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Before I begin my review of Hatch Show Print: The History of a Great American Poster Shop, I should acknowledge that I can’t be fully objective about its subject, a print shop in Nashville that has made concert and event posters for the past 122 years.
As I prepared to make my first visit to Nashville, in December 1996, an acquaintance urged me to seek out Hatch Show Print and its manager, Jim Sherraden. So I did—and the advice paid off handsomely. Over the course of my rather brief visit, Sherraden proceeded to do several nice things for me. One was to locate the wand used by my great uncle Horace Goldin during his celebrated magic career of the ’10s and ’20s. The other involved a celebrity of more recent vintage: Bruce Springsteen.
On that visit, I became covetous of a poster the shop had just made for a Springsteen concert at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium. Being a big fan of the Boss, I asked if I could buy one. With downcast eyes, Sherraden said that “Bruce” had specifically prohibited Hatch from selling any copies to the public. Then, without missing a beat, he brightened. “But,” he continued, “he didn’t say we couldn’t give them away.”
The poster hangs on my wall to this day. It’s also, to my great pride, reproduced on Page 146 of Hatch Show Print, a volume co-authored by Sherraden that traces the history of a quirky, endearing American institution.
Hatch Show Print was founded in 1879; appropriately enough, for a city known as a hub of both Bible publishing and drunken, homicidal honky-tonkers, the company was established by the sons of the Rev. William T. Hatch. During its first few decades, Hatch did a growing business of printing posters for circuses, fairs, movies, and minstrel shows. Depression-era photographer Walker Evans captured several Hatch posters during his travels through the South.
The increasing popularity of country music in the ’30s, ’40s, and early ’50s—the era of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and Hank Williams—presented Hatch with a run of good business. So did the rebellious, teen-fueled early days of rock ‘n’ roll, which saw the rise of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis. A 1956 photograph in Life magazine, for instance, featured the Rev. Robert Gray of Jacksonville, Fla., angrily waving a Hatch-made poster that announced a local Elvis Presley concert, thus succinctly encapsulating the prevalent anti-Elvis paranoia of the ’50s. (Original Presley posters made by Hatch now fetch tens of thousands of dollars.)
Business eroded somewhat during the ’60s and ’70s, due partly to lackadaisical ownership and partly to the ascendancy of the more organic, intricate hippie aesthetic, which wasn’t the most natural fit for Hatch’s technique. But the outlook began to brighten again in the ’80s, thanks to enlightened ownership, a nostalgia boom, and, perhaps unexpectedly, wise urban-planning decisions. A popular resurgence in “roots” music encouraged local leaders to take steps to revitalize Nashville’s “Lower Broad” district, which includes the Ryman, several live-music clubs, and Hatch, which in 1992 moved a short distance to its present prime space on Broadway.
By the time I visited Hatch, it was owned by the Country Music Foundation, a well-run organization that, among other things, manages the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum across town. In Hatch, the historic preservationists knew they had a gem worth preserving.
First off, there’s Hatch’s old-fashioned letterpress technology. As its name implies, letterpress printing involves running paper over raised, inked letters or images carved from wood, metal, or linoleum. The technology was well on its way to obsolescence around the time that the Rev. Hatch’s sons were founding the company. Or think of it this way: It’s pretty much the same system Johann Gutenberg used when he printed his famous Bibles in the 1400s.
Every Hatch poster is made the same way today. An employee assembles a selection of reusable letters and a halftone or two, plus maybe a vintage background design. (Upon reading the book, I was amazed to learn that the background motif of my beloved Springsteen poster—a car rambling up a hill—had been cribbed from a gasoline company ad that Hatch had done decades earlier.) The assemblage is locked into a wooden frame and inked. Then, pieces of paper are fed through the press by hand, one after the other. Second or third colors on the same sheet require separate trips through the press.
Though Hatch’s current storefront is relatively new, the foundation has done an excellent job of making the space look like the bustling, old-timey print shop it has always been. The work goes on in full view of visitors, amid the clattering of ancient machinery. (One 1906-model machine that weighed 9 tons was used as late as 1982; it was replaced by a “modern” model—that dates back to 1946.) Wood-and-metal printing blocks—at least those that haven’t been cannibalized to make something else—line every inch of shelf space from floor to ceiling on one wall, as well as portions of the others. If you reach onto a shelf at random, chances are pretty good that you’ll pull out a block with the name of Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, or one of their contemporaries. Chances are equally good that the block you pick up won’t have touched a piece of posterboard in decades.
The limitations of letterpress technology have paid stylistic dividends. The relatively primitive process has created a distinctive style of printing that is instantly recognizable: bold letters and simple designs that communicate a vibe that, if not timeless, at least cycles back into fashion on a regular basis. Hatch’s vernacular is the same one that Warhol appropriated in many of his silk-screens—though, if anything, the pull of the look is even greater now; in an age of infinitely malleable computer fonts, the simple, declarative look of Hatch posters seems reassuring, almost classic. It is no surprise that magazine advertisements and album covers—including Springsteen’s recent Live in New York City CD set—have begun to provide Hatch with steady work in recent years.
This history makes Hatch an obvious subject for Chronicle Books, a San Francisco imprint known for its skillfully designed, smart, and lighthearted books about pop-culture topics. The book, roughly the size of an LP cover, features vivid reproductions of posters, which—thanks to their simple typography—lose little in reduction. At times, the text strikes even this confirmed fan as hagiographic. But the visuals more than make up for it.
Perhaps the most significant achievement of Hatch Show Print is that it was made at all. The authors acknowledge that it may just be “luck” that Hatch persisted in using its antiquated technology for so long. Certainly the economics of the industry did not predestine this result; it is worth noting that today Hatch is owned by a nonprofit entity. Yet it is heartening to find that something so seemingly out-of-date can remain on the cutting edge of American culture. I think it’s something that the Bible publishers and the homicidal honky-tonkers could agree on. CP