Pressed for Time
Baltimore's Globe Poster Company holds decades of music and printing history--and it's on the verge of being lost
Published: January 26, 2011
Bob Cicero has the air of a man carrying a heavy load, despite the fact that his load just got a bit lighter. The day before a reporter visits Globe Poster Company, the printing business run by Cicero’s family for nearly 40 of its 81 years, he sold its two Miehle letterpresses. Nine feet wide and 18 feet long, the cast-iron presses had stamped out batches of colorful posters for Globe for decades. The rigger who hauled the behemoths away, Cicero says, told him the scrapyard weighed them out at 24,000 pounds each.
The money Cicero gained from selling the presses may help him pay rent on Globe’s cavernous Highlandtown warehouse space a little while longer. But, leaning back in a padded leather office chair, he doesn’t look relieved. “It’s hard,” he says quietly about the sale, looking away. “I used to run them presses every day for a long time.”
Like the Miehles, Globe Poster is an anachronism. Throughout much of the mid-20th century, bold, colorful Globe posters bombed the walls and lampposts of American cities large and small, advertising circuses, carnivals, auto races, and appearances by touring musicians. By the time Cicero began working full time in his father’s shop in the 1960s, television had begun to supplant such live entertainment, but Globe retained a faithful clientele highlighted by constantly touring R&B stars such as James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Ike and Tina Turner. Globe kept churning out its distinctive designs into the hip-hop era, though cheap four-color reproduction flourished and cities began passing ordinances against posters.
Letterpress printing, as practiced by Globe in its heyday, found the Ciceros and their staff assembling the plates for their print jobs out of racks of wooden type, often hand-fashioned, and images contained on etched zinc plates known as “cuts” or on hand-carved wooden blocks. The printers then hand-fed the blank posters into the clanking machinery, which would press the inked plate onto each sheet, leaving behind not only each ink color, but also the literal impression of the type and images. Though more sophisticated, it is essentially the same technology that Johannes Gutenberg used to create the first printed books in the 15th century.
Globe shut down its letterpresses in the late 1980s in favor of cheaper, simpler offset printing, but the Ciceros hung onto much of the old letterpress stuff, including hundreds of drawers full of wooden type, thousands of wooden print blocks and metal “cuts” (from trays full of hand-carved variations of the and live! to original renderings of steady customers such as the Godfather of Soul), and many intact printing plates. In fact, Globe looks more like a disorganized warehouse than a working shop during a recent visit. But then it hasn’t been a working shop for a while. In July 2010, Bob Cicero and his brother Frank effectively closed Globe for business.
At 63, Bob Cicero is the youngest of the three brothers (with Frank and Joe Jr.) who have run Globe in the 24 years since their father, the late Joe Sr., retired. While Joe Jr. hasn’t been involved in the business for some time, it’s now time for Frank and Bob to retire as well. The Ciceros have offered Globe for sale, but as Bob notes, “Because of the economy, it’s a really bad time to sell anything”—especially an all but obsolete business. Cicero isn’t just liquidating an asset, however. Describing an early offer from a buyer in California, he says, “They were going to pick and choose what they wanted. I didn’t want to do it that way, because then Globe would be dead.”
Cicero’s dream involves someone or some organization buying Globe as is, keeping together the unique (possibly unrivaled) collection of historic letterpress type and tools and the graphic-design history that is its collection of print plates and posters and the untapped resource of 20th century black-music history that is the company’s archive of publicity photos and business records. And ideally the letterpress materials wouldn’t end up cataloged in boxes in a basement or entombed in an exhibit case, but would be used, turning out jobs and helping teach a new generation for what has become a modest letterpress revival. And ideally, it would all stay here in Baltimore, its home for more than 80 years.
Fortunately for Cicero, and for Globe, a handful of Baltimoreans have come to share his dream and are working to help make it a reality. In the meantime, Cicero owes thousands of dollars in rent each month to house the once and future Globe and has no business revenue coming in. So Cicero and his supporters are selling off bits of Globe—from photos and vintage posters to the Miehles—in hopes of finding a way to preserve the collection as a whole until a new home can be found. If a new home can be found.
Christian Sturgis is perhaps best known to Baltimoreans as the incendiary guitarist behind local rock bands the Uniform and Fascist Fascist (he currently plays with Lo Moda). Offstage, he has spent more than a decade selling antiques. Last summer, he met a man named Steve Parke, and while bonding over their love of cool music and old things, Sturgis says Parke told him, “‘You should meet my friend Bob. He has a lot of really cool stuff. Maybe you could help him sell some [of it].’”
