X and Why

The San Francisco Center for the Book at 10

When Mary Austin's boyfriend proposed to her, he letterpress-printed his question on a papyrus card. She didn't answer him right away; in fact, her immediate response was, "Thank you." Austin, co-founder of the San Francisco Center for the Book, had been printing since she was 14, and knew that this moment called for a special kind of reply. It took her five months, but she printed 101 small cards with the word "yes" on each — "yes" with the letters placed backward so that it read "sey sey sey"; "yes" over and over until the words formed a graphic pattern; "yes" in foreign languages — and hid them all over the house she shared with her guy, Brewster Kahle. "The next morning," she writes in her explanation of the 101 Ways to Say "Yes" display, "Brewster awoke to a sea of yes cards." At first she heard him exclaiming "Yippee!" as he found them, but then he asked her, with just a hint of touché, "What was the question?"

The affirmation, passion, and playfulness of that story encompass the SFCB better than any other tale that comes to mind. The center, near as I can tell, is all about saying "yes" — Yesyou can make a book with your own hands; yes you can call it a book even if no one can read it; yes you can make a print by driving over a sheet of paper with a steamroller. The people there are artists of a most enthusiastic stripe: They want you to know exactly how they do what they do, and they encourage you to try it yourself. And, hell, have a great time while you're at it.

Austin and her friend Kathleen Burch founded the nonprofit San Francisco Center for the Book 10 years ago, and now they're celebrating its first decade with a whole series of events, including an exhibition, all under the title "X Libris." The show is a glorious revelation of what the center does best: bring together history, art, and literature in a way that's so much more than a lesson. With this exhibit the SFCB christens its Austin/Burch Gallery, providing a chronicle not only of the center itself, but also of the book arts — book making and bookbinding, papermaking, calligraphy, letterpress printing, and related activities — in the Bay Area and around the world. Walking through "X Libris" is like reading a really good book: You don't want it to end, but you have to know where it all leads.

It's appropriate that an exhibit for a 10th anniversary is divided into 10 parts. "X Libris," even when it's demanding, is always sharp.

What the center is calling its "new" gallery is, near as I could tell, the same space in which it has held every show since it moved into its current digs in 2002 (around the corner from its first space). You enter a funky blue building from 16th Street in Potrero Hill and find yourself in an enormous whitewashed room, filled on the right with huge printing presses and other machinery, and on the left with a carpeted space for small shows. This exhibit is better organized and documented than some others I've seen at SFCB, and I'm grateful for that; I don't like to wonder what I'm looking at and why.

"X Libris" begins with a pert little tutorial. Part I is called "Many Blessings," and consists entirely of a printed scroll from Japan made between 764 and 770 A.D. (By way of comparison, Johann Gutenberg produced his first movable-type printing press in 1447.) Though the scroll was printed in a run of 1 million copies, few remain extant. The lesson: Ubiquity does not guarantee permanence. Take that, Britney.

Part II, "Community," is just a list of the 15,000 people who are "part of the Center's history," printed on pages affixed to low walls. The names aren't alphabetized, so you can't easily see if your name is there (yeah, I looked; I've taken two classes there). And given that the SFCB has been offering classes, exhibits, events, equipment, retail space, and community for all that time, I'm surprised there aren't more names.

Then comes Part III, "Novel on the Wall," an odd reprise of the center's first exhibit ever, which transforms a storage room (well, not quite: There were still a broom and a cardboard box leaning against a wall and an iron sitting on a desk) into a book you can walk through. A Girl A Guy A Landscapeis more a series of impressions, descriptive passages with no narrative; it's the weakest link in the show.

The next two parts are personal projects by the center's founders. Part IV, "Reading the Cards," explains and displays a 1990 title by Kathleen Burch called Indicia ... a Romance, while Part V ("Yes I Will") is a selection of Mary Austin's "Yes" cards. The next bit ("Cheap Art," Part VI) is also personal, though of a different sort: a small presentation of various editions of a book that inspired Austin and Burch, St. Francis Preaches to the Birds by Claire Van Vliet. In a pocket on the pedestal below it are copies of the "Cheap Art manifesto," which begins, "PEOPLE have been THINKING too long that ART is a PRIVILEGE of the MUSEUMS & the RICH. ART IS NOT BUSINESS!" It is business, of course, but that doesn't preclude it from also being accessible. Witness the center itself.

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