04 July 2008

An accidental tourist bids farewell to Lehigh Press

Graphic Arts Online reports that Visant Corporation will close its Lehigh Press plant in Pennsauken, New Jersey. American print shops close at the rate of about three a day, but every one was a place where real people did real work, and every one has stories to tell. Here's one about Lehigh Press.

When I was head of a textbook design team at D.C. Heath, a favorite part of my job was to go on press OKs. I loved the noise and smell of the presses (I still do), and the urgency and finality of knowing that, after months of planning and revising, in a few days I'd hold a real live book in my hand.
Lehigh Press's specialty was book covers and jackets. They catered to publishers' demand for bells and whistles: Glossy and matte coatings (or both together), embossing, foil stamping, even holographic effects. The man who represented them to D.C. Heath, Bruce Kissell, wasn't a traditional salesman, he was a consultant. He spent as much time with the designers as he did with the print buyers, collaborating on innovative visual effects.
For press OKs at Lehigh, I used to catch an early flight from Boston to Philadelphia, and return the same day. They would send a driver to pick me up at the airport, always the same guy: An old man in a high-mileage stretched-out Lincoln. I would sit in the cavernous passenger area, surrounded by the empty champagne glasses, dried-out corsages, and cigarette butts left by his last night's fare. I'd roll down the glass partition that separated me from the driver's seat, and he'd tell me his troubles, mostly about his family: This one's in jail, that one's husband left her, another one's an alcoholic.
I took that ride one morning in February 1996, and I had my own troubles to tell the limo guy. D.C. Heath had been sold, and about half of us were getting laid off. I had not quite two weeks left.
By the time we got to Pennsauken, it was starting to snow. As usual, the Lehigh folks didn't take long to get the color right where I wanted it, and I called for the limo, hoping I wouldn't miss my return flight. Drivers in the Mid-Atlantic turn helpless with fear when it snows, so even minor storms can cause gridlock. But I underestimated the storm. It wasn't a gridlock-causing storm, it was an airport-closing storm. After a couple of hours on the runway, they took us back to the terminal, no flights 'til tomorrow morning.
I had come down for the day, didn't even have a toothbrush, and all the hotels near the airport were sold out already. Pre-Internet, pre-cell-phone, I was screwed. Grasping at straws, I called a Boston colleague who took frequent business trips to Philly, and he recommended a downtown B&B. I found a shuttle van from the airport, and hoped for the best.
I got more than I hoped for. Despite being a Society Hill landmark dating to 1769, the Thomas Bond House was much cheaper than the airport hotels. I got there in time for the free wine and cheese they serve every evening, and as I prepared to drown my sorrows, another guest offered me her ticket for that night's concert at the Academy of Music, a dozen blocks away. The seat was in a remote balcony, but the snow had kept most of the audience home, so at the first break in the program I parked myself in a cushy orchestra seat to enjoy the rest of the show.
Next morning, the sun came out and I flew home, a happy accidental tourist. Goodbye, Lehigh Press, and thank you for luring me into that bit of serendipity.

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