Sturgis contacted Bob Cicero, who explained that he was hoping to sell his business and that he did indeed have “all this ‘extra stuff,’” Sturgis recalls during an interview at his storefront space in Hampden. Primarily, they discussed more than 6,000 publicity photographs crammed into a wall of filing cabinets, file drawers, and binders in an inner room of the cluttered warren that is Globe’s business offices.
“Musicians would send you the photograph, and then you would make a halftone and then a zinc plate,” Sturgis explains. The metal plate would be inked up and used to print the posters. The photograph would go into a file folder in case it was needed again. “The photographs are basically the plutonium left over from the uranium [enrichment],” Sturgis says. Since November, he has been selling the plutonium on eBay.
Picking through Globe’s archives, Sturgis has selected and sold several hundred photographs, often bearing press-process notes scrawled in red grease pencil, to collectors all over the world. Many images go for just a few dollars (a photograph of ’50s R&B star Little Willie John went to a buyer in New Orleans for around $10), but some shots go for more than $60 (jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt), more than $80 (New Orleans R&B legend Ernie K-Doe), or even more than that. Sturgis has also been selling some original Globe posters via his web site, sturgisantiques.com. He just sold a poster for $100 advertising a 1983 punk/funk extravaganza in Washington, D.C., that paired Kurtis Blow and Trouble Funk with Black Market Baby and Scream. A worn original poster for the 1969 Laurel Pop Festival touting Led Zeppelin, The Mothers of Invention, and Al Kooper was snapped up quickly for thousands.
The Globe collection has turned into a brisk business for Sturgis, but not a lucrative one. “I take a small commission—basically an operating budget, because I’m spending hours on this,” he says. “The lion’s share goes to Globe. I wanna do the right thing, because Globe is so historically important. Money-making is on the back burner.”
Sturgis talks about saving Globe with the fervor of a true believer and has devoted considerable time and energy over the past eight months to helping Bob Cicero do so. He made calls to various cultural institutions, from the Smithsonian Institution to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, hoping to encourage a sale. “Of course, with the economy, people were like, ‘It’d be great if you could give it to us,’” Sturgis says. “Well, here’s a family with three brothers that need to retire. If they could give it away, they would.”
So he has continued trying to help find a buyer for Globe’s collection . . . while selling off pieces of Globe’s collection. “I’m selling a little bit because Globe has no money,” Sturgis says. “The ultimate goal is to support this ship floating over here, but if you undercut it. . .” He pauses. “It’s a catch-22 situation, but it’s helping the ship float a little longer.” (He makes digital scans of both the front and back of everything he sells and plans to hand over a hard drive containing the scans to any eventual buyer of the collection.)
“We’re trying to sell stuff lightly to keep some money coming in,” Cicero says, “and that’s what’s going to sell.”
While the sales bring in some much-needed cash for Globe, Sturgis soon realized “that it was a bigger job than just me trying to pound some pavement.” He and Cicero soon had help.
Mary Mashburn says she first found out about Globe Poster in the pages of City Paper, via a 2009 article called “Letter Men” written by erstwhile staff writer Chris Landers. A former journalist and graphic designer, Mashburn had taken a class on letterpress printing in New York in the early ’00s. As she tells it, she “fell madly in love with the process, got a little lit on gin and tonics one night, bought a press on eBay, and from there spiraled out of control.” She now owns Typecast Press, based in Hampden, and teaches letterpress printing classes at MICA. After reading the CP article, she contacted the Ciceros and arranged a tour of the company for her students. “The first time you see Globe Poster, your mind is just blown,” she says. “You never forget that.”
She had a new class of letterpress-curious students last fall, but she had trouble setting up a tour. “I thought, Well, I wonder what’s happening,” she says. “And then through mutual friends that knew I loved letterpress, I heard that Christian was working with Globe to try to sell it. And I thought, Oh no, this would be just so incredibly sad if this amazing collection that they’ve kept together all these years was atomized on eBay, as happens all too often. So I took it upon myself to call Christian.”
They met in September. While Sturgis had a handle on Globe’s significance as a trove of music history, Mashburn illuminated for him its full significance for printmakers. “It really is a piece of history, of Americana, that will be lost forever,” she says. “It’s not like there are a million other showcard shops that can be saved—this is it. If you don’t know anything about letterpress, I think it’s hard to see the collection as anything but cool bits. Christian got it.”
After finding Cicero and Sturgis, Mashburn began reaching out to other people she knew who might have an interest in saving Globe, among them Sue Walther, a retired exhibit programmer with the Smithsonian Institution; Ande Campbell of local design firm Orange Element; Baltimore magazine arts editor and former City Paper contributor John Lewis; Elaine Eff, folklorist-in-residence with the Maryland State Arts Council; and Jean Thompson, former Sun reporter and amateur African-American-music historian. It was, as she describes it, “a loose informal group of people—we laughingly called ourselves Friends of Globe, FOG—with the idea of trying to raise a little capital in the short term to help Bob keep a roof over the collection’s head and then to work to find a new home for, if not all of Globe, at least a substantial enough part of Globe so that it could be kept together so people could discover it.”
