INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE: POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC TURMOIL BROUGHT LETTERPRESS PRINTER SHADI AYOUB FROM BEIRUT TO CLEVELAND
Shadi Ayoub greets visitors to his 961 Collective in the parking lot of the Osborn Building on Hamilton Avenue. He then walks them through industrial space occupied by Ingenuity Festival, back to his small, rectangular studio. On one side of the room are machines: two Heidelberg windmill letterpresses, an industrial paper cutter, a desk. On the other side are three forklift skids stacked with cans of ink. He bought all this equipment at auction, shortly after arriving in the United States from Lebanon, in 2019.
Shadi’s story of immigration is typical in some ways: he left economic and political uncertainty to start a new life in Cleveland. He came with plenty of entrepreneurial spirit. But in other ways it raises eyebrows: a letterpress shop?
So he tells his story. “It seems like all the major decisions in my life were made because of war,” he says, joking only a little.
In the late 80s, a series of regional wars that had flared on and off in Lebanon since the 70s had heated up again. His parents were expecting a baby, so they fled the war and came to Cleveland. Shadi was born at Metro Hospital in 1990. But after a couple of years, the war quieted down and they returned to their home country. Shadi grew up there.
Then in 2006, war broke out again—this time, with Israel. His cousin from the US was visiting Beirut on vacation at the time. The US Embassy was evacuating US citizens, and Shadi convinced his father to allow him to go back to the US with his cousin. They traveled by ship from Beirut to Cypress, then to Ireland, then to Washington DC—a three-day journey in all. His cousins lived in Middleburg Heights, so he enrolled in Midpark High School. Shadi joined the soccer team. He went to Homecoming. The war was short, though, and when the fighting ceased, his father wanted him to come back to Lebanon.
So after just two months in the US, he went home. He graduated high school and enrolled in business school at the American University of Beirut. When his father’s health was failing, Shadi took over the family business and began to learn how to operate the presses. His father passed away in 2013. Shadi was 23.
The company had been built on modern, offset printing and used letterpress machines only for folding and die-cuts. But Shadi always was drawn to the letterpresses. There’s magic in the tactile quality of the prints they produce, and the machines themselves have something in common with steam locomotives, their arms churning and wheels turning with impressive precision. And running the machine is a physical relationship with power and speed. He compares it to riding a motorcycle. “With this machine, it is you and your wits,” he says.
He also noticed impact the resulting prints could have on customers. “It is all about that micro-second of engagement with letterpress,” he says.
So he steered the business that way. Modern printing techniques had all but erased popular memory of what letterpress could do, so he attracted new customers by inviting them to free movie nights. He’d screen Hitchcock and Fred Astaire. “Underground,” he says. Instead of paying for tickets, guests would take a tour of the shop and watch a demo. He got wedding invitation jobs, custom coasters, and other work this way. He had additional work teaching letterpress printing skills to design students at the university.
The economic and political situation in Lebanon, however, was working against him. He noticed that people were taking longer to pay their bills. Then one day he saw banks increase their interest rates from four percent to thirteen percent, to encourage people to deposit money. He read that as a sign of trouble to come. And, seeking a new opportunity, he came to Ohio, living with his uncle, in Middleburg Heights. He arrived with lots of advantages many immigrants do not have, including solid English skills, tech skills, and enough money to buy some machines.
The kind of letterpress machines Shadi wanted to run—Heidelberg “windmills”—have certain requirements. He’d need three-phase power, a sturdy floor to support their weight, and access for a truck. Basically, industrial space. He found it on Hamilton Avenue, in the building also occupied by Ingenuity Festival and other creative businesses.
So The 961 Collective was born. His shop gets its name from the international dialing code for Lebanon. His vision for the place is not only to get printing jobs, but to develop collaborative, profit-sharing relationships with artists and designers, including from his home country.
Cleveland has an active artisan letterpress community, anchored by the Morgan Conservatory and Zygote Press. Artists in those studios produce mostly broadsides and artist books, as well as greeting cards and other projects. They do the printing themselves, and they do it slowly, on proofing presses, or hand-fed job presses made by Cleveland’s own Chandler & Price Company. An edition of 100 on those machines is a significant undertaking.
With Heidelbergs and the expertise to run them, The 961 Collective opens new relief printing doors, because they print with speed that would be inconceivable on those other presses. Shadi can easily get more than 3,500 impressions per hour. They can just as easily stamp metal foil, or perforate, fold, or die-cut paper into precise shapes. Commercial quantities for anything from broadsides to greeting cards to packaging are not just possible, but the norm. The prints retain the tactile quality, but the maker is free to think in different ways due to the ease of producing in significant volume. The Morgan Conservatory has a Heidelberg, but almost no one knows how to use it.
Almost. Shadi walked into the Morgan for its Kozo harvest in 2019, and Morgan artistic director Tom Balbo says since then has spent time there tuning up several presses. And he got the long-idle Heidelberg press running.
Shadi still has family in Lebanon. He was on the phone with his sister in August 2020, when an explosion shook Beirut, killing more than 200 people, injuring 7,500, and causing $15 billion in property damage, according to news reports. His sister heard it and felt the force, and immediately got off the phone to check on her husband and children. They were safe. But he has seen photos of the street where he lived, covered in broken glass, with apartment balconies collapsed. The explosion was caused by improper storage of 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been confiscated from an abandoned ship and stored in a warehouse for years. “Corruption,” Shadi says.
He also has equipment back in Lebanon, which he hasn’t yet figured out how to retrieve. Shipping large, heavy printing presses would be prohibitively expensive for a small business, and the logistics are another hurdle entirely, even if the explosion hadn’t closed the port in Beirut. He left behind cases of movable type—including ornate Arabic fonts. If he were to ship the lead type, he doesn’t know how it would get through Customs. The lead might be seen as valuable raw material.
In the meantime, he has been printing with polymer plates and magnesium, mounting them on a type-high base. These are made from digital files, so they are not dependent on movable type or carved blocks. During one visit, he was printing brown paper lunch bags for Express Deli, in Brookpark. He recently completed a foil stamped broadside in collaboration with Cleveland designer Lindsey Krivenki. They met via Instagram. The pandemic presents a challenge, because so much of the work done by letterpress—invitations, for example—are done for gatherings of people, which remain unsafe. He says, though, that he can feel people starting to make summer plans. He’s glad to be in the US, and looking forward.
“I am so happy I came here,” he says. “It’s a new beginning.”