I’m self-employed, and business in the past several years has been brisk. For translators like me, multiculturalism is a picnic. The dismal trends in the publishing industry do affect several of my main clients, though. Last winter they kept sending me plenty of work, while getting themselves thousands of dollars in arrears. Early this spring my cash-flow problems were so bad that I had to cash out an investment.
This errand took me back to Northern Liberties, where I began my career in publishing almost thirty years ago. I was employed by a fraternal financial association (think Knights of Columbus, except ethnic) that had its own publishing house. I started as a bilingual typesetter for their community newspaper, which appeared five times a week. I sat at a keyboard and operated a phototypesetting machine that projected letters onto film, which we then developed in a darkroom and gave to the editors, who pasted up the pages. In a garage-like room next door the presses cranked out and folded over a thousand copies of each edition, which ran anywhere from four to twelve pages.
After a few years with that employer, I moved into an apartment down the block from my workplace. Since I no longer commuted, I had time to do volunteer work in the community and enough money to invest in some of the financial instruments offered by the association.
The publishing house continued to modernize. It saved a lot on production costs by upgrading to personal computers, PageMaker software and ink-jet printers. The steady decline in the number of subscriptions told me, though, that the newspaper was doomed to disappear within two decades. I moved on to another job south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
As I expected, at around the turn of the millennium the newspaper was reduced to one large weekly edition. About ten years later they stopped printing it altogether, although it survived online at minimal expense for longer than I could have predicted. But even compiling and formatting articles electronically is make-work when most of the material is already available in digital format. Today members of the fraternal financial association can find most of the same sorts of articles as before and much more posted at its FaceBook page.
I reflected on this creative destruction in the publishing industry as I drove to Northern Liberties from my apartment in the suburbs. As I neared my destination I saw many signs of the gentrification of my old neighborhood: a shiny new supermarket on a corner formerly occupied by a brewery; a block of condos filling in the formerly unused space between a halfway house and a funeral parlor.
The premises of my former employer were transformed too. In the heyday of the association its offices had occupied two adjoining row-houses; now, with a much smaller staff, they were able to seal off one of them and rent it to tenants as an additional source of income. When I explained to the employee who answered the door that I used to work there, I got a tour. The typesetters’ room was almost unchanged and now served as a meeting room. The “garage” had been completely refinished and was partitioned into small offices. The room where they used to print address labels and apply them to the newspapers had appropriately enough been turned into a library of ethnic and historical books. I asked about some of the employees in the financial offices whom I had met long ago; my “tour guide” was acquainted with only one of them, who is retired but still acts as a consultant.
In the former production manager’s office at the front of the building I signed the papers for the financial transaction of the day. As I said goodbye and went out to the hall, I felt wistful: no hard feelings about the fact that the association had completely divested itself of its publishing operations, just gratitude that it had given me the opportunity to get into the business on the ground floor.
As I left by the front door, I squinted in the brilliant spring sunshine. It seemed that the world outside had been transformed, too. Back in the day, old brownish three-storey row-houses had lined the other side of the street, one of them the parish house of a nearby church, another containing affiliated offices for the local community. The houses had been demolished and I was looking at a park with a bright green lawn and a commemorative statue.