They have their work cut out for them. Sturgis’ overtures to museums and cultural institutions went nowhere. And despite the rise of a new generation of letterpresses, Mashburn felt she could rule them out as candidates to take over Globe as well. “The idea that someone else somehow would be able to come in and make [Globe] a going concern is not likely in the slightest,” she says.
Globe’s posters were artful, but it was a volume business, with the Ciceros and their staff pumping out stacks of product cheaply and quickly. “At their height they were churning out 20 jobs a day, which is astonishing,” Mashburn says. “The letterpress shops today that are successful, or are struggling to be successful, come from a [graphic] designer focus, and from a more upscale focus. They’re charging a premium for a hand craft. [Bob’s] got a big plant and big overhead. Most letterpresses [these days] are small and lean.” Mashburn mentions that Knoxville, Tenn.-based contemporary letterpress shop Yee-Haw Industries had been by to check out Globe, but as she notes, “Yee-Haw is the rock star in this wave of letterpress, and even they are not going to be able to come in and buy the entire contents of Bob’s shop.”
Not that they wouldn’t like to. Yee-Haw co-owners Kevin Bradley and Julie Belcher stopped by Globe on their way to New York in November, and it made an impression. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” Bradley says during a phone interview. “I told Bob it was like going into King Tut’s tomb for me.” Since 1997, Bradley and Belcher have assembled a successful letterpress shop out of “bits and pieces” gleaned here and there from hundreds of presses, garages, and barns, but the result is a well-equipped enterprise that couldn’t accommodate the entire Globe collection. “We’d love to have whatever we can get,” Bradley says, then laughs. “I want it all, honestly. I dream about it at night.”
What may make the most sense, financially and in terms of meeting the conditions Cicero hopes for, is if some local educational institution were to buy all or most of the collection. This is the idea that appeals most to Cicero, who has hosted a number of tours, classes, and individual students from local schools over the years. “I totally enjoyed it,” he says. “A lot of good times. I loved watching the kids work, and some of them did really beautiful work.”
“It’s a chance to have those pieces have a totally new life as a working collection as tools for learning,” Mashburn says. “Our goal has been that it go to a place where it will get used. I think you can tell from how much Bob loves using it that that’s his passion.”
Cicero acknowledges that “we have had interest from MICA but no firm commitment.” MICA Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Raymond Allen confirms that the school is engaged in an ongoing “conversation” with the Ciceros regarding Globe. “There’s been no talk of exact prices or what would be involved in what we’d be taking on,” Allen says during a phone interview, but “we’re interested.” He adds that the idea of acquiring Globe came “absolutely out of the blue,” and thus the funds for such a purchase would probably have to be raised somehow. When it’s noted that the Ciceros may not be able to support the collection as it is much longer, Allen adds, “I think that’s part of the conversation—how quickly we could move, versus how urgent his need is to act in some way.”
Allen is unequivocal, however, when he speaks about the possible good some deal could do for Globe, for MICA, and for Baltimore. “It’s a local treasure and a very rare opportunity and an important resource to try and keep in our town,” he says. “And it would be right up our alley in terms of access to something for our students that would be, frankly, unique. I don’t think there’s any other art school in the country that would or could provide access to this kind of material.”
In the meantime, various other plans for some kind of future for Globe are still moving forward. Cicero met recently with representatives of the Smithsonian, who want him to design a poster in the classic Globe style for an upcoming event. Sturgis says he’d love to do a book about Globe. Still, as Mashburn says, “This is all kind of new to us, but this is not new to Bob. He needs to find a resolution.”
Asked how much longer he can keep renting the current space and storing the collection, waiting for a buyer for the whole thing, Cicero says, “Not much longer. It’s kind of on a day-to-day basis, ’cause I don’t know how much money I’m going to have.” He pauses. “I don’t like thinking about it. It’s scary.”
Still, there’s hope. “I have a great core of people who are into Globe Poster—eight months ago I didn’t know that,” he says. “The people who have shown love for an old letterpress company really inspired me. I thought I was gonna close the doors and that’s it.”
But as he leads yet another tour of the shelves of type, the ranks of zinc plates, the mounds of old show posters, their fluorescent inks still blazing, and he hears yet another visitor call it all “amazing,” he can’t help himself.
“Everyone tells me how amazing it is, but Jesus God,” he exclaims. “If it’s so amazing, why aren’t people jumping on it?”
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