From the time he was 21, Kurt Gorham wanted to do only one thing, go into the printing business. Once he had made his decision, it was only a matter of months before Gorham was earning a living—and a name for himself—at Independence Graphics, a Centralia printing firm he founded in 1976.

Yet printing wasn’t the only dream he nurtured since childhood. He also wanted to live on land that has been in his family for decades, so in 1988 at the age of 33, Gorham moved his printing presses to the wet, wooded hillsides southwest of Rochester and renamed the business Gorham Printing.

And just as dramatically, he began turning away all business that didn’t involve books. Run by Gorham, his wife Norma and four employees, Gorham Printing is uniquely qualified to produce books. Few presses in South Puget Sound have the giant wheel-like glue machine Gorham uses for perfect binding. Equally rare is his array of IBM-compatible computers that are used for typesetting manuscripts, as well as for book jacket designs.

“I know almost all designers and print shops use Apple,” Gorham says, “but we chose IBM because the bulk of our manuscripts are done on PCs—I have the greatest conversion software available, but I couldn’t afford to be constantly going across platforms.”

Print runs are small, typically 2,000 copies, and the literary reputations of Gorham’s authors are modest. The self-publishing world is a long way from the glamorous spheres reserved for names like Koontz, King, Grisham and Steele. Most manuscripts are written by older individuals or groups wishing to preserve their history, whether it is a family legacy, parish records or collected tales of life before the Big War, radio and the jet airplane.

Occasionally, a local author will publish a minor—albeit regional—bestseller. Ron Fowler, a former grocery wholesaler who lives in the Tacoma area, for example, has done well with “Guilty By Circumstance,” his chronicle of the bizarre slayings and manhunt for John Tornow in the logging forests southwest of Shelton in 1911.

Nostalgia of a different sort has propelled “Motor Cars and Serv-Us Stations” onto the local bestseller charts in Aberdeen. Third-generation photographer and author William Jones compiled historic—and starkly exquisite—black-and-white photographs of gasoline filling stations as they were known in the first half of the 20th Century. Gorham’s attractive cover design and painstaking photo scans are credited with helping the Jones Photo Co. sell nearly 1,000 copies so far from their Aberdeen storefront at $29.95 each.

Along with notable titles, Gorham also prints his share of Granny’s recipes and other works of slightly narrower interest. Though he spells it out plainly over the phone and with his printed guide to self-publishing, Gorham acknowledges with a sad smile that in the case of many customers, the bulk of their masterpieces wind up in storage.

Gorham Printing cranks out more than 100 titles a year, with 130 projected for 1999, an increasing number of them brought in by its web site.

“The Internet is now bringing us close to 25 percent of our total business,” Gorham says.

He says too that he’s fortunate to have a large following among writers who drive all the way down from the Seattle area. Despite the seclusion of his operation, tucked as it is among the rural hills above the Chehalis River flood plain, Gorham says, authors drop in at all hours, often unannounced.

Gorham isn’t unique to the area just in its concentration on books. Because it requires on average six to eight weeks to turn a manuscript into a hard- or soft-cover product, Gorham says, pricing automatically takes into account the extraordinarily large amount of hand-holding time required by some customers. Add to this the time-consuming conversion of manuscripts and page layouts numbering in the hundreds and you have two examples of where the printer and the customer alike must bend a little to reach the bottom line.

Gorham says the quality of his company’s pre-press service is necessary because of the way authors feel about their books and the typical lack of sophistication among unpublished authors as to proofing, printing and marketing them.

“Gorham does an excellent job in a very specialized field,” says Doug Mahurin, owner of Alley Press in Olympia, adding that he’s just one of a number of area printers who refer customers to Gorham when their needs involve perfect-binding.

By Mark Woytowich, Business Examiner contributor