The Indispensable Small Press

Amatoritsero Ede in Conversation with Simon Dardick

AuthorAmatoritsero Ede: Véhicule press began in 1973 on the private grounds of Véhicule Art Inc, a gallery run by artists.  Was the press a joint effort of visual artists, or writers or did it have an inner circle of ‘member’ writers – as Coach House Press did – at its inception?

Simon Dardick: Not surprisingly, reflecting the orientation of the gallery (visual and performance art, video), those of us who started the press back then were artists or art school graduates—nary a writer among us, although we wanted to publish Canadian writing and artists’ books. By and large we were middle-class kids who taught ourselves how to typeset, print, and make books.

A.E.: Did you initially (or do you still like Gaspereau Press) print your own books in-house? If so what was your print shop like at such an early stage.

S.D.: From 1973 to 1981 we printed our own books and books for some Montreal literary presses. Not to say we did not produce attractive books, but we were more of a grassroots press than let’s say Coach House or Porcupine’s Quill. In addition to publishing we paid the rent by printing invitations and catalogues for artists and galleries, and pamphlets and newsletters for community and political groups. All done in the ink-stained-industrial-looking two-storey-high room that was once the kitchen of Café Montmartre, a legendary Montreal night club of the 1940s.

A.E.: According to one source, you started out with an ‘ancient press.’ Do you still have this ‘artefact.’ Can you describe its make; its abilities, limitations and how this aided or impeded your growth as a press?

S.D.: We began using equipment inherited from Kenny Hertz's Ingluvin Publications (a small Montreal literary press) and an ancient ATF Chief 20 printing press originally purchased by artist Tom Dean to print his Beaux-Arts Magazine. It had sat idle in the back of the gallery for months.  The Chief printed wonderfully, when it wasn’t acting up, on a bastard-sized 14 x 18-inch sheet.  It enabled us to take on projects we could never have done with our offset litho machines, like the first issues of the important arts magazine, Parachute

A.E.: What are your print production operations like today?

S.D.: By 1980, when we realized we did not have the capacity to print trade books with many pages and large print runs, we contracted with large book manufacturers to print such titles as Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood, a first study on the writer by Sherrill Grace, and Spreading Time: Remarks on Canadian Writing and Writers 1904-1949, Earle Birney’s first and only memoir. In 1981, Quebec’s only printing and publishing co-op was dissolved, and my wife Nancy Marrelli and I continued the press from the ground floor of our greystone in Montreal’s Plateau Montréal neighbourhood. Of course, like most publishers, our operation now only encompasses editorial and marketing functions.

A.E.: I noted that you publish most of the writing genres – novels, poetry, creative non-fiction are examples. How does the genre of a proposed book influence production practices such as choice of paper, book format, type of binding and so on?  I will give you an example: can you imagine printing a on novel on glossy paper or newsprint?

S.D.: Although we do not print our books, our roots in the gallery, my background as a painter, and our experience as printers, informs how we approach the making of books. The type, choice of paper and cover design are important elements which must match the genre and particular title. To distinguish Signal Editions and Esplanade Books, our poetry and fiction imprints, the covers are designed by one person, David Drummond of Salamander Hill Design. His covers for our books have won many awards. In terms of type we pretty well have a house style. Adobe Minion for fiction and non-fiction, and Filosofia for poetry. Non-fiction titles with photographs will be printed on white offset paper, the remainder on a natural or cream stock. All the titles in Esplanade Books fiction series are produced with French flaps.

A.E.: When do you decide a book should be in hardcover or trade paperback and why.

S.D.: All of our books are trade paperback. For certain titles, during the halcyon CanLit days in the 1970s and 1980s when libraries still ordered hardcover books, we published both formats. This market has evaporated. We are not unhappy publishing quality trade paper editions.

A.E.: Does Vehicule Press invest in the new POB technologies? The Expresso Book Machine is the rave in some publishing quarters. Is it really practical for your purposes?

S.D.: As the quality of print on demand improves it increasingly becomes an important tool for publishers who want to reduce the storage costs of books sitting in their distributor’s warehouse. We have begun using POD to service university and college course adoptions.

