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October 23, 2012

The Charms of Thornwillow Press

Its boutique at Manhattan’s St. Regis offers hand-bound books, handmade paper, stationery and more.

For publisher Luke Ives Pontifell, cocktail hour begins at five o’clock on the dot. Or Negroni Hour, as he calls it. Today the hallowed Negroni is served to him on a silver tray by a waiter in Manhattan’s St. Regis, where Pontifell’s publishing house, Thornwillow, has an elegant, salon-style boutique, complete with wood-paneled walls and a fireplace. The scene appears to belong to another era: You half expect to see Pontifell—a bespectacled Harvard graduate with a penchant for bespoke three-piece suits—sitting with the hotel’s Gilded Age founder, John Jacob Astor IV. Instead, Pontifell’s companions usually include a who’s who of contemporary literati, from book agents to authors to magazine editors. Throughout each day, well-heeled customers stream into the salon, where they are assisted by a Thornwillow “librarian”—not a salesclerk—as they browse through the house’s leather-bound books and vintage curiosities. Especially popular: Thornwillow’s sumptuous stationery, handmade paper and witty note cards, which are practically love letters to the dying art of tactile communication.

Yet books have long been the heart and soul of Thornwillow, and an impressive roster of clients and institutions has long collected them, including the White House, the Vatican and the Smithsonian. Not a shabby operation for a publisher, now 43, who began his business at the precocious age of 16, handstitching books at his family’s kitchen table. Pontifell quickly proved a prodigy: His craftsmanship was so excellent that he was able to convince historian Arthur Schlesinger and news anchor Walter Cronkite to publish original works under the new Thornwillow banner.

“Cronkite’s book was beautiful, about the moon landing—the ultimate gesture of mankind to itself,” recalls Pontifell, who took his fledgling business along with him to Harvard, where he immersed himself in the Houghton Library, the university’s primary repository for rare books and manuscripts. He continued to bind and sell books throughout college: “My poor roommate was always stepping over boxes. By my senior year, there was a notion that this passion might be sustainable.”

Sustainable, indeed: Over the past two decades, Thornwillow has distinguished itself as one of the world’s finest and best-loved printers and publishers of limited-edition books, as well as a renowned engraver, stationer and general curator of library and desktop culture.

“Luke is a throwback to the days when printer, publisher, editor and bookseller were all the same person,” says Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, a Negroni Hour regular who collaborated with Pontifell on the latter’s “Libretto” series, a collection of short, stylish books inspired in part by volumes created by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Stein says that Pontifell has carved out a unique niche for himself: “For him the book—the material object—is as important as what’s written inside. At a time when books are melting away into abstraction, and when the high end of the book market is about selling electronic gizmos, Luke’s devotion to paper and ink and leather sets him apart.”

While other publishers are quietly (and not so quietly) fretting about the future of the book-as-object, Thornwillow is expanding. Pontifell has just opened a second salon boutique, at the St. Regis Washington, D.C. Thornwillow’s unique products are, of course, the main draw. Yet as one beholds Pontifell, resplendent in bow tie or black tie, depending on the evening, one gets the distinct impression that the publisher himself constitutes a strong part of the brand’s allure—as though we are in the presence of this generation’s Gutenberg or Woolf.

Pontifell may be out on the town each night, but he’s also an early riser. A little after 6:30 each morning, he boards a train to Beacon, then ferries across the Hudson to his press in Newburgh, a Hudson Valley river town about 90 minutes north of Manhattan.

Sergio Salazar, the head of production, picks Pontifell up, and in the stark morning light, they drive through the town’s quiet streets. Pontifell proves a knowledgeable tour guide, albeit a nostalgic one, as though he sees his surroundings through sepia-tinged glasses. There, on the left, is George Washington’s former headquarters, where the general conducted operations during the Revolutionary War. In the town’s center: a 35-acre park designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the masterminds behind Manhattan’s Central Park. On Broadway—the town’s main drag—stands the Ritz Theater, where Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Ella Fitzgerald and countless other luminaries once performed. “Newburgh was named an all-American city by Look magazine in the 1950s,” says Pontifell as the car goes down a street of Victorian mansions.

This may seem an appropriately historical backdrop for Thornwillow’s headquarters, except for one thing: Newburgh has become notorious as the murder capital of New York State. In recent years, the town of 29,000 inhabitants has become home to warring gangs, including the Bloods and the Latin Kings. By the late 2000s, Newburgh’s street corners had become venues for open-air drug deals. Watching Pontifell walk down the street with his tidy seersucker jacket, high-waisted trousers and a canvas bag with an amusing “L.I.P.” monogram, you have to wonder, What’s a nice guy doing in a place like this?

Yet Pontifell is tougher than he looks. After graduating from Harvard, he established his press operations in Prague in the early 1990s; the city was only just emerging from decades of Communism. Setting up shop in the Czech Republic had its benefits (“You had this mill where paper had been made uninterrupted for centuries, and where the skill of the work was celebrated,” Pontifell says), but he also had to contend with Mafia threats and rampant corruption. “Everything one hears about doing business in Eastern Europe is true—or worse,” he recalls grimly. Pontifell says he “lost everything” before finally returning to the States to make a fresh start. How he picked Newburgh as his new base of operations: “My wife put a compass on the map and drew a one-hour radius around our Upper West Side apartment.” When they found a complex of factory buildings up the street from George Washington’s headquarters, they felt they had found home at last.

