Rise and Shine Letterpress wouldn’t seem like a likely contender for the “hidden gem” title given that owner Ryan Howell previously worked for an ad agency.

But much about the evolution of the Alexandria firm located in a once-abandoned storefront on Lee Street is unlikely. The first being that Howell and his wife Leslie Graham gave up comfortable office jobs to rent a studio for their letterpress business. The second is how they set about reviving the classic printing method in the first place.

Graham received a birthday card printed in letterpress one year. Howell remembers when she showed it to him.

“I just touched it, and I could tell it was unique and something amazing,” he said.

A “disappearing art”

And that was it. He wanted to know how to make it himself. A few searches on Craigslist later, and the couple had their own printing machine. After that, there was a lot of trial and error.

Rise and Shine Letterpress is a print shop in Alexandria that revives a classic printing method.  The business is owned by husband and wife Ryan Howell and Leslie Graham and is located in a formerly abandoned storefront on Lee Street in Alexandria.

“There was really no one to teach us how to do it because it’s kind of a dying art,” Howell said.

At the time, the couple lived in Philadelphia. Graham, originally from Alexandria, went to school at the University of Philadelphia to study graphic design. Subsequently, she began working for an internationally renowned design firm. Howell studied and then worked in advertising. But a desk job just wasn’t fulfilling like his new profession would become.

“I wanted to work with my hands and get dirty…to create something that didn’t need to be sold, but would sell itself,” Howell said.

So that’s what he’s doing today with Rise and Shine. You will never see an advertisement for the job. And Howell noted, “we don’t even have a sign” identifying the store. Much like letterpress printing itself, Howell’s philosophy is that business is better lived than spoken.

“It’s something you can experience, and then it’s something special,” Howell said. “If we were like, ‘Hey, everyone, come get some letterpress cards,’ it wouldn’t be as special.”

What is typography?

The method of printing developed by Johannes Gutenberg today is known as typography, Howell explained. German-made Heidelberg presses owned by Rise and Shine date back to the mid-1900s and were purchased through Craigslist. One was salvaged from an old printing press in Abbeville, Louisiana.

A row of German-made Heidelberg presses line one of the walls of Rise and Shine Letterpress in Alexandria.  The newest of the machines was built in the 1960s, and the majority of them were purchased via Craigslist by Rise and Shine owners Ryan Howell and Leslie Graham.  The first press in the row once belonged to a printing company in Abbeville, Louisiana.

The couple said even those unfamiliar with the craft can see and feel the qualities of letterpress printing. These include color, precision and texture.

“It’s a very tactile experience,” Graham said.

Howell added that it all goes back to creation and what it’s like to work with a typographic machine.

“It’s like having a connection to an earlier time when things were done more deliberately, when it was OK to take your time and not just OK, but encouraged,” Howell said.

Pictured are products created at Rise and Shine Letterpress in Alexandria.

“(Today) it’s all about efficiency,” he added. “But we (at Rise and Shine) aren’t trying to be efficient. We’re trying to be interesting.”

Other Rise and Shine Services

The company’s other services include hot stamping, die cutting and screen printing. The store has been located at 2401 Lee Street for four years now. The building – and its affordability, character and space – became one of the reasons the couple moved to Graham’s hometown. They can also live there on the second floor.

“We’ve adapted to the typographic lifestyle,” joked Howell. “It’s not like a job. It’s a kind of existence.”

Husband and wife Ryan Howell and Leslie Graham own Rise and Shine Letterpress, a print shop located in a formerly abandoned storefront on Lee Street in Alexandria.
Leslie Graham and her husband Ryan Howell own Rise and Shine Letterpress, a print shop located in a formerly abandoned storefront on Lee Street in Alexandria.

Since moving to Alexandria, three employees have joined Rise and Shine. Like the owners, Howell and Graham, who are in their early thirties, they are young too. This speaks to a renewed interest among some young design students in wanting to do hands-on work, Howell said.

“In the past, (entering design) meant you draw or cut and paste,” Howell said. “Today, if you want to be a graphic designer, you’re going to spend a lot of time behind your Mac. … So there’s a disconnect.”

For this reason, Howell said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the niche market flourish in the coming years.

“I see a bright future for typography,” he said.