Best Repository of Printed Memories

Paragon Typographers

The last of the old typesetters, Paragon closes its doors this fall after 36 years of putting St. Louis' words into print. Its conscientious typographers set the first type for the St. Louis Business Journal, and they set the first Riverfront Times but didn't trust that Hartmann guy to pay them. When the Post-Dispatch went on strike, they set a surrogate daily: "We didn't have a way to get the stock market, so we'd send a guy out to the airport to get the New York Times off the first plane and we'd cut and paste," says co-founder Paul Johnson with a grin. Now the staff is emptying the file cabinets of their early triumphs -- type carefully wrapped, every line hand-justified. In the '90s, when computers began to let everybody set their own type, Paragon switched to prepress work. Now even that's do-it-yourself.

Johnson spreads out issues of Tiger Beat and The Lovebook and Front Page Detective ("Her Corpse Bore the Marks of a Sadist's Whip"). There's a stack of Midwest Motorist tabloids (July 1968: "Would you trust a very precious cargo to a woman driver?") and a Right On showing Michael Jackson's real nose. A Dell romance magazine sold for 50 cents in 1969, the cover wailing, "My Wife Thinks Sex Is Sinful." Ten years later, Rona Barrett's Gossip frets over Sonny and Cher's custody battle and wonders, "Has Shelley Hack put the sizzle back in 'Charlie's Angels'?"

"The one they tore the most magazines up over was Liz Taylor and Richard Burton," recalls Whitfield. "They were married in the morning and divorced in the afternoon. I had to take the corrections over the phone and reset everything; it was all done in hot metal in those days." Whitfield never did cotton to cold type. His strength was patience: He was the only one who could set the Ladies' Circle Needlework, line after tiny line of twisted stockinette instructions. He pulls out an old strip of cast lead and regards it fondly: one line of type, squirted out at 550 degrees. If the linotype operator transposed a letter, he'd have to reset the entire line, so he finished out the line with gibberish, running his finger down the keys. (They used to use profanity, until the gremlins made sure it found its way into the printed edition.)

Johnson picks up the lead, turns it over in his hand. He's dreading retirement. He nods toward the old brass elevator cage in the hall: "I applied to run it."

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