Interview: John Reburn of Appalachia Press
Since the General Store opened in 2018, it's stocked the creative works of Appalachia Press. They make Letterpress Cards in Roanoke, Virginia. The following is an interview with the owner and printer John Reburn.
How did you get started in printing?
I have always been an artist. So, it was a natural progression of teen rebellion, music, and education that landed me my first job as a paste-up artist at a weekly magazine in Los Angeles. The daily grind of a newspaper was excellent training. It was pre-computer and graphic design was very hands-on: photography, typesetting, paste-up, and layout boards. By the time I struck out on my own I had made a niche for myself in L.A. with the entertainment industry designing promotional materials for theaters and live events, comedians and actors, logos and type treatments.
I moved my design studio into a very cool section of Hollywood and one of the neighboring businesses was a letterpress studio. We got along famously and I helped out, learned a lot about the card business, and retail. Years later when I was getting bored and restless of the business of graphic design I took print making at Otis College of Art and Design. And I was hooked. Less than a year later - I walked away from my design studio and became a full-time print maker. I specialized in portraiture and loved the simplicity of silk screen - all the flat patches and layers of color.
I was asked by my letterpress friend if I was interested in collaborating and that project took us to the New York Stationery Show with a line of letterpress and silk screened cards...and again I was hooked. It’s been 20 years and I still absolutely love what I do.
What’s the busiest time of the year?
The holidays are always busiest. But in the card business - that’s July. We press Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas/Hanukkah in July so it ships to retailers by August. Then our custom Holiday work kicks in and we design September and October and print every day through Christmas Eve.
Where do you find inspiration?
I am very hands-on with all aspects of my business. So that puts me on the road a lot. I find inspiration everywhere I go. Oddities, strange, and wonderful finds in antique and flea markets are gold. I am obsessed with vintage and antique...rust and decay, sun bleached and worn. I also have endless requests from our retailers and clients that keep me searching and looking for the next thing. It’s a life - not job. I am never not looking.
I heard you met Madonna?
Hahahahaha...as I have told my friends - when you live and work in Los Angeles you are never far from a celebrity. A quick trip to the grocery store was an adventure. Most nights out included a sighting. But thanks to my career path I got to work with and for some amazing people. While in my “events” phase there were lots of musical acts. In my “theater” phase there were all sorts of actors. There were incredible sports figures when we designed for their charity launches. When designing movie posters and DVD packaging there were some very high profile actors. And getting to go to movie premieres was a great bonus!
I may have dated a couple of interesting folks too. But you asked about Madonna so I will tell you about that.
All the while I was building my design business I also happen to have a small career as an actor and model. It’s perfectly normal in L.A. to have a career and an agent...just in case. I had many close calls to some roles that would have changed my life such as MTVs The Real World: Season 2. I think I dodged a bullet with that one. But I did get hired to do a super secret, major budget music video. When I went to the audition it was ego-adjusting to be in a room full of men who look exactly like you, down to the exact same haircut. The video was Madonna’s Express Yourself and it was an incredible day of watching professionals do what they do. I was one of a dozen shirtless guys who got rained on for 8 hours while we exercised and boxed. Fantastic! She was a total pro directing, dancing, and being in charge.
What type of media are you consuming? Is it for inspiration or relaxation?
Being self employed I don’t have a lot of spare time. I would much rather live it than watch it or read about it. With so many things to update on social media I am always looking for ways to keep current and promote the business. I am music obsessed. I have a massive library of albums, CDs, and downloads. So, music is on 20 hours a day - work, rest, and play. But, I am at an age when friends are writing and getting published so reading those are a must. For fun, I really love collecting and reading antique and out-dated books - medical and etiquette. And will totally admit that when folding cards (all by hand) I do LOVE a good documentary film.
What was the recent award from Martha Stewart?
I was asked to create a wedding save-the-date. The client set me free to create something worthy of two southern, food industry professionals. I redesigned the Duke’s Mayonnaise label to include their wedding details. We slapped them onto glass mayo jars and I dropped a white info card inside to look like a full jar. We then boxed and shipped a little over 125 of them. One of them landed in the hands of southern, celebrity chef Sean Brock and we got a lot of social media from it. But, it was a photograph from the wedding itself that landed in Martha Stewart Weddings that got the attention of MSL editors. Our mayo jar save-the-date was recognized as Top 10 of the year and the photo of our work was the lead photo in the magazine and online. Did I say that I love what I do?
