We font fans go window shopping in an entirely different way, stumbling into street furniture as we go. Like maps, fonts do not always tell the truth; they may make us feel warmer towards a product by association, quickening our desires by stirring our memories. At 225 Smith Street we encounter Smith + Butler, a swinging tavern sign in a curious blend of German blackletter and Wild West wanted poster. The sign has all sorts of weirdness going on, including a crescent shape over the i, where normally a dot would go. The letters look as if they have been carved by an apprentice stonemason on his first (and probably last) day. The sign wants us to believe that the store - which sells home furnishings and classic utility clothing leaning towards biker chic - has been in this neighborhood for a while. Its owners speak of how the shop's mood 'reflects the early 1900s corner carriage house, the 1940s butcher shop and the 1960s local pharmacy'. But shopfitters are really setbuilders, and the type on the signs is not actually fifteenth-century Gutenburg or nineteenth-century Wyoming, but something stenciled in 2008, when the place opened.
In Manhattan, we can stroll into the reassuring chaos of the Strand Bookstore on Twelfth Street and Broadway, and find that their popular T-shirts and mugs ('18 Miles of Books') are in Helvetica. But you will find no better example of the diversity of type than by touring the tables and stacks. The text choices favour the digitized traditionals, the Bembos and Baskervilles and Times New Romans, but the jackets display the full roster, the fluid scripts for those intimate heartrending memoirs, the all-lower-case for the comic novels, the no-nonsense bold capitals for the business books, the wimpy scrawls for the children's stuff. Of course you can judge a book by its cover; moreover, we are obliged to.
A walk a couple of miles north to the Museum of Modern Art will be rewarded with a small exhibition devoted to posters and type on the London Underground, a design from the beginning of the twentieth century that was influential in setting a modernist tone throughout Europe. Edward Johnston's font, with its exceptional clarity and magical diamond dot on the i, has helped millions of travelers find their way around the capital. But trying to get close to it during its run at MoMA was a task, such was the interest and so eager were the crowds.
So I think we live in healthy typographical times. Steve Jobs and his digital rivals have brought about a world in which we are all masters of our type, and one in which we are more aware of fonts - their names, their design, their pedigrees - than ever before.
The modest purpose of this book, beyond entertainment and elucidation, is to extend this awareness and to celebrate our relationship with letters. Things we take for granted may disappear without our knowing; things we treasure should not pass without commemoration.
Excerpted from Just My Type by Simon Garfield. Copyright (c) 2011 by Simon Garfield. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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