by Jeremy Jones
My visit to The Philadelphia Print Shop put me in such a state of awe, I had to go back three times to get my notes straight and attempt to maintain a journalist’s objectivity. It would take a five-part series to do the shop justice, so I offer a taste of what is in store for you.
You don’t have to be a history buff or a lover of antiques or an “A” student. All you need to do is walk in the door and have a conversation with owner Don Cresswell, and the adventure begins.
A published author and nationally recognized American Revolution scholar, Cresswell has the eyes of a gentle sage, the resumé of a formidable man of letters and the passion of Mr. Chips. His genuine enthusiasm for an inventory of more than 20,000 unique and historic antique maps and prints is contagious.
In the heart of the Hill, at 8441 Germantown Ave., The Philadelphia Print Shop is one of the most successful and respected print shops in the country. You will have to travel to New York or Washington, D.C., to find anything comparable; but how many of those establishments welcome local scholars to sit at the desk in their upstairs reference library on a Saturday afternoon?
The awe factor kicked in on my first visit to the shop, when I had the opportunity to hold and peruse a pigskin-bound 1564 edition of “The Cosmographia” – maps of “The New World” – by German cartographer Sebastian Munster (1488-1552). I’ve seen a 1,000-year-old tree, but I’ve never touched the 16th century.
“You go to a museum, and you never get to hold a first-edition map of Philadelphia in your hands – Don will let you do that,” said Charles Keates, one of The Philadelphia Print Shop’s most ardent customers. “Imagine, holding a folio map once held by a French captain at the time of the Revolutionary War.”
In 1983, when Keates was a student at The Hill School, his mother thought his love of history might serve a as a bargaining chip to motivate him to travel all the way to Chestnut Hill after a long day of school, to take PSAT prep classes at Chestnut Hill Academy. After the first class, she took Keates to The Philadelphia Print Shop.
“I vividly remember the visual impact the first time I walked in,” said Keates. “I was tired, but all of a sudden my eyes lit up. ‘Explore. Enjoy. I’ll wait,’ my mother said.”
Keates made his first purchase from Cresswell when he was a student at La Salle University. He currently has a collection of more than 100 18th century prints and maps of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.
“It’s their aesthetic beauty,” Keates said. “Cost-effectively you cannot produce these kinds of prints and engravings anymore. And Don is very honest when it comes to brokering pieces. I’ve never met a person with more honesty and integrity.”
As Cresswell and his staff brightly herald the Philadelphia Flower Show and the transition to spring with a graceful window display of antique botanicals, they recently completed another transition – a bittersweet one; the amicable dissolution of Cresswell’s 33 year partnership with friend and co-founder Chris Lane.
In 2009 Lane’s wife, a pediatrician, was offered and accepted a position at Children’s Hospital, Colorado. In partnership, Cresswell and Lane opened a branch in Denver; The Philadelphia Print Shop West, but found it increasingly difficult to run two shops 20,000 miles apart under one umbrella. In December 2014, the partners agreed it was best to have two separate businesses that would thrive independent of each other.
The respect Cresswell and Lane garnered as a team earned them a 17-year run as the map and historical print experts on the popular PBS television series, “Antiques Roadshow.”
Cresswell has a staff of five who have worked at the shop for years – some for decades – and they are true collaborators in the endeavor. The complexities of research, documentation and prep work required on a day-to-day basis is arduous, but, like their boss, they love what they do.
Staff member Jane Toczek recalled researching “A View of Dartmouth College,” c. 1840, drawn and engraved by a man who was in prison for making counterfeit currency. His talent for engraving was so superior he was removed from jail to do the Dartmouth piece. “Dartmouth is a desirable subject,” noted Toczek.
Prints of colleges and universities make great graduation and Father’s Day gifts, as do ties bearing motifs of maps of countries and cities around the world and Philadelphia Print Shop gift certificates. Prices for prints, maps and books range from $25 to approximately $40,000. My pick is a lithograph map of Brooklyn, c. 1839 (before the bridge was built), priced at $950.
Enjoy the adventure!