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by Anna Stalker
Published October 8, 2014

Anna is a writer, reader, and observer-at-large who grew up in the South without a Southern accent. She had an early inkling that lives are built of stories, and ever since she has been trying to write them down. She enjoys St. Louis for its afternoon thunderstorms and knack for attracting good people.

A 500-Year-Old Art Form Transformed This Designer’s Career

Eric Woods of The Firecracker Press scavenges letterpress equipment from eBay, auction sites, and word-of-mouth, hauling presses weighing several tons out of basements and old buildings across the country. Currently, no company manufactures them anymore. It’s a pursuit not everyone understands. Within the past few years, he began exchanging letters with a retired Episcopal priest in central Illinois, a lifelong printer. One day last winter, Woods got a call from his wife–her husband was seriously ill, she said. To get their affairs in order, they had decided to sell his printing equipment. “In almost 13 years, it’s the single largest, most fantastic collection I’ve ever run across,” Woods says. Recently, he retrieved a press from a South County basement which took six people to carry up the nine stairs. “We meet a lot of widows, or kids of folks that have passed away whose dad had a printshop in the basement their entire life,” he says. “They’ve got fond memories of hanging out with Dad–he’s smoking a cigarette with one hand and feeding the press with the other.”

Firecracker has been located on Cherokee Street for nearly 13 years and recently opened a new location in Old North St. Louis. Inside, Woods walks between dense rows of cabinets holding sets of type. He stops and pulls open a scuffed wooden drawer to reveal blocks of text darkened with decades of ink. Each displays a single letter of type, ready to be pressed onto paper. Firecracker’s staff design most of the projects they print, and mix the inks they use by hand to precise shades. Woods started out making wedding invitations and business cards, and now also prints posters and books. “Since technology has moved so far away from the handmade, we find that there is a craving out there from people that appreciate the quality you get, and appreciate the attention we give to things.”

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Woods was first introduced to printmaking while attending art school in Kansas City. “My parents were reluctant about art school, because of the same question every parent asks their kid when they go to school–‘What are you going to do? What’s the return on investment here?’” he says. Growing up, he drew constantly, filling the page with dinosaurs and athletes. He remembers passing time in classes at school by sketching, and starting in his junior year, he enrolled in every art class his school offered. His father took him to visit colleges, walking beside him on winding campus tours. “I think my dad, in some ways, ended up living vicariously through me in some of those adventures,” Woods says. “My parents were dreamers. I think they always dreamed of doing something exotic, something a little unorthodox. But for one reason or another they felt like they couldn’t, or the dream was enough.”

Woods’ grandparents owned a lumber and hardware business that employed the whole family, including his parents, until it went bankrupt in the 1980’s. “I grew up with my mom and dad struggling to find work, and once they did find work, struggling to enjoy it. I always thought I didn’t want to be that when I grew up,” he says. He remembers enthusiastically telling his parents he wanted to become a scientist, overseeing a lab full of bubbling experiments. “Well, if you’re fortunate enough to have a boss that will let you do that … ” he remembers them responding. “My answer to that was, ‘Why do I need a boss?’”

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Ultimately, it was his parents’ perseverance that allowed him to attend art school. “I respect that my parents gave me the option, even if it was a little reluctantly, to do what I wanted,” he says. “I guess that’s the best gift one generation can give to the next one–a leg up into the future.” Woods married a few years before starting Firecracker. He and his wife now have a two-year-old son, and a daughter who is about to turn six. In the early days of the business, his wife’s steady salary as a teacher helped support them while the business grew–in the first year, Woods estimates, he made a couple thousand dollars. They gave themselves three to five years to see if Firecracker would take off. “At the end, if we don’t make it, then at least we’ll have our answer,” he remembers saying. Today, both of their children often visit him while he works–his son loves to ride rolling carts across the floor, while his daughter cuts up paper scraps to make collages. “We’ve never pushed either of our children in any direction in particular, but my six-year-old freely mentions that she’s an artist. And I can see it in her–she’s got the same spark for drawing,” he says.