What keeps you in Southwest Virginia?
It really is the same reason that brought me here. When I wanted to start my letterpress business and I needed to give myself the best possible foundation. I had family in the area and property was affordable. When you are laying into place a few antique presses that weigh a ton or more - owning is smarter than renting. Moving equipment is a major undertaking. I knew it would be a couple of years to establish our name and I needed a good head start. Roanoke had an airport, train station, and great access to roads north and south and best of all - NO other letterpress studio. So it worked and it continues to work.
How long did you run your shop in Roanoke?
I opened Appalachia Press as a retail shop in 2003. I have a separate studio where all the real work gets done. The retail store was a great proving ground for ideas and designs. I got to hear directly from customers the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was a valuable experience. I supported local artists, carried regional products, and introduced a few odd and wonderful things to the valley. I sat on boards, volunteered, and donated to local charities. We helped turn a rough and scrappy downtown market into a vibrant and popular tourist attraction. Closing the shop was not planned but we closed it in late 2016.
It seems like you work with your family; how has this shaped your work?
Back when we first opened I had my father helping with the presses and my mom in the shop and that allowed me the time to design and print. It was a great start to have free family labor and I could never thank them enough. It’s beyond words to have that kind of support and no one has your back like your parents. They have retired (for the umpteenth time) now. I have a pretty great system in place for sales, marketing, design, and printing with just me - the lone employee. But the way business has escalated over the last year...I’ll be needing help again.
How is it going JUST doing wholesale?
Closing the shop was unexpected but it has turned out the be the best thing. Going wholesale-only has been the smartest thing. I have even closed the door on custom work like wedding and personal stationery. Focusing on our card line and having the time to design, redesign, and sell has been the reason for our success. We pivoted to online, social media, and printed our first catalog...all before this messy, sad Covid19 year. We had everything in place and it has definitely paid off. We sell to over 130 retailers across the country. Through sales reps and sweat equity we have not only survived through the shutdown but we have thrived. I believe that being home bound has revived letter writing and I think it’s going to continue. It remind us of that connection that handwriting gives us. I have always believed in it.
Folks say that mail is dead but you seem to be growing? Why do you think folks still send cards vs a text or even Zoom?
I have been in the business long enough to witness trends and market changes. Even when e-mail hit the world - the business of letterpress stationery only got stronger. I have seen the middle drop away...but e-mail and handwritten notes on beautiful paper will always have a place. The idea of “card as gift” has taken hold. A lovely note card with a handwritten note IS a gift. And I think that is why it’s taken hold. Now, with all that said - I am also a designer. I am always looking for other venues for my work. I have recently signed on to a fantastic online company SendFluttr.com who digitally reproduce my artwork onto ah-mazing paper and print your personal note inside and mail it to whomever you wish. They launch in April...exciting. They’re a great mix of artists from all over the world.
Any other larger projects in the works?
As a designer I have had a long and varied career. I have always been fascinated by iconography and logos. I have had the opportunity to do logos for television shows, movies, Broadway shows, music festivals, celebrities, events, and non-profits. I was asked to give a talk to the creatives at Adobe in San Francisco. I packed up my tabletop presses and talked print making with some industry folks. We carved blocks and printed for an evening. It was brilliant but those opportunities are very rare. So, I continue to design logos and I enjoy that. Locally, I have created the looks for restaurants and stores, events, and shows. I am currently designing the logo and overall look for a new resort opening at Smith Mountain Lake, VA this summer.
Based upon your Instagram, it seems like you are always traveling to deliver cards or printing. Do you ever catch some free time? If so, what hobbies might you have?
I have always considered myself lucky that I love what I do for a living. So, I don’t feel like I have a job. I have never been a 9-5er. I get up every day and look forward to what I have to accomplish. I work every day until I am exhausted. That’s when I stop. Now, in between I enjoy some amazing food and I’m known to have fun wherever I go. And being on the road selling and delivering puts me in some interesting towns with great restaurants and I meet wonderful people. I have made friends all over the country thanks to design and letterpress. Travel IS my hobby. And design, food, cocktails, and people are highly enjoyable.
John's cards are available daily for in-store purchases