Deep in the basement of City College’s Mission campus is a realm of anachronisms, perpetual motion, and anachronisms in perpetual motion. Here, in the form of American Type Founders Chief 15 and 17 printers — squat devices in dull, industrial hues of blue and green unseen in America for the past 50 years and resembling the archaic technology of the sort Kim Jong-Un is frequently photographed admiring — lies our city’s past.  

Our Virgil in this strange underworld is Johanna Rudolf, who is, herself, an anachronism in perpetual motion.

Rudolf, 66, talks fast and works faster. The city native and CCSF printing services maven bounces from press to archaic printing press, telling us about life, the universe, and everything — and, all the while, she’s loading, stacking, collating, drilling, cutting. It’s the cutting that gets our attention; with the speed and precision that can only come via decades of expertise, Rudolf is rapidly programming and feeding stacks of books and posters into a machine called the guillotine cutter — which does exactly what the name implies.

Again and again, Rudolf shaves cuts of one-eighth of an inch — or less — off the edge of hundreds of booklets and postcards at a time. The guillotine blade drops with a high-pitched and strangely satisfying noise resembling a record scratch, and confetti shards scatter across the feed tray; Rudolf rapidly collects and disposes of them and just as quickly reprograms and reloads the machine. This is an aptly named device and the slightest error could result in earning the new nickname of “Lefty,” but Rudolf is not one for mistakes.

You don’t say. Photo by Liliana Michelena.

It’s loud down here. There’s an odor of cold metal machinery and lubricating oil and ink and cut paper. Rudolf has been breathing this in for most of her life (along with other, less savory elements, like lead and industrial chemicals). “It smells soooooo good in here,” she says while perambulating around the room. With the exception of an interlude as a Xerox repairwoman, she’s been working in print shops, mostly in this city, for damn near 50 years. And, improbably, she still is.

“I love it. I love the ink. I love it all,” she says, not missing a beat as the guillotine blade drops and scads of severed tips bursts into the air. “All of SoMa used to be a print shop. Oh, it was great. We were open all night — three shifts!”

SoMa, readers will note, is no longer a repository of print shops or blue-collar jobs or the watering holes for industrial workers warming up before or cooling down after one of those three shifts. Things happened — San Francisco happened. Print gave way to digital. And now the print shops have died and their innards have been donated. They reside here in the basement.

There used to be three shifts of classes down here every night, too. But those days are also done with; nobody wants to learn how to use these industrial devices anymore, either.

Upstairs, the work of this City College department, like this city itself, has become more twee, artisanal — and expensive. Down here, it’s aging anachronisms — functional, but out of place.

This is a divide city residents know all too well.

The letterpress printing devices upstairs here at the Mission campus resemble hybrids of Shaker furniture and exercise bikes and hail from perhaps the 1930s. Some of these presses and the handsome, wood-paneled drawers in which the scads of blocks emblazoned with letters, numbers, and punctuation are stored hail from Lincoln High School. So does Johanna Rudolf, for that matter.

It turns out you used to be able to take letterpress printing at San Francisco high schools. If you were a boy. “Girls had to take home economics,” Rudolf recalls.  

It’s uncertain how much home ec helped Rudolf in her lifetime in print shops; when she gave birth to her first child 16 years ago, she promptly toted her into the shop as an infant and kept her in a cardboard box next to the machines. “All the stuff they tell you you need as a new parent,” Rudolf notes over the print shop din, “You don’t really need.”

If the LBJ-era offset printers in the basement represent this city’s past, the letterpress devices up here represent its deep past. But, strangely, also its future. “That is pretty much where printing is going now,” affirms Nathan Atkinson, 65, the chair of CCSF’s visual media design department and, like Rudolf, a lifelong printer. “There aren’t jobs per se, but there is a cottage industry in letterpress printing.”

Those ornate greeting cards selling for six to 10 bucks a pop? That’s letterpress printing — something more closely related to what Johannes Gutenberg’s first job than Johanna Rudolf’s. This, Atkinson and Rudolf confirm, is what CCSF students now want to do (as well as, of course, learn Photoshop and InDesign).

This department is something of a lifeboat; Rudolf and Atkinson both ended up here after San Francisco’s print business imploded, toiling in one of the few remaining shops in the city.

The fate of this city’s local print industry is almost archetypical of all of its local industries: Things have never been better for its local consumers while more dire for its local producers. Nowadays, people or businesses in need of small numbers of quick and cheaply produced business cards or fliers or posters have never been able to get what they want as quickly and cheaply. And, in fact, they can get better stuff than in the past — glossy, all-color — quicker and cheaper.

The American Type Founders “Chief” 15 and 17 printers come in colors unseen in the United States for 50 years, and resemble the archaic technology ogled over by Kim Jong-Un. Photo by Liliana Michelena.

But that innovation was the nail in the coffin for the small city printers remaining after a rash of defections to cheaper, less taxed and regulated states — and consolidations among remaining local outfits. Print runs and profit margins became smaller while the buy-in and equipment costs became greater. What’s more, consolidated outfits could shunt jobs to shops up and down the west coast, working quicker and cheaper than any single local printer.

That’s why, at CCSF, printing is a subsidiary of the design department and not vice-versa.

That’s why students are here at CCSF desperately learning visual design on nights and weekends — unlike Rudolf, who was courted by this city’s native corporations out of high school.

“All of the city’s big companies would come to us and hire us,” she recalls, her hands always moving as she works the guillotine. “PG&E would come to one high school. Bank of America would be at another. All the unions. You didn’t have to go to college.”

But now you do. In fact, the printing work she’s doing helps subsidize the college’s visual media department; on this day Rudolf was printing, cutting, and binding cookbooks created by workers at a local preschool (one page left on the ATF Chief 15 printer instructed readers on how to boil water to make a pot of tea), a pamphlet highlighting a leadership ceremony at a Filipino-American society, and any number of in-house CCSF publications. The profits earned down here in the basement pay for the machines and classes taught upstairs.

But there was a time when print shops’ profits went somewhere else.

“All of Harrison Street was a print shop and all the bars were filled with people who worked in print shops,” Rudolf says. “People in print shops,” she explains, “drink a lot.”

Better alter the printing on that one. Drank. Past tense.

Rudolf shakes her heads. The lead got ‘em. The chemicals got ‘em. The booze got ‘em. Time got ‘em. San Francisco got ‘em. “All of my peeps,” she says, “are dead.”

If you have printing needs, you could do worse than e-mailing Johanna Rudolf: digiprnt at ccsf.edu. Or try calling her at (415) 920-6045.