On any given Tuesday, if you venture past the creaky door and the piles of paper and boxes and photos, you'll find Dean Coombs marinating in the smell of hot lead, dust and the slow decay of old newsprint, tending an ancient printing press that emanates a rhythmic whir-swoosh. Coombs, with an unkempt gray beard, wire-rimmed glasses and the characteristic stoop of somebody who spends too many hours at a keyboard, is the publisher, editor, pressman and mechanic at the Saguache Crescent, which, as far as we know, is the last weekly newspaper in the nation produced using only letterpress technology.
Tuesday is press day, when Coombs prints out the happenings, legal notices and birth and death announcements of Saguache, Colo., a town of 500 or so perched on the edge of the vast San Luis Valley, where low hills shelter modest homes from brutal winter winds. Founded in 1876 to supply mountain mining camps, the town's original purpose is history, and Saguache is still struggling to find a new identity. Today, it survives on a bit of agriculture, tourism and as an artist's colony of sorts. Like many Western towns of its size and scenery, it always seems to be on the brink of either becoming something extraordinary or perishing altogether.
"We have big dreams," says Coombs. "And a million-dollar main street." With the help of various grants, the town recently redid its main drag, 4th Street, adding new sidewalks, roundabouts and even a pocket park.
The Crescent, now in its 134th year, perseveres, unsullied by the digital world: The office has no computer, no Internet. Coombs bangs out each edition on the keyboard of a 90-year-old Linotype, which forges each line of text, or slug, from molten lead. He arranges the slugs, along with ads and graphics -- engraved into wood or metal -- in the chase, a rectangular metal frame. After they're secured into the press, the chase and type are inked, and the newsprint rolls over them. The mailing labels are imprinted by a contraption made back in the 1920s. Like everything else in the office, the labeler -- little more than a small platform with a foot-long lever sticking out -- has the reassuring mechanical heft so often lacking in electronic devices.
It's basically the same technology that Coombs' grandfather, Charles Ogden, used when he bought The Crescent in 1917 (although at first, Ogden lacked a Linotype and had to set type by hand). His daughter, Marie, took over when he died in 1935; Dean stepped in as publisher in 1978, and his mother continued to edit the paper until she passed away in 2002.
The front page of The Crescent's first issue of 2013 includes a letter to the editor about how the valley's aquifers are being pumped into oblivion, a primer from town hall on sidewalk maintenance, and an announcement regarding the knitting club. Printed in flowing single columns, on a big broadsheet, the paper could easily be a century old, except, perhaps, for the item about the local yoga studio.