Mr. B.

By Michael Torosian

The Printer, March 1997

One evening as I wandered through a reception for assorted book lovers and book makers, I picked up particles of conversation in my path. Within the chatter, I detected an august roster of names being tossed about: Jan Tschichold, Bruce Rogers, Hermann Zapf, W.A. Dwiggins, Don Black. Does that last name sound familiar? No, he hasn’t designed a typeface, he hasn’t designed a book, and in spite of his proximity to a couple of dozen tons of equipment, he hasn’t printed one either. So what of it? That’s not the ultimate test of status. He’s still important to a whole bunch of guys with line gauges in their pockets and ink under their finger nails. Besides, I’ll bet neither Jan, or any of the other guys, ever drove a red 1984 Cadillac Biarritz convertible.

So who is Don Black? Well, in this part of the world he’s the Linchpin of Letterpress, the King of Casters, the Mogul of Matrices, the Lord of the Linotype, the Grand Visor of Vandercooks. In Toronto, all roads to lead to Mr B.

In the early eighties, when I first became involved in printing, I kept hearing rumours about a dealer out in the far reaches of Scarborough with a giant hoard of letterpress equipment. It sounded like a scrap iron Shangri-La, but it wasn’t until I picked up a copy of John Rider’s Printing for Pleasure, whose directory listed one Don Black Linecasting, that I had a name and address.

I trotted out to Scarborough and was amazed by what I found. In my euphoric imagination it seemed akin to breaking into King Tut’s tomb - if the boy king had been a typecaster and printer. The shaft of light from the loading dock revealed the treasures of Intertypes and Linotypes, Ludlows, Vandercooks, cases of foundry type and, in the main arcade of the crypt, walls lined with Linotype mats. The regal overseer, in plaid pants and smoking a cigar, greeted me and sold me a roller gauge and a slug cutter.

Don Black began his career in hot type in 1953, working as a Linotype mechanic at the Globe and Mail, one of Toronto’s daily newspapers. In 1964, an inevitable phase of modernization at the plant precipitated a confrontation between the publishers and the printers’ union. Don moved on to freelance work and to his first taste of buying and selling used equipment. Though he worked throughout the late sixties and early seventies, first at the typesetting house of Cooper & Beatty, and then in a typesetting shop that he established with a partner, all the while he continued to sell equipment to the ever-growing circle of people he had gotten to know in the printing world.

In 1974 he sold his share of the typesetting business and went into dealing in used letterpress equipment full time. His knowledge and growing reputation paid off in 1980 when Canadian Linotype offered him their entire inventory of mats and machine parts, making Don Black Linecasting the representative for Mergenthaler in Canada. This was followed by a similar deal with Ludlow, consolidating his place in the typecasting field. Other landmark acquisitions included the composing rooms of the Globe and Mail and the Government Printing Office.

In his career Don has sold well over 100 Linotype and Intertype machines (my model 4 Intertype is around 106 on the list) and more than 150 Ludlows. It’s beyond estimating how many fonts of Linotype and Ludlow mats he’s sold, and there always seems to be a Heidelberg on the loading dock ready for shipping. This success has probably been abetted by the fact that Don Black Linecasting is a family affair. Whenever Don talks about the history of the business he always says “we”, an acknowledgment that embraces the important roles of his wife and son. Whenever I call the shop I’m always greeted with the words “Don Black Linecasting”, delivered by the authoritative voice of Don’s wife Ruth, a model of organization, who keeps a steady hand on office operations and can issue an invoice at lightening speed. And over the years I’ve seen their son Craig manually wrestle with the massive machinery of the trade, liberally apply his trademark grey paint to every old surface in need, and display a business sense that will ensure the continuation of the operation for years to come. Notable in this ensemble also is Mike Soulodre, who is easing into retirement after years of working at the shop. Don’s evaluation, shared by all who’ve benefited from Mike’s talents says it all, “There isn’t a better mechanic. He’s a number one guy.”

It’s apparent upon meeting Don that he not only has a expertise with the Linotype, but that he has absorbed the whole Linotype lore. He’s a grab bag of information concerning the history of the linecaster and the generations of the machine, but nowhere is his esoteric knowledge more apparent than in his encyclopedic familiarity with the typefaces. If a quiz show ever has a Linotype category, Don will clean up. He seems to know every triangle number for every size and face in the Linotype catalog. Now this might seem the inevitable consequence of working with mats day in and day out, but I think it’s because he gets a kick out of the whole business. It’s an old, venerable trade with more than its fair share of characters. Don always had a soft spot for these guys. He always spoke fondly of such eccentrics as Toronto’s self-crowned “Master Printer”, the late Murry Lewis, who would come out of his reclusiveness to buy Ludlow fonts and cart them home in his white Cadillac. Don always said Murray “could make type talk.” And Don always seems tolerant of my wandering around his shop, amusing myself by checking out some of the oddball stuff he has. Of course the price tag for such liberty and mobility is his heckling, but I just think of it as the price of admission and count myself lucky that I’m in the same company as Murry Lewis and the parade of other guys who have marched through Don’s domain.

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