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San Diego

San Diego

As forward thinking as it is laid back.

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Insider Profiles

Capturing the Art of a Simpler Era

Tim Butler"I would be doing this even if I wasn't getting paid."


Quality Letterpress owner Tim Butler embodies the relaxed yet industrious spirit of San Diego. Eight years ago, this Renaissance man – and a member of the doo-wop super-group Sha Na Na – put his years of printing expertise to work and founded Quality Letterpress. Offering printing, foil and embossing services on-site, Butler creates one-of-a-kind designs using handset lead type, custom die cuts, specialty papers and an old-fashioned aesthetic.

In 2011, the press relocated to a warehouse space in Mission Valley, a redeveloped neighborhood that features trolley stops, restaurants and Qualcomm Stadium. With high ceilings and a roll-up garage door that lets in the breeze, the new space is the perfect setting to house a grand collection of antique letterpress machines, some of which date back to the Civil War.

These days, Butler says, "Everything is so prefab. People are trying to get back to handmade things and get away from the computer screen." He's made it his mission to preserve old-school printing techniques and has been running his vintage machines for 30 years. He may spend up to five hours hand-setting lead type to create a single poster and he prides himself in his specialty wedding invitations, saying, "I never made the same invite in eight years."

Typography students from the Art Institute of California-San Diego are invited to tour the working museum, and artists and graphic designers drop by for classes and workshops. Butler also hosts round-table discussions at Point Loma Nazarene University. And he often donates gift certificates for classes to local nonprofits, such as the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation.

Riding a resurgence of graphic design art in ad agencies and branding firms, Butler's business continues to grow. Running the press is a great job, he says. "I can sleep in, leave early, bring my dog to work, and I get to work with creative people."

By day, Butler restores vintage equipment, but weekends find this rock 'n' roller on the road as a touring bass player in Sha Na Na, along with three of the band's original members: Jocko, Screamin' Scott Simon and Donny. A regular weekday gig playing the blues, honky-tonk and rockabilly with the Rockin' Aces (at Tio Leo's in Bay Park) feeds his soul, while local hot spot El Indio sates his taste for Mexican cuisine made with fresh local produce, not to mention specialty cocktails, fine tequila and craft beers.

The San Diego native lives just a few miles from his old stomping grounds in Allied Gardens. He's often found strolling in Balboa Park, hiking in Mission Trails Regional Park — touted as one of the largest urban parks in the country — circling serene Lake Murray, or strolling the surfside paths in Mission Bay Park with his dog Ava, an Australian kelpie.

What does Butler love most about his hometown? Along with a burgeoning art community and great climate, "It's like L.A. was 30 to 40 years ago. We still have open space, trees and grass. There's a very relaxed vibe in San Diego, but that doesn't mean things aren't happening."

Check out Tim's San Diego.