By Margaret Kovick
When you hold an Appalachia Press card in your hands, you know you’re holding something special. The paper, made of Italian cotton, is thick and strong but soft to the touch. The designs, often minimalistically featured against the raw paper background, are aesthetically vintage but full of attitude. Their colors are sharp and exact. Each card stands alone as a work of art, fit to be framed on a wall. If they include text, their messages range from snarky to sincere (or both). But behind the simple elegance of an Appalachia Press card lies a world of violent mechanics, decades of design experience, and the story of a man who moved across the country to pursue his passion.
John Reburn, the mastermind (and master letterpress operator) behind Appalachia Press, started the business in 1998. This year, he’s celebrating Appalachia Press’s 20th year in Roanoke, Virginia. After studying at Arizona State University and Otis Art Institute, Reburn started his career as a graphic artist in Los Angeles. A creative by nature, he expressed himself through his work but dabbled in acting on the side. He found his passion for old-fashioned printmaking more than a decade into his career.
“I got really bored in my 13th or 14th year [as a designer] and moved my business into a new building,” says Reburn.
There, operating an old-school printing press out of the basement, was Claudia Laub, whom he calls the “Queen of Letterpress.” Reburn was fascinated by the letterpress, and Laub took him under her wing. Though he was already a proficient and successful graphic artist with years of experience in typography and design, the letterpress presented an exciting set of new challenges.
“It took three years of me doing it before I felt comfortable and successful,” he says.
Though you’d never know it by looking at a finished Appalachia Press card, the letterpress is a dangerous machine. Many old-fashioned letterpresses were made between the 1870s and 1940s in Cleveland, Ohio, a prominent city for steel and iron production. They can weigh between one and one-and-a-half tons, and while they are operable by hand crank, it’s much more efficient and time effective to run the machine’s electric motor. The operator’s role is then simplified to inserting each card into the machine and removing it after the letterpress has stamped it, one at a time. It’s a fast process, and the operator has to be both focused and accurate with his movements to avoid mistakes and injuries. Reburn has met many letterpress artists who are missing a finger.
Reburn respects his machine. He follows the “music” of it, balancing his motions with its mechanical rhythm. “Art and music are undeniable friends,” he says. When he’s in the zone, he can press around 500 cards in an hour. He’s good at staying focused, and he’s never injured himself with the machine, or even had a close call (“knock on wood!”).
Back in LA, when Reburn was ready to start his own business, Laub gave him her blessing, with one clause: “Go forth and do it,” she told him, “but don’t do it here.”
Reburn’s search for a new home for his business took three years and spanned much of the country. He was looking for a city that was big enough to have the resources he would need for operating his business, such as an airport and train station.
He was familiar with Roanoke because he grew up in Maryland, and Smith Mountain Lake was a go-to vacation spot for his family. “I had always known about Roanoke, it was always on the radar,” he says, “but I had never lived there.” It checked all the boxes: it had an airport and a train station, and though it had printing businesses, they weren’t doing artistic printing or letterpress.
“I could really do something in Roanoke,” he realized at the time, “put a flag in the ground, offer something they didn’t have currently.”
Appalachia Press launched in a brick-and-mortar store in downtown Roanoke, located where the Taubman Museum is now. Reburn started his store with just over 100 designs. Even then, his designs were quirky and edgy. “It’s my personality,” he says.
Now, his studio is still in Roanoke but his business is wholesale only, based around third-party sellers like The Floyd Country Store. As a supporter of Floyd and the Store, getting his cards sold here was an exciting milestone.
“My first rep, Richard Walters, got my cards into the Country Store,” says Reburn. “When he told me I was like ‘What?’ It felt so good.”
Appalachia Press stationery has proven to be a perfect fit for the Store’s clientele. Reburn’s craftsmanship is evident at first glance: it’s a combination of mechanical skill, technical know-how, knowledge of color theory, and artistic flair. And lastly, the key ingredient in the quality of Reburn’s work is that he loves what he does.
“I absolutely love the immediacy of it,” he says. “The process and the length seem like forever, but after twenty years, I’ve collected a lot. I have so many castings, dyes, and materials I haven’t used. I can put those things together, put them on the press, and make something. Within a week I have a new product. If I think of something I can print it the next day, that’s exciting.”
As of 2023, Appalachia Press cards are sold in more than 150 stores across the country, and Reburn’s stationery line is ever-growing. From delicate prints of ladybugs and lilies in bloom to sly quotes like “Follow your heart but take your brain with you,” Reburn’s imagination knows no bounds and has no filter. His creative possibilities are endless, and as he celebrates twenty years of business in Virginia, his momentum is stronger than ever.
Check out our selection of Appalachia Press stationery in The Floyd Country Store, located on a card rack near the retail desk. Our custom Floyd Country Store logo card, made by Appalachia Press, is available in our online shop. You can see all of Reburn’s designs and learn more about his artistic process on his website, appalachiapress.com. Since Appalachia Press is wholesale, his cards are only available for individual purchase through retailers like The Floyd Country Store.