by Kendall Callas

Computing has quietly become more accessible. A new kind of store has taken root and proliferated, the desktop publishing center or "laser parlor". These storefront outposts of technology offer walk-in use of a variety of sophisticated equipment.

Laser parlors -- high tech self-service workshops -- are equipped with personal computers, scanners, and laser printers. These computer service bureaus offer Mac and IBM compatible personal computers with desktop publishing (DTP) software hooked up to laser printers. The larger shops offer high-quality output devices for typesetting, color, and creating slides and transparencies.

Amidst a buzz of activity, users peer into colorful displays and documents of all kinds feed out of laser printers: newsletters, ads, flyers, menus, invitations, tickets, business cards and letterhead. "The most common task we get from our customers is to design a form" says Rajeev Rai, DTP manager at one of two Krishna Copy Centers in San Francisco's financial district.

DTP centers draw customers from a variety of pursuits. Patrons range from students writing papers and polishing up their resumes to graphic artists adding flourishes to art and advertisements. Suit-clad representatives of corporate America and pilots of small businesses sit side-by-side creating presentations and business forms.

Joined at birth to the photocopier machine, the DTP industry has grown up in the back room of quick-print shops. Most DTP centers continue to offer photocopying services. The photocopy giants, such as Krishna, CopyMat, Kinko's, AlphaGraphics, are the big names in laser parlors.

In the Bay Area, desktop publishing centers are tightly concentrated in three geographic areas: San Francisco's financial district, near the UC campus in Berkeley, and in Palo Alto on University Avenue near Stanford University.


DTP centers were surprisingly hard hit by the October 17 quake. Three San Francisco laser parlors were wiped out and have not reopened -- including two of the city's most economical shops. The building housing Copymat at 160 California Street was condemned and demolished. A Krishna Copy Center at 558 Mission Street suffered structural damage and is unlikely to reopen. The Copy-Rite at 74 New Montgomery closed due to a fire the day after the quake but may reopen early next year.


The laser parlors give an edge to job seekers. Several DTP centers report that as many as half their customers are job hopefuls preparing resumes and cover letters.

Job seekers can get valuable training on their own by practicing on the standard office software commonly available in DTP centers. Many seeking secretarial and word processing positions come in to brush up on WordPerfect, for example.


Early dominance of the Mac in desktop publishing is reflected in the outfitting of the typical DTP center. Macs vastly outnumber IBM systems and many DTP centers are Mac only.

DTP centers offer an array of services, including on-site rentals, laser printing, typesetting, scanning, and disk conversion.

OUTPUT SERVICES: Laser printing on an HP Laserjet or Apple Laserwriter is satisfactory for most jobs and is widely available at about 30 cents a page and $8 an hour or less (see Figures 1 and 2).

For publication quality, many customers step up to typesetter output. By formatting your document for a Postscript printer, such as the Apple Laserwriter, it's a simple matter to redirect printing to the typesetter.

About half the DTP shops offer typesetter output. Best prices for self-service typesetter output run in the $6 to $7 range (see Figure 3). For 10 to 20 pages, prices descend as low as $4.50 each.

Better equipped DTP shops also offer color laser printing, and output onto slides and film.

SOFTWARE AND EQUIPMENT RENTAL: You can sit down and use top of the line Macs and 386 powerhouses at several shops. For occasional needs, this is a convenient place to rent time on expensive software, fast PCs, large-screen monitors, scanners, etc.

TRY BEFORE YOU BUY: About to buy new software or equipment -- something complicated, like animation software or an OCR system? Would you like to give it a test drive in a working environment first? Call around to find it at a laser parlor, then for a few dollars you can have a trial run before you invest.

SCANNERS: One way to insert a graphic into a document, such as an illustration into a brochure, is to scan existing art work. Perhaps you need a logo on your stationery, a picture for your newsletter, or a cartoon in your advertisement -- a graphic scanner is the tool.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software recognizes the letters of words in the documents scanned. This tool makes retyping unnecessary and allows the text to be searched, or used in a word processing program. Many DTP shops are building a big business scanning files, forms, legal documents, journal articles, and art work.

DISK CONVERSION: Coping with the increasing number of diskette sizes and formats has been a headache for DTP centers. By necessity, disk conversion is a service now available at most DTP shops. Fees vary widely for conversion of 5 1/4" disks to 3 1/2", or for transfer of documents from one word processing program's format to another.

