Is Times Running Out?

For more than 124 years, the Foster family has kept Elmer informed.

Mark, left, and Preston S. Foster III stand outside the office of the family business, the Elmer Times.
Photo by Katerine Marks.

The sign on the front of the building reads Elmer Times Co., but most of the white paint long ago peeled off the clapboard. A passerby might wonder if the Elmer Times has moved or died. But the old weekly newspaper is still there. Witness the note on the front counter that reads: “We are working in the back room. Please ring bell or yell real loud.”

If the visitor follows directions, out from the back room may come either Mark Foster, publisher/printer/caretaker, or Preston S. Foster III, editor/reporter/photographer. The brothers are in their mid-50s, but they work amidst a clutter that goes back more than a century. The clutter is eclectic, to say the least. A few steps from the Civil War-era hand field press and behind a stack of old newspapers is a very hip jukebox that Mark purchased through eBay. “I like to listen to music while I work,” says Mark, who, not surprisingly, is the president of the year-old Greater Elmer Area Historical Society. Also not surprisingly, Mark envisions the century-old Elmer Times building perhaps becoming a Greater Elmer Area Historical Society museum. 

The newspaper was founded in 1885, and the brothers’ great-grandfather, Samuel Preston Foster, took over two years later. The page-one editorial on July 3, 1886, promised to “keep pace with the times, and to give the people of Elmer a paper worthy of their support.” The first Foster not only helped the newspaper thrive, he was primarily responsible for the unincorporated Salem County village of Elmer (all 0.9 square miles of it) becoming the incorporated borough of Elmer (the same 0.9 square miles) in 1893. The borough was named for a forgettable congressman with an unforgettable name: Lucius Quintas Cincinnatus Elmer.

The Elmer Times is no longer printed in-house, but the building on State Street remains jam-packed with printing paraphernalia. Mark Foster guides a visitor through the dimly lit aisles in the back room, then down a stairway to the basement. On the landing that doubled as a coat closet, employees once signed their names and posted messages on the wall. Eugene Downs scrawled his name 108 years ago, soon followed by W.K.B. in 1904. Boldly and carefully written is the name Damon Callese. The date is 1937. “Callese went on to start the Farmlands Sentinel,” says Mark, revealing a gem of South Jersey trivia. When asked if he had signed his own name somewhere on the wall, Mark smiles. “I left my mark elsewhere; I didn’t need to leave it on the wall.”

Not far from stacked cases of Bodoni, Garamond and dozens of other old lead type fonts is the thoroughly modern computer where Mark, who “loves history,” may compose for the next weekly issue of the Times an article on genealogy or his column reporting a significant event, such as the following: “Chalkey Haines, who has been boring a well on the farm occupied by Harry Smith near Pole Tavern, brought up what appeared to be portions of petrified fish from a depth of 345 feet.” Chalkey’s feat, by the way, occurred 100 years ago.

Among the paper’s loyal readers is Olin Garrison, whose family settled the area 250 years ago. Garrison, who is a trustee of the Greater Elmer Area Historical Society, knows exactly how much Mark loves history, particularly as it pertains to the Times. “If his great-grandfather put it [in the Times building], it’s still there. I don’t think he’s thrown anything away.” A linotype machine that once produced hot lead type is on the second floor, Garrison discloses.

The second floor is not part of Mark’s tour. What is on the tour, again often hidden behind stacks of old newspapers, is a Platinum Press from 1904, a century-old intertype linecasting machine, and a string box from a long-forgotten past that still dispenses…string. In the old days, before strapping machines, string was used to tie up bundles of newspapers.

Not only is the Times building chock full of newspaper memorabilia, but Mark, who has collected bottles since the age of 12, displays the consequences of that obsession in large glass cases in the front office and on a long window ledge in the back room. “Some of the clear glass bottles were made here in Elmer in the early 1900s,” Mark says, harking back to a time when glassmaking was a major industry in Salem County.   

What does the future hold for the eight-column-wide Elmer Times? Pamela Foster Brunner, who pretty much ran the newspaper for two decades at the end of the last century—her brothers Mark and Preston were employed elsewhere at the time—laments the near total decline of job printing. Digital, offset and letterpress printing of business cards, posters and the like has long been an ancillary business. Now, people can go to Sir Speedy or any number of print shops. “Newspapers like the Times are really struggling,” she says.

Still, the brothers and an occasional part-timer soldier on, providing news on local events and covering township meetings in Elmer and nearby Pittsgrove and Upper Pittsgrove. According to Mark and Preston, circulation is 1,695, down from a high of approximately 2,200 about 15 years ago. “Most new families to the area don’t know the paper and don’t subscribe until, maybe, if they have children, the kids start school,” Mark says. “If a family doesn’t know the people in the paper, they don’t buy the paper.”

What really hurts is the 25 percent decline in advertising over the past three years. Because of the economic downturn, few new homes are being built, and that means a loss of real-estate advertising. Until recently, three automobile dealers in the area advertised in the paper. “They’ve all closed,” says Preston. “Every one of them.” On the other hand, E.W. Bostwick, Inc., which ran its first ad in the Times 125 years ago, is still running ads, inviting readers to come into the store on Center Street and buy lumber, hardware and plumbing supplies. 

“It’s been a pretty steady business up until three years ago,” says Blinn Bostwick, who, though retired at age 86, “still pays the bills.” He also still manages to get to the store every work day. “I’m sort of married to the business.”

Likewise, Mark and Preston are sort of married to the Times. When it comes time for them to retire, the Times probably will retire with them. None of the brothers’ kinfolk, including their four brothers, one sister and 10 children among the siblings, are interested in carrying on. Of course, the clapboard building with all its historical clutter may become a museum, but that’s not certain. Mark doesn’t expect anyone to buy the newspaper and continue publication. He can’t really blame them. “I’d hate to wish it on anyone, because you can’t make a decent living at it anymore.”

Charles H. Harrison is a freelance writer and author of two histories of Salem County.

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