In quiet, post-Katrina days, walking through the hibernating Frenchmen Street music district, Makkos would stop outside one big window covered in brown-bag paper, cut with a small, solitary-confinement-size peephole. “You could peer in and see work-desks and file cabinets, a light and a doorway, and a sign that said ‘A.F. Laborde’s Printers,’ ” he tells me. Laborde’s had operated on Frenchmen in different forms since before the turn of the 19th century. “Then everyone had just gotten up from their desks and left the Friday before Katrina,” says Makkos. “Andre Laborde dismissed all his press men, and a lot of the guys lived in the east and lost their homes, so they never came back, just took their retirements.”
Passing by the shop, Makkos often dialed the number printed on the wall outside. A year or so later, when Andre Laborde needed help clearing out, Makkos received a return call. Over the next three months, for a couple of hours every day, Makkos helped Laborde pack up and haul away tools, bars of lead, and other gritty printing ephemera. Makkos recalls shoveling small mountains of loose lead typefaces into many plastic rain buckets.
One of his friends, who worked at a now-defunct French Quarter bookstore, later gave Makkos a 9-by-13 Kelsey Excelsior press—age unknown, patented 1897—one of the largest tabletop models that company ever manufactured. “The guy’d had this press in the bookstore’s bottom-level slave quarters. They’d done one broadside run with it in the ’90s. It was rusted to shit, but I took it anyway, took it apart, took a wire brush to it and some Scotch-Brite. Spent a couple weeks on it, and now it’s fully functional.”
But his very first press, salvaged from the Bargain Center thrift, junk, and costume shop in the Bywater neighborhood, carries the most significance in terms of his newspaper project. Cast and assembled in the late 1870s or early 1880s, Makkos’ favorite iron proofing press bears the stamp of R. Hoe, who in 1847 patented the type of web press that surely printed his entire Picayune collection. Makkos’ R. Hoe is a whole different 500-pound beast: “After the type would be set by hand or else made on the linotype machine, they’d then put the type into the column-sized galley trays,” he explains. “Then they’d lay a sheet of paper down and hand ink it just to have a proof to give to the editor.”
The R. Hoe came with no letterpress type, just the rollers. It took three men to heave it upstairs to his room. Makkos rubs its gilded flower-work with pride. “I sent a photo of this to the Print History Museum in upstate New York, and they say they’ve never seen one like it,” he says. Based on his research, Makkos hypothesizes his R. Hoe came over on a ship and lived in New Orleans for more than 130 years, and was perhaps used by the union press on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, one of the first print shops in Louisiana owned and operated by its workers. Though tough to corroborate, based on his research thus far Makkos calls his R. Hoe the oldest working press in Louisiana.
Lacking wood typeset letters for his press, Makkos scoured salvage stores, searching for historic New Orleans type; he recently scored a Touro Hospital letterhead print block from the early 20th century. Makkos and an assistant have also begun sorting the buckets and drawers of galley type salvaged from Laborde’s, a task akin to completing a jigsaw puzzle of several million pieces. It has taken them a year to find and organize just two-dozen complete typefaces of sometimes-microscopic letters and numbers.
in 2012, the Times-Picayune became primarily digital, printing the paper only three days a week plus occasional supplements, and decreasing the chance that some future Makkos might one day stumble upon, say, a rare, comprehensive cache of classic Picayunes from 2013. So Makkos takes his find seriously. “We first have to digitally archive all of this more thoroughly, in a way the Times-Picayune itself either couldn’t or just never bothered to,” he says. While organizing the papers, he plans to pass them through more high-tech and, more important, larger scanners than were originally used to create the Picayune’s current microfilm archive. He’s applied for various grants to fund this effort, and hopes to archive the entire collection before the city’s tricentennial celebration in 2018. His longer-term goal is to create a research archive and printing museum in New Orleans.