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Old-Fashioned Letterpress Still Alive on North Side

By Benjamin Woodard | June 12, 2013 7:29am | Updated on June 12, 2013 9:23am
 Nina Bell, 34, runs a business of paper and ink in a digital world.
Tweedle Press
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ROGERS PARK — Nina Bell named her oldest letterpress, made in the 1930s, "Leonard."

And she calls her industrial, hand-operated paper cutter — capable of chopping through a significant stack of cardstock — "Frank."

The 34-year-old graphic designer launched her paper-and-ink business, called Tweedle Press, five years ago. She worked from a Skokie warehouse until moving her operation to a storefront at 6928 N. Greenview Ave., where she makes cards, wedding invitations and posters for clients all over the country.

Inside the modest shop — packed with a computer, two hefty letterpresses and a rickety table surrounded by mismatched chairs — Bell squirted biodegradable orange ink onto the steel rollers of her second press, which she calls "Edward," the 2,500-pound Cadillac of letterpresses.

She fed paper through the machine to demonstrate how it rolls the ink over letter molds that then imprint the paper. Each color must be done separately.

The machines, invented by Johannes Gutenberg, were the Internet of their times when they revolutionized how information was shared with the masses.

But now letterpresses are used for a more artisanal purpose, to make hip wedding invitations, business cards and artwork.

"I've always loved paper," said Bell, who is one of the few letterpress operators in the city who has a storefront. "Since I was a little kid I wanted to own a paper shop with cards and stuff."

She said her husband quit his well-paying job last year to work with her full time on the business and to help raise their son.

"We're putting all of our money into this," she said.

How does one acquire a letterpress?

"They don't make them anymore," Bell said. To acquire Leonard and Edward, she said it took "a long time" to find collectors willing to part ways with their machines.

"You got to go through a bunch of old guys," she added.

Bell said she bought the 2,500-pound Edward from a NASA astrophysicist.

Most of Tweedle Press's orders arrive online, and the products are shipped all over the country. She named her shop after her and her best friend's nicknames when they were kids, Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

From time to time, she teaches classes about how to use the letterpresses and will give a demo to curious passers-by that stop in.

At first, she wanted to do only cards and large artwork, but now the shop's bread and butter is wedding invitations.

"When I first started I didn't want to do invitations or weddings or talk to anybody, ever," she said. "I tried to stay away from it as long as I could to stay away from Bridezillas."

But ever since working with the soon-to-be married, she said, there hasn't been a problem.