The historic Arber’s printing works in Bow’s Roman Road is having a makeover this week.
In a bid to smarten up the area before the Olympics, Tower Hamlets council has decided the business is in need of a fresh lick of paint. Arber’s has been in the same building for over a hundred years, and some will miss the ‘lost world’ charm of the old storefront.
For many years the sun-bleached and peeling green paint and window bay filled with a faded miscellany of paper pads, staplers and Sellotape left the shop looking out of use and abandoned.
A wooden panel visible through the glass of the door bears the thin patina of an exuberant white serif-fed script: ‘Est 1897. WF Arber and Co Advance Press.’ At the bottom of the board is a telephone number disconnected decades ago: ‘ADVance 2067.’
Most days, a small printed sign is the sole clue that the business is trading: ‘Open. Please Ring. As I could be working in another part of the building it may take a moment or two to answer.’ Ring and wait, and when the door opens, you will be met by Gary Arber, an amiable chap with a tale or two to tell about the family business he has been running for nearly sixty years.
In its heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, Arber’s took on pro-bono work for Sylvia Pankhurst and her radical faction of East End suffragettes. Printing for the cause of universal suffrage was not a charitable act on the part of Gary’s grandfather but, rather, a job he could not avoid: Gary’s grandmother, a close friend of Sylvia’s, was not one to be argued with.
Although Gary has moved with the times and now works with a digital press, the company is one of the few places in London that still uses a traditional letterpress. Down in the cellar a few old machines are kept in action, most notably the Heidelberg press that arrived from Germany in 1939 just as the Second World War broke out. Gary still gets asked to use the letterpress to print business cards and letterheads. He explains:
“People say they like the embossed feel of work printed on a letterpress, but they’ve got it all wrong. Good letterpress printing should be as smooth as a baby’s bottom. To get that feel, because you can’t buy new type sets these days, you have to apply too much pressure to the machine.”
Gary, 78, still works five days a week and will see the business to its end … which will coincide with his own.