Surrounded by her books in her apartment at Palo Alto’s Moldaw Residences, Frederica Postman picks up her curriculum vitae listing the 16 or so volumes she’s produced since 1970, most of them as author, printer and publisher.
Then she apologizes. The C.V., she says, “is designed to look like I’m really a pro. … It’s not a lie. It’s just kind of an exaggeration, as some are just little chapbooks.”
But Postman, who turns 85 on Sept. 12, has never gone for big. Resisting mass marketing, she prides herself on keeping things small.
The books she produced with Saratoga artist Bonnie Stone are limited-edition, primarily handmade works favored by collectors and museums.
In 1979, she printed only 100 copies of “The Yiddish Alphabet Book,” her first with Stone. Sixty copies were printed of their second book and only 40 of their third. “We kept making [the editions] smaller and smaller,” Postman says. “The pleasure is in doing the book. Selling is a chore.”
While you won’t find the books on best-seller lists or even in stores, the art world has taken notice, and these books are in collections at New York’s Whitney Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Postman and Stone celebrated the 35th anniversary of “The Yiddish Alphabet Book” this spring with an exhibition at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos. Later this year, the original drawings from the book will be donated to Stanford University. Other collaborations include three artist’s books: “The True Collector,” “Fashion Statements” and “Amuse Bouche” (French for bite-sized hors d’oeuvres).
As Postman tells it, her plunge into the world of book publishing began on a whim more than half a century ago when she “made an offhand, joking remark about wanting a printing press.”
Her late husband, engineer and computer pioneer Monroe Postman, located a small press, and Frederica got a book from the library to find out how to operate it. After that, “there was no stopping me. I just loved it,” she says, adding that at the time, she had three children under the age of 5. “I never had a hobby, and as hobbies often do, it wound up taking over my life.”
Postman established a small company, P’Nye Press, riffing on the Hebrew word for “leisure,” and did a number of small projects in the 1960s. Then she met Stone, and what started as a hobby became a calling. It began with a meeting she was coaxed into attending.
Growing up in the Bronx and later living in Los Angeles, Postman considered herself a cultural Jew. But when she married the more observant Monroe and moved to the South Bay, they decided to ground their children in Judaism and became founding members of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga. Postman, who was not particularly fond of meetings or committees, attended the initial meeting of a study group, as a onetime thing. The meeting happened to be at Stone’s home, and Postman was impressed with her artwork.
The two became friends and collaborators. With “The Yiddish Alphabet Book,” Postman printed camera-ready copy, doing the writing, typography and layout, which accompanied Stone’s illustrations. The letter mem for meydl (girl) and music is illustrated by Stone’s sketch of her young daughter studying a music book. A favorite page spread illustrates the letter samekh with the Yiddish words for peanut butter, sandwich and jar, and an accompanying sketch.
Although Postman once took an introductory class in Yiddish, she neither speaks nor reads it. “I barely knew the alphabet,” she admits, adding that she compiled the book with the aid of a dictionary.
She and Stone call the Yiddish book their “Ph.D.” learning experience, and unlike some of their later books — which you may find only by contacting Postman or Stone — copies may be found on eBay for $30 to $100.
Some of their later collaborations break the book mold completely, with no bindings to hold them together.
The “cover” of “Fashion Statements,” which sells for $350 — if you can locate one — is a purse-like portfolio with inserts. One of the folios contains a paper doll on the left page and a scissors on the right page, which opens to reveal the doll’s wardrobe.
The cover of “The True Collector,” which last sold for $500, is a Plexiglas box. Inside are 26 letterpress folders filled with Postman’s quotes about her passion for collecting and Stone’s illustrations. Her advice: “Buy only what you like.”
The Postmans were collectors, and when Monroe died in 2012, Frederica spent a year going through their Los Altos home, “filled with all these things we couldn’t part with,” and cleared it out. “It was the best thing I could do for my children,” says Postman, who also has six grandchildren.
In her Moldaw Residences apartment, she still has her collections, albeit edited. Her coffee table is filled with faux book miniatures. Her unusual end tables resemble stacks of leather-bound books, but the tables are hollow, opening up to become storage units. Her bookcases also flank the room, and while she still reads passionately, she sold her printing equipment — other than the printer that accompanies her computer. With a hand tremor, she can no longer use a printing press.
Was it an adjustment moving to Moldaw?
“I love it,” she says. “I’m fortunate that I’m still independent and still can drive, but I don’t have to cook, I don’t have to clean, and if something breaks, I call maintenance.” Citing the many activities available there, she adds, “When I can no longer drive, I can still do lots of things.”