Godine, who speaks quickly, with traces of a Boston accent, can get carried away when it comes to books, talking about printers the way other people talk about movie stars. He also likes to mention fonts – Bembo, Baskerville, Garamond, Caslon and Janson are common – and the names of nice papers: Amalfi, Fabriano, Nideggen.
“It’s an obsession,” he said, explaining that it started when he was in college, in Dartmouth in the 1960s, taking a course with a professor named Ray Nash, who studied graphic arts and the history of taught the art of printing. That was also when he fell in love with letterpress – the old-fashioned art of pressing paper so firmly onto inked metal type that the letters leave tiny dents.
Godine actually started his career as a printer, not a publisher. After college, he was apprenticed to the sculptor and engraver Leonard Baskin, who also had a printing business in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1970, Godine and two partners opened her own shop in an abandoned cowshed in Brookline. The company did letterpress, hand-lettering and printing wedding invitations, birth announcements, Harvard and Wellesley degrees.
Gradually, his business branched out into pamphlets and pamphlets—reprints of Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden,” for example, and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”—and from there into books. Judging by the descriptions in ‘Godine at Fifty’, some of these early attempts were on the verge of madness – fine printing for the sake of fine printing. For example, there was an edition of Thomas Boreman’s “Moral Reflections on the Short Life of the Ephemeron,” which featured meticulous, hand-colored etchings of mayflies.
“You could say some of those books were ‘private’ rather than ‘published,'” Godine said with a laugh. “But it was never my intention to just become a fancy printer or hobbyist. I thought we should be a company. Not that I knew about business first.” He shook his head and told a story also found in “Godine at Fifty”: At one point, Godine’s father, learning that his son’s company had never filed a tax return, sent his own accountant to check things out. The accountant asked if he could look at the books, and Godine said of course, pointing to the printed books on the shelves. All he had in financial records was a few checkbooks that hadn’t been balanced for years.
At the time, Godine had a trust fund that he could call on in an emergency—until it ran out. And his timing was lucky. “This was right after Sputnik,” he explained, “and for some reason the government thought the way to lure us even with the Russians was to give the libraries a lot of money. So we could publish anything, even the worst poetry in the world, and still sell 500 copies.”