Love Letters: Union Press Puts its Stamp on Somerville

It was while Eli Epstein was studying graphic design at Northeastern University that he discovered he preferred working with his hands to sitting at a desk all day.

“I realized I didn’t want to work with a computer ever,” said Epstein, at right. So he got an internship at the famed Hatch Show Print in Nashville (it’s one of the oldest working letterpress shops in the U.S.) and after three months Epstein knew he had found his true calling. “It was long enough to know what I wanted to do.”

Upon returning to Boston, Epstein took a letterpress class at Mass Art with Keith Cross where he learned about a space at 440 Somerville Ave. that Cross had previously rented that was full of letterpress equipment. Both the office and gear are owned by Kimo Griggs, an architect, who either wanted to sell or rent it and was happy to have Epstein as its new steward.

“I was at the right place at the right time,” Epstein said of meeting Cross and then Griggs. After spending a few months getting the space and equipment organized and cleaned up, Epstein opened his own letterpress shop, Union Press, in 2010 with a friend who has since left to pursue other creative outlets.

Epstein was living in Jamaica Plain at the time, but found biking back and forth to Somerville every day tedious so he moved to the Spring Hill area.

“I’ve been in and around Boston since 2005 and I feel most comfortable here,” Epstein said of living and working in Somerville. The historic building Epstein works out of has surely enhanced that feeling. The equipment he uses was originally employed by the city of Somerville to do its printing.

All of Epstein’s work has come to him through word of mouth since he opened his doors in 2010 and much of it originates in the Boston area, and even more specifically in Somerville. He has designed and printed the coveted Union Square Farmers Market poster for the last three seasons, with 2012’s selling out long before the season ends.

“I’m always thrilled to do local work,” Epstein said.

Epstein also recently finished a project in collaboration with Magpie (416 Highland Ave.) that shouts Somerville spirit with its reference to several beloved squares. It is available exclusively at Magpie or on the Union Press website.

While Epstein does art prints, business cards and wedding invitations, the projects he most enjoys are concert posters.

“That’s the work that’s most rewarding,” Epstein said. “The clients are open to whatever you want to do. The recipient has the most to be excited about.”

Concert posters are the perfect venue for Epstein to employ the large collection of wood (and lead) type and the hand-cut wood or linoleum blocks he creates. All of Union Press’ work is done by hand and Epstein works to keep the letterpress printing process as traditional as possible.

“I spend a lot of time wishing I had four hands,” Epstein said. “I like to do all of the steps involved in the process.”

Another thing Epstein is passionate about is education. He’s hosted several classes at his workspace and plans to do much more of this now that’s expanded into the next, much larger, room.

“I’d really like to do that on a more regular basis,” Epstein said. And while the classes have just covered the basics so far, Epstein plans to delve into more intermediate and advanced letterpress techniques now that he has more space.

In addition to teaching classes at Union Press, Epstein also takes his letterpress skills on the road. He’ll soon be at the Argenziano School (290 Washington St.) doing a letterpress demonstration for the students there.

And if you’d like to see Epstein in action, he’ll be at the Union Square Farmers Market with a small press on November 10.

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