Pressed to Last

One of the Pearl’s longest-running enterprises continues to thrive.

From his window at Gann Brothers Printing, Michael Gann sees people stroll by his family’s three-story brick building, perhaps on their way to REI, directly across Johnson Street. Often, he muses: They look at us and wonder: what’s going on in there? What’s in that building?

The black-outlined, bronze-lettered company logo doesn’t convey as much information as it once did. Long before desktop printers became ubiquitous, NW 14th Avenue—running south several blocks from Everett Street—was Portland’s “Printer’s Row,” according to Gann, who at 53 is the youngest remaining member of this family business, which he operates with his brother Christopher. “The Pearl District used to have 30 to 35 printers, within my lifetime,” he says. Now, not counting the FedEx Offices of the world, Gann Brothers (1410 NW Johnson St, 503-228-7371, is the only full-service print shop left in the neighborhood.

The Gann family has had a hand in Portland printing since the early 20th century, when Michael’s grandfather James came to Oregon from Greece as a teenager, with plans to mine for gold. (Gann is a shortened version of Gannopolus.) When that didn’t pan out, he attended Benson Polytechnic High School and learned the printing trade. Their business was focused on printing menus for restaurants, many in the Greek community, as well as posters, flyers, and the like. James’s son Steven took the streetcar to make deliveries for the printing business before he knew how to drive. He also eventually attended Benson High School to study printing.

“We still cast metal, and I still print from it …”

When Steven returned from Army service in the Korean War, he went to college and law school—but printing ink ran in his veins. He joined forces with a printer that had been in business in 1915 and was originally located where Portland State University’s library now stands. “When the State of Oregon condemned that building to expand the university, it was the only time my father used his law degree. He sued the state and won the case, which in 1965 brought him enough money to purchase the building we’re in now,” says Michael.

Like his father, Michael and his two brothers grew up in the print business, and took it over when their father retired. The company has a trove of still-working printers that are not easy to come by these days—machines that cast the lead needed for printing, like Intertype-brand linotype machines, manufactured in the 1910s, and Ludlow devices, from about the same era. “We still cast metal, and I still print from it,” says Michael—but Gann also offers digital printing for jobs that are best suited to this approach.

The business has changed quite a bit over the decades, since it started in the era in which absolutely anything that needed to be printed in quantity had to be sent out to a printer. Steven Gann’s business originally had a large focus on the legal community—courts had a lot of printing needs, since court decisions needed to be published and therefore typeset. (At one point, the company changed its name to Gann Publishing Company to reflect this specialty.) Steven also had commercial accounts, including business cards and stationery, and a robust practice in newsletters, which he published for the local chapters of the Eagles and the Elks clubs.

“Once people see what we do, in all its different forms, they’re captivated.”

All these types of business started to decline with the advent of desktop publishing in the late 1980s. Some of it just vanished completely—newsletters are now mostly produced on personal computers. But a lot of needs merely shifted and changed: Restaurants will still order offset print menus from Gann Brothers, for instance—but only with their logo and design, as most now print their own daily menu offerings using a laser printer. Marathons still need race numbers printed, and Gann Brothers handles these jobs. And there’s still a need for business cards and stationery, as well as letterpress wedding and event invitations.

Of course, the Pearl District has changed dramatically around the Gann Brothers building, too. Back when his father moved into the then-manufacturing district, “during the day there were people around, but by 4:45 p.m., it was a ghost town,” he recalls. Today, Michael and his wife, Susan, enjoy the neighborhood’s many happy hours after work—they regularly drop by On Deck Sports Bar & Grill. As his brother Christopher now considers retiring (his oldest brother Steven already has), Michael is eager to share his family’s deep knowledge about printing as well as the unique role they’ve played in Portland’s history.

In addition to the several still-working antique presses, Gann Brothers has a 7-foot-tall cabinet stuffed with examples of printing work they’ve completed over the decades, including original menus from the late Fish Grotto, which had been around since 1891. The company participates in First Thursdays and the annual Bunny Hop, and the public is encouraged to drop by. “If you see the lights on, that means we’re in the building,” says Michael. “Stop in! Once people see what we do, in all its different forms, they’re captivated—they often say they didn’t know this was still possible. It’s amazing to watch. Their eyes grow big—the wonderment is still there.” – Alison Stein | Main Photos by Ashley Anderson, inset photos by Sarah Williams