Tweezer in hand, Mandolin Brassaw concentrates like a surgeon in the operating theater as she places metal letters in minuscule 6-point type into a curved tray. She spells out the words of a Yayoi Kusama poem, which she will later print onto a card festooned with a vintage postage stamp as part of a series of artistic prints that combine poetry with creative typography.

“Setting type is very meditative,” said Brassaw, standing beside her midcentury Vandercook SP15 manual letterpress in the back of Grapheme, her combination stationery shop and letterpress studio in the Central District. Looking into the sliver of a shop through the window from East Union Street, you can spy her 1908 Chandler & Price model, the more “locomotive” of the two, she says, which is handy for rapid-fire print jobs, like her election season “get out the vote” postcards or the Black Lives Matter posters she and colleagues in Seattle’s printing community cranked out in June 2020.

As Grapheme’s owner, Brassaw is both a printer and a curator.


Her tiny but well-manicured retail display features greeting cards, posters, notecards and other printed ephemera from dozens of printers around the world, with an emphasis on local practitioners like Portage Bay-based Dahlia Press. She carries an assortment of Japanese pens, washi tape and other accessories favored by her dedicated clientele, many drawn from the ranks of Seattle’s robust graphic design community. The shop also serves as host for letterpress and bookbinding classes arranged by the Field Trip Society.

Brassaw’s place in the letterpress community is the fruit of a lark: She picked up printing as a hobby while wrestling with a doctoral dissertation in English and American literature at the University of Oregon. “I wanted to get out of my head and do something with my hands,” she said.

She started a stationery company with a friend in Eugene in 2008, then three years later moved to Seattle, where she eventually wound up as a writing and literature instructor at Seattle University. In 2015, she opened Grapheme, which sits on the ground-floor unit of a live/work space. In the early days, she lived above the shop.

That perch gave her perspective on the last seven years of change on the block, which has flourished with a constellation of mutually reinforcing small businesses where owners refer customers to each other and one shop draws spillover foot traffic to another — pastry fans from Shikorina, for example, stumble into Grapheme. Brassaw credits Isolynn “Ice” Dean, who ran Cortona Cafe on the corner of East Union and 25th (which now hosts Melo Cafe) for cultivating this bustling, block-long community.

Back inside, Grapheme is something of a family affair. Brassaw’s young daughter chalked up the old brick that serves as the shop’s doorstop, while Brassaw’s father designed and built the retail shelves, which mimic the shape of a printer’s drawer at a much larger scale — no tweezers required.