A.E.: In an environment of increasing digitisation, what do you feel is the future of the book as a physical object?

S.D.: The book will continue to exist as a physical object, however, the question is to what degree. On amazon, Kindle sales are growing exponentially and e-books are appearing on a regular basis on publishers’ lists. Unless there is tremendous volume will publishers be able to generate enough revenue from e-books to cover the editorial costs of producing a quality book? That is the concern of publishers. For literary publishers there is still an audience for actual books, although the demise of independent bookstores has made it more difficult. One thing is for sure, poetry books will continue to be sold at readings. In terms of marketing, digital options offer tremendous opportunities to create a buzz around a book.

A.E.: As an insider who has been present at the critical and initial stages of Canadian Printing, how do you rate the developments so far?

S.D.: The changes in book production – since we started our press in 1973 – has been dramatic. We used to typeset our books using the IBM Composer – the first desktop typesetting machine that was basically a sophisticated typewriter. Then we made the transition to Compugraphic’s photo typesetting which extruded the formatted type on scrolls of photographic paper. We used hot wax to effect the layout for both. Now, of course, the process is totally digital – from manuscript to the high resolution PDF we FTP to the printer, and even to a large extent, the printing itself. Quality and low cost accessibility is now available to the smallest publisher.

A.E.: What do you think has been the importance or impact of the small press in the emergence of Canada as a publishing country?

S.D.: Small presses played a fundamental role in the efflorescence of Canadian literature in the 1970s, publishing literary and critical works that created and reflected pride in Canadian writing. The depth and quality of Canadian writing, considering our population, is considerable, and the contribution of small presses continues to be vital.

A.E.: Thank you for taking time off your busy schedule.

Early Printing Facts


In 1803, in Germany, Friedrich Koenig envisaged a press in which the raising and lowering of the platen, the to-and-fro movement of the bed, and the inking of the form by a series of rollers were controlled by a system of gear wheels. Early trials in London in 1811 were unsuccessful. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Véhicule Press

Véhicule Press

Véhicule Press began in 1973 on the premises of Véhicule Art Inc., one of Canada's first artist-run galleries. The large space occupied by both the gallery and the press at 61 Ste-Catherine St. West was once the Café Montmarte--the renowned jazz club of the 1930s. (See Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal).
Guy Lavoie (designer of the Véhicule Press logo), Annie Nayer, Marshalore, and Vivian Jemelka-White began using equipment inherited from Kenny Hertz's defunct Ingluvin Publications and an idle, ancient ATF Chief 20 printing press originally purchased by artist Tom Dean to print Beaux-Arts magazine.
In 1975 the press became Coopérative d'Imprimerie Véhicule--Quebec's only cooperatively-owned printing and publishing company. Véhicule Press was the publishing imprint of the coop. In late spring 1977, Véhicule Press moved to 1000 Clark Street in the heart of Chinatown, and in 1980 moved to an industrial space located on Ontario Street East.
In spring 1981, the coop was dissolved and Simon Dardick (who had joined the press during the summer, 1973) and Nancy Marrelli continued Véhicule Press from Roy Street East, not far from The Main (just around the corner from where the poet Emile Nelligan lived) in the Plateau area of Montreal.
Since 1973 Véhicule Press has published award-winning poetry, fiction, essays, translations, and social history. Simon Dardick and Nancy Marrelli are the publishers and general editors, Vicki Marcok is Office Manager and Maya Assouad is Marketing & Promotions Manager. Michael Harris was the founding editor of the Signal Editions poetry series in 1981. Carmine Starnino became Signal Editions editor in January 2001. Since 1981, 72 titles have been published in the series; one third of them by first-time authors.
In late summer 2003, Andrew Steinmetz became editor of Esplanade Books, Véhicule's new fiction series. Andrew is the author of Histories and Wardlife: The Apprenticeship of a Young Writer as a Hospital Clerk.
In December 2003, Véhicule Press celebrated its 30th anniversary at the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec..

What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things... it is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface.

– Constantin Brancusi
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