Andy Kahmann stands in front of his A to Z Letterpress shop. The “A” represent his name and the “Z” is for his son, Zach. Photo by Scott Thoma
It’s possible that if Andy Kahmann happens to get cut, we might find out that ink runs through his veins.
After all, the 64-year-old has been working as a printer in his own “throwback” shop called A to Z Letterpress in downtown Montevideo for the past 17 years, as well as working in newspaper pressrooms for nearly 40 years.
“I don’t hunt or golf or fish. Heck, I can’t even draw,” said the personable Kahmann, who can generally be found in his print shop in the mornings. “I just like to print. The first time I ever put a piece of paper in a press and it made a revolution and came out printed, I was hooked.”
A to Z Letterpress has worked with artists and craftspeople from all over the area, and beyond. Kahmann makes things like limited-edition calendars, art prints, posters, “Little Books” on a 100-year-old press using hand-set type.
“Sometimes my grandkids like to come in the shop and help grandpa,” said Kahmann, who has been married to his wife Cherri for 45 years, and the couple have seven grandchildren. “Occasionally, I’ll have people come in who want to learn about letterpress printing. So they work for free, first setting type, folding, and eventually learning to run the small press. Otherwise, I pretty much work alone here.”
The minute you step inside the modest 26-foot by 45-foot shop that formerly housed a small restaurant in Montevideo, you feel as though you’ve taken a step back in time.
“I don’t do commercial work much anymore,” he said. “I basically like to do projects now. And everything I make is in-house, including things like printing, folding, stapling and gluing. I don’t send out anything.”
One of Kahmann’s signature projects has been his variety of “Bad Andy” cards, which are becoming increasingly popular. Many of the cards, which are printed on recycled chip board, are not for young eyes, nor can they be printed here. In fact, a sign above the spiral rack of cards reads: “Bad Andy Cards. Read at Your Own Risk.”
“I sell a lot of those cards,” laughed Kahmann. “People like to just come in and read them, too. But I tell the kids they have to get permission from their parents first.”
Display of “Bad Andy” cards. Kids have to get permission from their parents before reading.
A tamer version of one of the Bad Andy’s cards reads: “What did Jesus say at the Last Supper?” The answered revealed inside the card reads: “If you want to be in the picture, you have to be on this side of the table.”
Another card reads: “There are two ways to argue with a woman.” Open the card up and it says: “Neither of them works.”
Kahmann, who was born in Kansas City, Kan., and graduated from Bird Island, recently was awarded the prestigious Prairie Disciple Award presented by the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council (SMAC). The award acknowledges a person who has been instrumental in promoting the arts in the 18-county area of southwest Minnesota.
“(Andy) loves the process of collaboration,” Patrick Moore, who nominated Kahmann for the award, told the SMAC. “And for Andy, every collaboration is a joy. There are dozens of artists, poets and photographers who will attest to this.”
One of those collaborations is Kahmann’s involvement with the Meander, Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl. Meander, which runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, is a free self-guided tour that showcases the talents of over 40 artists and celebrates the small handmade, personal and local culture of the area in and near the communities of Ortonville, Appleton, Madison, Milan, Dawson, Montevideo and Granite Falls.
Kahmann has worked with area artists to create limited-edition promotional posters, as well as graphic help on the brochures, for the widely popular Meander Art Crawl for the past 14 years. Kahmann works with a different artist each year, making sure they understand the letterpress process and to reproduce the images of the posters to their satisfaction.
“Andy is an extremely good role model for working craft persons,” said Lucy Tokheim, of Dawson, who has previously worked with Kahmann on a Meander poster and a “Little Book” format of a Robert Bly poem which was used as a fundraiser for Meander. “The old-time press is obsolete now, but it’s so exciting that he is still using it. And he is so generous with sharing his wonderful skills and knowledge about it.”
Kahmann also works with a pair of artists each year to make the limited-edition calendars. Bradley D. Hall, of Granite Falls, has been printing his famous “Portraits of the Prairie” calendars for 10 years with A to Z Letterpress. Mary Bruno of Bruno Press in St. Joseph always comes up with a Minnesota theme for her calendar. The artists carve the blocks, and Kahmann does all the printing, collating and stapling.
In his latest “project”, Kahmann has collaborated with Lauren Carlson of Dawson on pocket poems. Carlson, an independent artist and writer, was looking for a way to showcase her poetry, as well as her art to go with them.
“I was told about Andy and his print shop in Montevideo from Lucy Tokheim,” Carlson said. “Andy is a true collaborator. He understands how to build on what the artist or poet brings to the table.”
