The Biz: True to type

When I first walk into Mark Olson's small River Arts District print shop (191 Lyman St.), it’s hard to tell whether anybody’s home. Steel cabinets and old wooden tables fill the cramped space, and stacks of handmade papers, party invitations and greeting cards cover every available surface. A comforting smell of machine oil hangs lightly in the air; off to one side sits an antiquated press.

There’s something oddly familiar about the place, though the same can’t be said for the shop's peculiar name: Innerer Klang.

In the corner, a bright-eyed, pleasant-looking man with a shock of grey hair looks up from his ancient desk and says hello, smiling shyly. Neither he nor his surroundings appear much accustomed to receiving guests; I have to thread a maze to get to him, circumventing a motorized wheelchair that’s easily the newest piece of equipment in evidence.

"A lot of people will come and say, ‘My dad used to do this. … My grandfather used to do this,’" Olson reveals. "They stand there and breathe in the smell of it."

Turns out his shop’s odd name is a German phrase coined by Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky. Roughly translating as “inner sound,” it describes art’s ability to express a transcendent reality.

That idea appealed to Olson when he began printing books of poetry in the mid-’70s. He’d arrived in the Northeast from a small town in Indiana after hitchhiking to San Francisco and back, playing in bands and crashing on couches. In Boston, he took up the craft he’s now a master of.

The oldest form of printing, letterpress involves hand-setting tiny, reusable pieces of raised type into frames, after which they’re inked and pressed into paper, creating one-of-a-kind pieces.

By making it possible to mass-produce written materials, the printing press dramatically expanded the breadth of human knowledge and culture. And with a few technological refinements, it remained the principal means of widely disseminating information for nearly 500 years.

In the 20th century, electronic media started making inroads, and by the 1960s, offset printing had rendered letterpress largely obsolete. Cheaper, faster and more flexible, offset (which transfers an image from a photographic plate first onto a rubber “blanket” and then onto paper) is how virtually everything is printed today.

"The speed and efficiency of offset printing compared to the man-hours and intense labor of letterpress … letterpress didn't stand a chance," Olson observes wistfully. "In an economy that's geared for faster, more, quicker, better … if you didn't keep up, you were a dinosaur: You were gone."

Yet that's exactly when Olson jumped in. And as printing houses converted, old letterpress machines were being tossed out or sold on the cheap. "I bought my first press for a case of beer," he recalls.

For the next decade, Olson worked day jobs while producing his own work at night. Apprenticing here and there, he perfected his craft while amassing a substantial portfolio of finely printed volumes.

But that all changed irrevocably in 1990, when Olson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and his condition has progressively worsened since then. Able to walk unassisted for the first 10 years, he now needs two canes to help him navigate the shop. "There are plenty of things to grab on to. People ask why I have such narrow passageways: It's easier for me to get around."

Occasionally, he'll fall. "It can take me 20 minutes to get off the floor," he reveals with a laugh. "That's MS; that's where I'm at with it. Eventually, I may end up where I can't do it at all. MS is the screwiest disease, because it can affect you almost not at all or it can completely decimate you, until you're basically unable to move or end up in a wheelchair."

And though the disease has slowed him down — he uses a magnifying glass to set type and proof his work — Olson remains driven by a deep love of what he does.

After traveling around the South, he and his then wife decided to move here in 2004. The ice-cold Boston winters were taking an ever harder toll on Olson, not to mention a commute that sometimes lasted two hours or more.

Asheville, however, was love at first sight, and after picking out a house in Black Mountain and finding studio space, they spent the next several months packing and pulling off the big move. The new shop opened its doors in late August, and mere weeks later, Hurricane Frances blew in.

"It rained and rained and rained some more," Olson recalls. Unable to reach his shop, he drove to a view spot across the river and realized the entire building was underwater.

The roads stayed closed for more than a week, and the receding waters left a 6-inch layer of river muck. Everything had to be taken out and painstakingly cleaned, including hundreds of galleys (metal trays containing thousands of individual pieces of type, some as slim as a quarter) and 30 years’ worth of plates. Traces of rust still remain from that fateful day.

Olson's lack of flood insurance was bad enough (he never imagined he'd need it in the mountains), but even worse was the loss of his life’s work — boxes and boxes of irreplaceable printed pieces, including dozens of lovingly crafted books.

Some items on the higher shelves were spared, though, and after rifling through a stack of papers, Olson comes up with a volume of poetry — his own — titled Innerer Klang. It was printed 30 years ago on the very same press that’s still sitting in the corner. I handle it gingerly.

We're both quiet for a moment. I am humbled by his strength but even more so by his unflinching dedication to this ancient art in the face of such adversity. Call it his innerer klang.

— Direct your business news to Michael Muller (251-1333, ext. 154) or to


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