Thus far, Thornwillow has enjoyed happy relations with the larger community. A quarter of the town’s inhabitants reportedly live below the poverty line; jobs are scarce. Many of the press’s 40 employees are locals. Instead of stacking boxes at a nearby Walmart, they handstitch leather book covers and learn centuries-old techniques of paper-painting.

“I bring in almost everyone here,” says Salazar, who is a longtime resident of Newburgh and a founding employee at Thornwillow’s Newburgh press. Salsa music plays in the background as he talks.“I encourage people by telling them, ‘This isn’t a job. This is a career. You have to be proud of what you’re doing. Someday, after we’re gone, this book will be in a library in the White House.’”

Not everyone works out: Many of the skills are difficult to learn. Pontifell is a fan of the “10,000 hours” theory, as in that’s how much hands-on experience one needs to excel at a craft. “It’s not easy,” he concedes. “You have to go through cycles of trial and error.” The rigorous training standards apply even to Pontifell’s quiet 13-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who has apprenticed at the press each summer for several years. (“Paste paper–making was my favorite part,” she says.)

All of Thornwillow’s stationery and books are printed on massive vintage presses that look, to the untrained eye, as if they might have once been operated by Benjamin Franklin. The oldest is actually from the 1890s; the newest dates to the 1970s. “I collect presses the way some people collect cars,” says Pontifell, who even owns a circa 1915 press that once belonged to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the great publisher that debuted works by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

With so much of his business built on preserving increasingly outmoded objects or rituals such as writing letters and thank-you notes, does Pontifell ever feel like Don Quixote?

“No,” he asserts emphatically. “This arguably obscure way of publishing ideas in a modern technological world is becoming more relevant as opposed to less. In this age, when you delete your correspondence and literally turn off your book, a handmade, beautifully crafted book becomes a powerful way of communicating.”

He is quick to point out that Thornwillow also has its hooks in modern times: “We combine ancient crafts that would have been familiar to Gutenberg with digital technologies.” The Thornwillow website boasts witty editorial items pertaining to Pontifell’s bookish world (including a delightful story about the miniature library contained in Queen Mary’s dollhouse).

Perhaps his greatest concession to modernity: This autumn, just in time for the holiday season, Thornwillow will debut a series of Medici-worthy iPad cases bound in Moroccan goatskin and cloth. On the spine of each case gleam gilded letters proclaiming “Liber Electronicus.”

And if there is one thing that will never fall out of style, says Pontifell, it is the culture of intelligence that Thornwillow embodies. After all, its ever-relevant motto dates back to ancient Rome: Ars Omnia Tuetur—“Art teaches all.”

Start the Press

Stationery Thornwillow takes the art of custom stationery very seriously, and its staff is happy to help you create a monogram. Also available: boxed stationery sets with charming images, place cards, even travel journals. From $25; all items can be found at thornwillow.com.

Calendars Much chicer than the Google calendar is Thornwillow’s vellum-paged, gilt-edged desktop version, which stands in a handsome golden easel. Each month bears a gold engraved design individually hand-printed by Thornwillow’s craftsmen. From $125.

Paper Using methods that date back to the Middle Ages, Thornwillow’s artisans create handmade paste paper by combing color into the surface. The result: a vibrant backdrop upon which to script a memorable love letter—or a decadent grocery list. From $25.

Books Hand-bound, limited-edition books make up the heart and soul of the Thornwillow operation. The house boasts an impressive roster of original publications by writers ranging from Walter Cronkite to Peter Matthiessen. From $40.

Printing a Piece of History

Sometime in early 1945, as the United States was secretly gearing up for a large-scale ground invasion of mainland Japan, the U.S. government commissioned my grandfather’s typesetting business, King Typographic Service Corporation, to create a series of leaflets that would soon be dropped over Japan, warning the soldiers to surrender in the presence of American soldiers. It was no coincidence that they chose my grandfather’s business, which was a large-scale company specializing in foreign-language typesetting, for this job. My father still remembers going up to his dad’s office as a little boy and seeing government agents, dressed in dark suits, monitoring the project as it was under way. The rest is history.

The business has long since been sold, and most of the materials are gone. My father, however, was able to retain one of the original Japanese-language printing plates that had been created for this job. It has remained a family heirloom, and an item of significant historical value, serving a singular purpose more than half a century ago, only to then find its way up to a lonely attic to collect dust—that is, until Luke Pontifell invited me to take the plate to Thornwillow, where he would bring it back to life.

One afternoon this past spring, Pontifell fired up an old Vandercook proof press, placed the plate in position and in one profound moment presented me with a hard copy of this leaflet that had first been printed more than 65 years ago in the final months of World War II. We printed it in a bright red ink, as that was how my dad remembered seeing it as a boy. As I boarded Metro-North later that day, heading back to New York with my souvenir in hand, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just gone back in time and was not only bringing home a piece of American history but a little piece of my family’s history as well. —Adam Bookbinder