Carlson had written three separate poems and wanted them to be pocket-sized. She did her own artwork for the covers of each poem, basing it on prairie life.
Kahmann works with Lauren Carlson on her “Pocket Poems.”
“I believe my ‘Pocket Poems’ were successful because of Andy’s skill and contribution to the project,” said Carlson. “It’s true that I did the poems and illustration, but he had a key role in designing the set of books. He really wants to achieve the best resulting printed material, so it’s a gift to have him supporting artists in our area.”
The two worked together on the project like they had done it a thousand times before.
“When she first came to me with this idea, I thought she was in way over her head,” Kahmann admitted. “But she was so intense about it, and it worked out really well.”
Kahmann printed a poem on a standard size sheet of paper and made several folds and one vital cut to achieve the proper size. He then reduced the size of Carlson’s artwork and transposed it on the front of each of her poems.
Completed “Pocket Poems.”
Kahmann then manufactured a folded sleeve out of card stock, similar to a CD sleeve he made for Malena Handeen, another artist/songwriter, and downsized it. Carlson’s three poems fit perfectly inside the sleeve.
“I chose Andy’s business because I wanted something that was an art-object,” Carlson noted. “Most books and printed materials are about delivering information through text. I wanted my whole poem-book to be thought of as a piece of art.”
During Meander weekend this year, Carlson will be demonstrating at Java River Café, four doors north of A to Z Letterpress, as an extension of Kahmann’s print shop. Visitors can stop in and see how “Little Books” are designed, cut and folded. Also on display will be all 14 years of Meander posters.
Kahmann is working on his latest idea called “My Little Book of Life” project, which is similar to the Pocket Poems format.
“It’s about whatever someone might want to say about their life,” explained Kahmann. “It really forces you to be very concise and direct because there’s only so much room.”
Kahmann has worked mostly evenings at the West Central Tribune in Willmar for the past 11 years; initially as the pressroom foreman, and more recently, became its production manager that oversees the pressroom, mail room and plate making.
“People ask me if I can make a living printing in my print shop, and I tell them ‘No,’ I need a night job to support my habit,’” he joked, referring to his love for hand-set printing.
It’s estimated that there are less than 20 places in Minnesota that have a privately owned “throwback” working print shop similar to Kahmann’s.
Kahmann didn’t plan to own his own print shop, but the opportunity presented itself, and he couldn’t pass it up.
“I was at the state fair in 2000 volunteering at the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s Letterpress Museum, running the old Maynard News newspaper press, and a young lady came by,” explained Kahmann. “She said her father had some old printing equipment that he wanted to get rid of.”
Andy Kahmann working on his Chandler and Price letterpress.
Kahmann eventually made a deal with the man and soon was the proud owner of a 12 x 18 Chandler and Price press, PearlessGem paper cutter and a cabinet of type that now sits in his shop.
“We were just going to put the things in a shed at my place in the country and print some things there,” said Kahmann. “But my son, Zach (he is the ‘Z’ in A to Z Letterpress), suggested that I buy The Bungelow building, which was once a restaurant in Montevideo.”
Kahmann eventually purchased the building, made a few minor renovations, and then opened for business … and pleasure. Since then, he has been the recipient of four presses and over 350 drawers of type; nearly all donated.
“I never sell anything that has been donated to me,” he assured. “But I have passed on presses and cabinets of type to printmakers who can use them.”
The shop has been a mainstay and a showpiece in Montevideo ever since.
Kahmann is asked a variety of questions about his “throwback shop” when visitors stop by. But the one question asked most frequently is if he has ever had his hand caught in a press.
In his familiar wisecracking way, Kahmann’s response is simple: “If you get your hand caught in the press, you don’t run the press anymore,” he tells them. “Paper is cheap, fingers are expensive.”
That response is Kahmann’s way of promoting safety at all times.
Meander Art Crawl print that Kahmann produces each year.
Prints of one of Kahmann’s favorite entertainers, Bob Dylan, hang throughout his shop in a variety of colors. Across a beam near the ceiling are the 14 posters he has printed for the Meander Art Crawl and six for the Waconia Art Crawl over the years.
When asked how he describes his shop, Kahmann referred to it as a “working museum.” “It’s a typical back shop of any weekly newspaper, minus the big newspaper press, in any mid to small town back when every town had at least one newspaper,” he explained. “A place where craftsmen would help ordinary people put their thoughts and words on paper to stand the test of time.”
For more information, contact A to Z Letterpress at 320-226-9175 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.