By Melissa F. Pheterson, courtesy of University of Chicago Magazine
Photos by Adam Nadel

It’s production day at Crumpled Press headquarters. The editors—Jordan McIntyre, AB’99; Alexander Bick, AB’99; Aaron Tugendhaft, AB’99, AM’06; and Nicholas Jahr—convene on a January Saturday to churn out the press’s newest batch of Codex in Crisis, a 64-page treatise on book digitization by Princeton historian Anthony Grafton, AB’71, AM’72, PhD’75.

The scene at McIntyre’s Brooklyn loft is more craft circle than assembly line. A dozen workers, paid in cheese and pretzels, snip string and strips of glue, slice paper, fold covers ejected from an Epson printer, feed books into the drill press, and slide black thread into spines. The session wraps at 8 PM with 78 fresh books, each binder’s initials proudly scrawled in the colophon of his or her creation.

‘A Homespun Model’

“It’s like quilting,” says McIntyre, a graduate student at New York University. “It’s a homespun model that people miss.”

The brainchild of McIntyre and Bick, Crumpled Press publishes work by new authors and sets previously unpublished, notable lectures and articles into proper books—hand-sewn—on culture, politics, self-reflection, and poetry. “It’s original, thought-provoking work that might otherwise be tossed aside,” says Bick, who is pursuing a history PhD at Princeton. “Hence the name Crumpled Press.”

In the four years since the outfit’s birth, the editors have published nine titles—from a series of fictional voicemails placed on 9/11 to a meditation on Darwinian selection, sexuality, and fashion—priced from $5 to $25.

The press took shape in 2005 when McIntyre fished out from under his bed a series of poems he’d written for his undergraduate English thesis. “I figured I’d take the Whitmanian route and publish them myself,” he says of the collection, Still Leaves. Typesetting in Microsoft Word, he bound the poems in textured paper, and as a surprise his mother embroidered the cover with needlepoint leaves.

Today the four editors work with each author to create a book’s artisanal feel, reproducing journal sketches or deliberating fonts, flyleaves, and covers, to savor the printed-page aesthetic in an era of digitized technology.

‘We perish to publish’

The books have been sold on consignment and at stores like Hyde Park’s 57th Street Books, as well as online and at author events. The editors pour profits into operating capital, and they regard their labor as happily donated. Over the years the friends have fine-tuned their binding parties, phasing out such hazards as red wine—though sometimes a needle-poked finger can dribble blood onto the page, as with Tugendhaft’s copy of Codex. “We perish to publish,” he jokes.

In fact, Crumpled Press is flourishing. Although its first four publications sold only ten to 30 copies each, Codex’s sales have approached 400. Expanded from a 2007 New Yorker article, the book was first released in a limited edition of 250 copies, each hand-numbered with a letterpress cover and holding a fold-out color plate.

“The standard line is that digitization kills books,” says Bick. “I think it’s more accurate to say there’s a symbiosis. The Internet generates most of our sales. We use digital technology like laser printing to produce our books.” The press’s increased sales figures may owe a debt to its unique business model, as consumers are drawn to the books’ tactile richness. Says Bick: “Our success contradicts the idea that bookmaking no longer makes sense.”