The production room at Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress on Nov. 2. // Photo by MacKenzie Dexter
Hundreds of unique cards, prints and stationary bits are scattered throughout Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress in downtown Bellingham. Owners Carly James and Kevin Nelson spent the weekend preparing for the holiday season and their new releases. Their three dogs and an abundance of paper goods, ink and trinkets kept them company.
James began the business in 2004 with her husband Nelson in her early twenties. Before moving to their downtown location in 2015, James mainly did custom printing such as wedding invitations, business packages and greeting cards. She also worked in the print industry in her early twenties. This helped her realize she wanted to start her own business, even though she didn’t have a background on how to start a company.
“I was just driven to want to work for myself and start my own company,” James said. “So we didn’t know a lot when we started. We just knew that we wanted to have this print studio.”
In 2015, James and Nelson launched the retail side of their business and started collaborating with artists as well as taking a sustainable approach. James said they use compostable and recyclable materials, low impact cleaners for the press and minimal waste.
“Honestly, our planet is in a crisis right now,” James said. “And as far as printmaking goes, I mean, we have choices that we can make.”
Manufacturing businesses always involve some type of waste, but they try their best to minimize it, James said. Especially since they are in a community that appreciates sustainability along with the high quality, tangible products.
“People still want to hold something and touch something,” James said.
Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress’ primary focus is on their letter-pressed goods as well as their collaboration with local artists, such as Phoebe Wahl. Wahl is a freelance illustrator who sells her art through Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress as well as her own shop in Bellingham. Collaborating with Wahl has allowed both their businesses to grow.
“Through her we’ve been able to, grow our business and grow our businesses together,” James said.
Randy Walker, a featured artist, said small business not only provides local jobs, they pull the community together.
“Bison is one of those risk-takers,” Walker said. “They don’t make cards designed for mass audience appeal. They aren’t Hallmark. And they reach out to a wide range of local artists, giving their work exposure in the form of beautiful, quality letterpress.”
The shop gives direct support to creatives in the community while also providing an exciting shopping experience, said Brennan Commons, design student and Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress customer.
“Bison is a good example of a business which has a system in which it can support these local artists and help them as so many Bellingham residents have helped them get started,” Commons said.
The illustrations drawn by local artists are either scanned or drawn on a computer. However, their 1960s letter presses create their signature looks.
“We are kind of a blend of new technology and old technology,” James said.
At the moment, Nelson is the person to run the press, mix the ink and run the production side of the business.
“Kevin [Nelson] is back there mixing the inks, setting up each plate, one color at a time, running it through the press, cleaning it off, running it through again,” James said.
Nelson may spend days working on one print before it is complete. While the press was intimidating at first, Nelson taught himself how to run it through patience and trial and error.
“It is more labor intensive and there are cheaper cards and calendars out there, but that’s not really what we’re doing,” James said.
According to James, Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress is not striving to be the next big stationary brand. They enjoy being a small business and want to keep it that way through their minimal batches and their letter presses.
“These [the press] are the heart of the company and they’re really fun to work on,” Nelson said. “But if you’re surfing it as you go, you’re changing as the pile goes down, you’re changing the suction and the angle of things. And so you are always tweaking it as you run.”
The grooves and depressions in each card, notebook and poster are a signature staple in each Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress product. According to Nelson, it gives an antique touch to modern products.
“That’s something you can’t do on modern printing presses, which is why these printing presses still have a function for people who are tactical and like the feel of raised images,” Nelson said.
Recently, James enrolled in classes at Whatcom Community College and is hoping to get a degree in accounting so she can run the business more independently. James has also discovered how much she enjoys the bookkeeping side of a business and how it eases the stress of running a business.
“So for the past five years, I’ve taken over doing the bookkeeping for the business, and it was a surprise to me, but it’s something I’m really good at and it’s something that I actually enjoy,” James said.
Going to school and working full time can get busy, James said. When she was going to school as a younger student she struggled. She lost interest and decided she wanted to pursue her own career. However, being an older student, she appreciates the new topics she is learning.
“And so now that I’m older, I feel like it’s just a nice opportunity to learn about something I wouldn’t learn about otherwise,” James said.
As a business owner and a student, James it’s important for students to focus on school, especially when planning their own business.
“If you’re in school, just putting everything into that and getting as good as you can get before you make that next step is probably a good thing to do,” James said.