After graduating from college, Woods took a variety of print design jobs, becoming increasingly disillusioned with the long hours he spent staring at a computer screen. “All they really needed me for was to plug an ingredient in and then remove myself from the picture, and I had a hard time removing myself from the picture,” he says. He envisioned the design on his computer becoming a crisply folded book cover, or a newspaper ad with each color precisely in place. In the end, however, they were printed off-site, often by a stranger. “I wanted to be active and I wanted to have more control,” he says. “I was constantly trying to find ways to make projects where I could use my hands–where I could make something.”

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In between laying out ads for tanning booths and retirement homes, he found a way to use the high-speed copiers like a traditional printing press. He would separate out the individual colors in his design and run a single sheet through the machine multiple times, building up layers of ink. When he showed his technique in presentations, he was met with a lukewarm response. “Nobody gave a shit. It was just me who cared.” He questioned his choice to pursue a career in design at all. “I ultimately came to the decision that design wasn’t the problem–it was the jobs I was able to find through graphic design.”

Woods had experimented with letterpress equipment in college, and he began to wonder what it would take to open a print shop of his own. Instead, he moved to Cape Girardeau, a small town in southeast Missouri, and took a job at a local newspaper. On his walk to work each day, he passed a shop with a “Closed” sign in the window, and a phone number for more information. Peering in the window, Woods could see letterpress equipment behind the glass. He walked by the store for a year, and the sign remained unchanged. Eventually, he tracked down the store’s owner, and they talked for several hours–after their conversation, he told Woods that he wouldn’t be able to return to the shop and was willing to sell it for $10,000. “My heart completely broke, because I didn’t have 10 dollars,” Woods says. Later, the building was torn down and a bar was built in its place. “I wish he could offer it to me now. We would find the money–we’d find a way to finance it, and we’d buy everything,” he says. “The equipment is scattered to the wind. I don’t know where it all went.”

In 2000, Woods moved from Cape Girardeau to St. Louis to take a job with a local ad agency. When he was laid off a year later, he began to think seriously about leaving the traditional design world to finally open a printing shop, but ultimately accepted another job offer three months later. “It was the worst job ever,” he says, recalling unfulfilling clients and hours spent sitting at a computer. “I don’t think I would ever get a traditional graphic design job again in my life. I think I would do something else–I joke with people, I would bag groceries before I would go back into an agency.” After three months, he quit. The next day, he began looking for printing equipment, and bought a 2,000-pound press which he brought to St. Louis from Mexico, Missouri.

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In the first days of starting Firecracker, he felt like he was 16 again, sitting behind the wheel of a car preparing to take his driver’s license test. His wife, concerned about the risk, initially suggested he find a part-time job and build Firecracker Press on the side. “We were both trained from childhood to be good workers, to go out and get an education, get a job, do well by your employer, and work hard,” he says. Woods convinced her that he could go “cold turkey,” in his words, from the traditional working world and devote all his energy to building Firecracker. “She’s been our biggest supporter … Firecracker wouldn’t exist without her.”

Behind Woods, the silver gears of an old press catch the light streaming through the window, brightening the exposed brick walls. An empty whiskey bottle sits near him on a table, holding a bouquet of flowers. “Having full control has given me a new respect for what printers do,” he says, remembering arguments he had as a young graphic designer. “I probably yelled at, or jerkily talked to, a lot of experienced printers because I was naive.” On a typical day he could spend his morning restoring an old press, scrubbing it down and draining it of oil, and then retreat to his office to answer emails before walking out into the shop to mix ink to the exact shade a client requires. “I guess I’m surprised, even almost 13 years in, how much of a day-to-day thing success is.”

For more information about Eric Woods or Firecracker Press, visit here.

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My answer to that was, 'Why do I need a boss?'”

– Eric Woods

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