Supporters of New York City’s historic Bowne & Co. Stationers are rallying to save it, but against what appear to be very long odds.
The shop, a working replica of a 19th-century printing business, has been a living treasure to print enthusiasts since it opened in 1975 as a unit of the South Street Seaport Museum (now known as Seaport Museum of New York). But, the museum’s parent organization has fallen upon hard times, and on February 14 (Valentine’s Day), it closed the storefront at 211 Water Street in an abrupt move that stunned fans of the printing office and its extensive collections of antique types, type specimen books, and equipment.
The closure was part of an across-the-board cutback by the museum that furloughed 32 employees and cast the future of the entire museum complex—including its moored fleet of vintage ships—into doubt. As for the print shop, no one knows if or when it will reopen or what the ultimate fate of its holdings is to be.
Telephone calls to its listed number are forwarded to the museum’s main gift shop, where today, a representative told a caller that Bowne & Co. Stationers had been “closed momentarily due to temporary staff reassignments.” (He did mention that items formerly on sale at the printing office are available for purchase at the gift shop.)
Post-9/11 financial problems and conflicts that led to the resignations of one-third of the museum’s trustees have brought the institution to the brink of collapse. According to this report, the museum now is working with the City of New York to overhaul its leadership and move forward with a reorganization plan.
The plan has the backing of Save Our Seaport, an advocacy group that claims Bowne & Co. Stationers was “profitable” at the time it was shuttered. “Bowne Print shop, along with the Museum as a whole, was active and successful” when the boom was lowered, says a statement at the Save Our Seaport blog.
Those focusing on the fate of the print shop have banded together as Friends of Bowne, a group that includes the shop’s former master printer and other ex-employees and volunteers. Their blog reports participation in rallies and documents other work done to raise interest in saving the shop from extinction.
Bowne & Co. Stationers and its artifacts are “potentially at risk of disappearing altogether” if efforts on its behalf are unavailing, the group warns.
It is hard to overstate the loss that the shop’s disappearance would represent both to print history and to the cultural life of New York City. Bowne & Co. Stationers, founded in 1775 by New York business and civic leader Robert Bowne, is the ancestor of today’s Bowne & Co. Inc., the nation’s oldest publicly traded company.
For more than three and a half decades the shop, with its treadle-operated presses and its cases of handset types, educated thousands of visitors annually in the arts of printing from a bygone age. Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA Design Program at the School of Visual Arts, recounts its history and describes the richness of its typographical resources in this post for The Atlantic.
The campaign to save Bowne & Co. Stationers continues. Friends of Bowne has a Facebook page and can be followed on Twitter as @friendsofbowne. The group also is collecting endorsements at this online petition site and is accepting contributions via PayPal. A form letter to government officials (with recommended recipients) can be c&p’d here.