MODEM ACCESS: Many DTP shops have set up electronic bulletin boards so that customers can submit files for printout by phone, via modem. Such electronic delivery allows files to be dropped off 24-hours at Copy Time, Design & Type, Giraffe-X, OmniComp, Pinnacle Type, and Top Copy.


Just by asking, it's often possible to negotiate discounts, especially on large jobs. Several shops seem willing accomodate price conscious customers, including Copymat on Howard Street in San Francisco, Copymat/Laser Typeset, Copymat/WordsWorth, CopyRite, Krishna on California Street in San Francisco, Lasercenter, and Mercury Computer.

Price should not be the only factor you consider in choosing a DTP center, however. Sample a few to find one that offers the best tools and assistance to help you get your particular tasks done quickly.

Be sure to call ahead for a reservation, especially at small DTP shops. While you're on the phone, confirm that the software you need is installed. Be sure to ask about version numbers if they're important to you.

Take note of responsiveness and turnaround time. If you need assistance, ask about the best time to come by for help with your project. Expect less help and longer delays at shops that do a lot of full service work.

If you print in high volume, ask for a direct connection to the printer. Connecting directly by cable will reduce the delays of sending print jobs through the network.

Look for amenities, if they're valuable to the task at hand, such as work space and photocopy services. Parking is a concern, especially in San Francisco; the DTP shops that aren't downtown offer better possibilities, such as Copy-Rite, PC Time, and Dolphin Graphics.


Efforts to educate the public about the value of desktop publishing have a long way to go. "A lot of people don't know what DTP is" laments Chuck Smith of Ink Stone Desktop Publishing. "People come in and want to accomplish something that's just not possible" adds Daniel Johnese of Berkeley's Copymat Plus.

High expectations also make it difficult to educate customers. "The idea that Apple tries to put forward, that anybody can sit down and learn whatever they want on a Mac in 5 minutes, just doesn't work with the complicated software used for desktop publishing" offers Jim Nist, computer artist and former DTP center employee. Customers get frustrated when they realize that desktop publishing is not easy.

Recognizing the need for instruction, many DTP centers are beginning to offer training in word processing and DTP software. "With better training, our customers could complete their work in half the time" notes Rajeev Rai at Krishna. A good place to learn and practice, DTP centers that offer lessons are shown in the accompanying listing.


Users report frequent dissatisfaction with the quality of service. The constant demands the staff face from customers paying by the minute and the deadlines of jobs left for full-service makes for poor attitudes and inadequate assistance at some stores. Underpaid, undertrained, and unappreciated, it's understandable that DTP center staff might find it difficult to keep everyone happy. As a result, a burgeoning pool of freelance desktop publishing specialists has been fed by employees leaving employment at laser parlors.

Support for software on IBM PCs is generally lacking due to the past dominance of the Mac in desktop publishing. Most DTP centers do a good job of supporting software on the Mac, but some employees are simply ignorant of the workings of software on IBM compatible machines beyond elementary levels. WordPerfect on IBM PCs, for example, is available but minimally supported at most DTP shops.

Rapid employee turnover plagues this young industry, making it difficult to train and keep skilled staff. Most DTP shops provide informal staff training at best. "In general, training is pretty non-existent" admits Tom Lloyd of Copymat. The industry is just too new to have recognized the importance of service and how employee training can boost customer satisfaction.

Some DTP centers do emphasize service. "We take care of our customers" says Dan Santos of Laser Layouts in Fremont. Allan McAllister of Copymat in Berkeley agrees. "Much of the value we provide is in teaching and training even our self-serve users."

To find the most qualified staff -- and get the best help -- go to either the biggest or smallest shops. To handle employee turnover, large shops tend to have the resources and an organized training program to train employees before pushing them out onto the front lines. At the other extreme, smaller shops, such as All Systems Go! and PC Time, are often owned and operated by two or three experienced partners -- the owners staff the shop and provide considerable support.


Competition is heating up over typesetting as more users want it and the cost of typesetters comes down. More and more desktop publishers are discovering the higher quality product typesetting machines offer. Publications are commonly worked up on a laser printer and, after the drafts have been proof read, the final version is printed on a typesetter.

