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The Athens Press on Main Street

Grace Shackman

From hand-set type to desktop publishing in five generations

In 1933, when Adam Goetz moved Athens Press to 308 North Main Street, the technology he used was not much different than it had been in Gutenberg’s day. The simple brick-fronted building was essentially one big room. The printing press was in front, while in the back, Goetz stood at a desk setting lead type by hand, one letter at a time.

By then, Goetz had already been a printer for fifty years. Although he’d been a part-owner in the business since 1900 and sole proprietor since 1907, the 308 North Main shop was the first plant built specifically for his company. It would not be the last. Now known as Goetzcraft, Ann Arbor’s oldest job printer currently employs eighteen people at its 12,000-square-foot plant on the south side.

Born in Germany in 1866, Goetz came to the United States with his family at age five. At fifteen he began working in the print trade, no doubt learning on the job. He started at the Washtenaw Post, a German-language newspaper, then worked at the Register Publishing Company and the Inland Press before joining with three fellow workers to form Athens Press. The name came from their location, a room on the second floor of the Athens Theater on North Main.

The Athens Press took all sorts of small assignments. An early scrapbook passed down to Larry Goetz, Adam’s great-grandson, includes letterhead and business cards, party invitations, political literature, and jobs for the university. Those items are still familiar to job printers today, though many of the clients memorialized in the scrapbook, such as the Germania Club and the Ann Arbor Boat Company, are no longer in existence. There’s also not much demand anymore for such once-popular items as commemorative ribbons, restaurant meal tickets (bought in advance for a certain number of meals, they were often used by single men or immigrants here without their families), and advertising blotters (a common freebie when people wrote with pens dipped in ink).

Photograph of Adam and Pauline Goetz standing in front of Athens Press at 208 North Main

The Athens Press second home was a storefront at 208 North Main.

In 1906, the press had to move because the theater was being remodeled and expanded (a process that included a name change to the Whitney). They ended up across the street and one block north, in a now-gone storefront at 208 North Main.

Larry Goetz was told by his great-aunt Hermina, that her father was often razzed by his partners for working too hard and earning all of the money. Athens Press’s original account book bears out her story. There are countless references to Goetz getting extra pay for working nights or on Sundays. Not surprisingly, soon after the move, Goetz was able to buy out his two remaining partners, Clyde Kerr and Alfred Schairer. Both men opened their own printing companies; Schairer teamed up with Oswald Mayer to form Mayer-Schairer office supply store (they got out of printing in the 1950s).

Adam and Pauline Goetz’s children, Herbert and Hermina, helped in the shop from an early age, pulling their red metal wagon down Main to make deliveries. Adam was happiest working in the back setting type, so when Herbert got old enough to work full-time, he took over the business end, talking to customers and doing the books.

After 1938 the shop sent out big typesetting jobs to Ben Burkhart, who had one of the city’s only Linotype machines in his shop on the other side of the alley in what had been the City Garage. The Linotype, named for its ability to set a full line of type at a time, was very expensive and hard to operate, but Burkhart had taught himself to use it by fooling around with one while a student at Ann Arbor High. Much like computer companies do today, in the 1920s, manufacturers would sell typesetting machines to schools at very reasonable prices so that students could learn how to operate them. Burkhart, who is still in business today, thinks he is now the last working Linotype operator in the Midwest.

Herbert Goetz was interested in modernizing the business, but his dad refused to retire. As he always had, Adam Goetz continued to set type by hand, chewing tobacco as he worked (he sent his grandson, John, to buy it for him at the cigar store on Huron). Finally, in 1943, Herbert threatened to enlist in the army unless his dad let him buy the business. It was an empty threat (Herbert had a health condition that made him ineligible), but his father finally agreed to sell. Adam Goetz never retired, however, continuing to work until two months before he died at age seventy-seven. According to his obituary, he had been the oldest living member of the typographical union, which he’d joined in 1885.

In 1944 Herbert Goetz changed the name of the Athens Press to Goetzcraft, since by then it had been thirty-six years since the business had been in the Athens Theater. Five years later he built a new, larger building across the street, at 307 North Main, adding new machinery and doubling the staff to about ten people. While his father never changed his way of working, Herbert kept up with the evolving industry. In the 1950s, the company bought its own Linotype machine and, when they came out, photo offset printing presses.

Like his father and grandfather, John Goetz started working at the press at a young age, coming in after school when he was a student at Slauson Junior High. He started out sweeping, feeding hand-fed presses, and baling. As soon as he got his driver’s license he was sent on deliveries, and he came to work full-time when he graduated from high school.

Since his dad had a firm control on the business end, John concentrated more on the machinery, learning how to run and repair the presses, bindery, and--especially challenging--the Linotype. Herbert retired more gracefully than his father had, moving to Florida in 1962, and leaving John in charge. A workaholic like the rest of the family, Herbert opened a liquor store there, where he worked the rest of his life.

John’s son Larry, like the previous three generations of Goetz men, started working at a young age, riding his bike to the shop after school to help out. Although he studied printing at Ferris, he says he really learned on the job. He joined the company full-time in 1971, in time for the next printing revolution: computer typesetting. His father, guessing this was the way to go, invited his foreman and wife to dinner, and over a good meal that his wife, Evelyn, had cooked, suggested that Evelyn and the foreman’s wife work together to find out whether photo composition (a then-new technique for setting type on film) could replace the Linotype. “It drove us nuts, but we mastered it,” Evelyn recalls. Goetzcraft was the first printer in Ann Arbor to offer the new technology.

Five times faster than the Linotype, photo composition “was the hottest thing in town,” John recalls. “Other machines became obsolete while people still owed money on them.” By the mid-1980s, Goetzcraft sold its Linotype to a man in Charlevoix for $3,000. According to John, “It was a fraction of what we paid, but we were lucky to get that.” By then, Goetzcraft was already moving into desktop publishing.

Since 1979, Goetzcraft has been located in the Ann Arbor Industrial Park at 975 Phoenix Drive. They do fancier work than Adam Goetz could have ever imagined: brochures, catalogs, and posters, printed in an array of colors. But one thing hasn’t changed. The family continues to make up about half of the workforce. Larry Goetz, now president, is assisted either full- or part-time by ten family members: his father and mother, John and Evelyn Goetz; his wife, Paulette; his sisters, Julie Trevino and Lee Ann Haynes; his brothers-in-law, Jeff Haynes and Jeff Swanson; and his three children, Britton, Bryan, and Brooke.

The original plant that Adam Goetz built at 308 North Main became a dry-cleaning business after Goetzcraft left. Eureka Cleaners is now owned by Steve Hur, who also owns College Cleaners on North University. Like Adam Goetz, Steve Hur is an immigrant, and his craft, too, runs in the family: He bought the business from his sister, who originally had bought it from their brother.

[Photo caption from book]: The Athens Press was named for its original location upstairs in the Athens Theater.

[Photo caption from book]: In 1933 the press finally got a building of its own at 308 N. Main, now Eureka Cleaners

[Photo caption from book]: The press moved across the street, to 307 N. Main, in 1949. “Courtesy Larry and Paulette Goetz”

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Grace Shackman