers were not always to his taste.
“Some of the political stuff I didn’t like, things that were pretty radical, the anti-government stuff I didn’t like, but it wasn’t my place, we were just there to print it,” Scroggins said.
For the progressives and radicals, the friendliness and professionalism of the staff was much appreciated.
“The people at Howard Quinn were always so helpful and so smart,” said Elinson, who explained that every year the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s San Francisco office received Christmas chocolates from the neighborhood printer.
New Tech, Old Home
“I was watching the news on TV, and they showed a small corner in the background and I was like, that’s my building….I recognized it immediately,” Scroggins said, about seeing the recent news that Google may occupy the former home of Howard Quinn.
“I’m surprised to see Google taking it over, that was quite a shock,” he said. “I’m glad to see the building’s getting used though.”
According to Scroggins, Howard Quinn had to close in 2012 because they simply didn’t have enough clients due to many papers turning into online-only publications or using web-based printing alternatives.
“We closed on October 19, 2012 and were printing to the last minute,” Saverio said. “I cried the last day of work….After so many years, I could close my eyes and do my work.”
“Everything went online and there were a lot of non-union printing shops taking over,” Prasad said. “We couldn’t bid low enough to keep our union shop running.”
Scroggins put it simply: “Computers put us out of business.”
Despite the rise of new technology that took clients away from Howard Quinn, the fact that a giant internet company may occupy the site of the defunct press isn’t so much a sad irony as it is a meaningful continuation.
“It’s good to see somebody else important move in,” Prasad said. “It feels great, somebody good should go in….[Google] is a good company, a big name.”
“It’s kind of appropriate in some ways,” Sean Dana said. “That’s San Francisco, technology marches on.”