Linotronic has had a virtual monopoly in the typesetting field for several years with machines in the $50,000 range. "Lino" has almost become a generic term for typesetter output. As prices come down on typesetting machines, however, a new wave of equipment led by Compugraphic is competing against the well known Linotronic printers. Most DTP centers that don't already offer typesetter output are considering adding this service.


As printer technology continues its evolution, the move to color is on. Strong demand for color laser printers has left many laser parlor managers straining at the bit, since the software and hardware are just beginning to come on stream. Blueprint Services in San Francisco, for instance, recently added a color Postscript printer to its equipment lineup.

Desktop publishing is moving beyond the printed page. The emphasis is on presentation graphics as DTP shops add equipment to aid in the production of slides, transparencies, and video. On the forefront of technology, Krishna Copy Center on Kearny Street in San Francisco has had color laser printers for more than a year and plans to expand its services for producing color graphics on slides and transparencies.

Artists are prime beneficiaries of the trend toward color and graphics. Some DTP shops are exploring niches in music and art. All Systems Go! in San Francisco, for instance, is considering adding MIDI systems to its DTP services. Ink Stone Desktop Publishing began as a graphics supply store and now caters to designers and architects.


The gradual increase in computer literacy points to increased demand for computer access. As this system of store-front shops spreads, providing common access to personal computers, perhaps they will become a general delivery system for PC-based services? Maybe DTP shops will come to offer walk-up access to a wider array of services, such as connection to on-line databases, electronic mail, and desktop research via CD-ROMs equipped with retrieval software.

Will they be tomorrow's distribution point for emerging technologies? One such embryonic industry is 3-dimensional printing -- which seems a perfect fit given the laser parlor's growth out of the photocopying industry. 3D printing involves the use of lasers to draw and harden, layer by layer, a 3D design in a chamber of molten or powdered plastic. The process is similar to the 2-dimensional fixing of toner onto paper in laser printers. Useful in creating prototypes of products or parts, 3D printing is much faster than a machine shop.

Who knows how this infant industry will evolve over the next few years and what new services will arrive? DTP center managers are still trying to understand where the market is going and in what direction they should augment their services. "Such a young industry, it's still trying to find its feet" explains John Zilly of Copymat/Wordsworth.

Quietly computers are becoming as convenient as the corner newsstand. Take a look; take a walk down the street and check out your local technology outpost. The revolution is taking place at a store near you.

Figure 1. CHEAP PC RENTAL (cost per hour) Ink Stone Desktop $ 5.00 Mercury Computer 6.00 PC Time 6.00 5th Street Computer 6.00 Instant Desktop 6.00 Copymat (Oakland) 6.00 Kinko's (Berkeley) 6.00

Figure 2. LOW COST LASERS (Laser printing cost per 8 1/2 x 11" page) Word Processing Svc $ .20 Copy-Rite .20 Krishna Copy Center (Oakland or Berkeley) .25 Vogue Graphics .25 Copy Time .25 Mercury Computer .25 PC Time .25
Figure 3. TYPESET ON THE CHEAP (Lino cost per 8 1/2 x 11" page) Copy-Rite $ 6.00 Dolphin Graphics 6.00 Double Click Laser 6.00 Giraffe-X 6.00 Ink Stone Desktop 6.50 Copy Time 7.00
Figure 4. IT'S LATE, LET'S LASER These parlors offer the best hours (all in Berkeley except as noted): Mon-Thu Friday Saturday Sunday Copymat Plus 7:30-12 7:30-10 9-7 9-10 Copymat 8-12 8-10 9-8 9-10 Kinko's 7-11 7-6 10-6 10-11 Krishna Copy 7:30-10 7:30-10 9-7 10-6 Copy-Rite 8-10 8-10 10-8 10-8 Lasercenter (SF) 8-10 8-8 9-6 9-6 Kinko's (UCB campus) 8-12 8-5 closed 12-12 * Copymat/WordsWorth (SF) 7:30-10 7:30-7 10-6 12-6 Laser Copy 8-9 8-9 9-6 9-4 * Kinko's on the UC Berkeley campus is closed weekends during summer.

Copyright (C) 1989 by microCounsel, (415) 921-6850. All rights reserved.

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