Category Archives: Around, About, and Through

Do Something Creative Every Day

photo credit: Linda Barrett

I was sorry to hear recently of the death of Sue Lindstrom, the creative founder of Paper Source.  For over two years, I managed the bindery staff for the small in-house bindery there. There were so many great things about the company, just like the fun, funny, thoughtful, lovely products on its store shelves. The grammatically correct tag line also always appealed to me (“every day” instead of “everyday”). The culture of the company was fun and invigorating while always driving us to do our best work.

I know that Sue could be hard on people at times, but she had a way of surrounding herself with the best and most interesting of everything, and that included the people who worked for her. Paper Source had some of the most wonderful people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, including my direct supervisor, Linda Barrett.

I'm Krrazy Krrreative!

Linda was down to earth, yet romantic enough to believe that a store that sells fine paper should have its own in-house bindery staffed with skilled labor. Kind of stunning, but she made it happen. The bindery was already in full swing when I came on the scene around 2005. There were so many great people I remember fondly: James in the flat paper department, Gretchen, Nicole, and Tito in the third party vendors department, Cindy, Kitz, Annie in design, Luke, all around master of Making Things Happen… sooo many others as well. Fun times!

Paper Source History

I talked to Linda a little recently about Sue and about working for Paper Source. She said that Sue had started out studying textile and fiber arts at SAIC in Chicago. Sue’s father, Ross Wetzel, operated a frame shop in Wilmette where Sue often worked. She was always looking for interesting accent papers for the mats she made, which led her to develop a stash of decorated paper that couldn’t be ordered in single sheets. At that time, the only other store that carried fine decorated paper was Aiko’s Art Materials, a store that specialized in traditional Japanese crafts, books, ikebana, and tea supplies. At some point, Sue took over the frame business, and moved to the current River North location, though it was still known as Wetzel’s. River North at that time was home to many architects and designers who came to know Sue and would ask her advice in their projects. Linda was studying bookbinding at Southern Illinois University, and found she could get rare items such as Davey board and glue brushes through Sue. She remembers Sue going on a tour organized by Marilyn Sward of Japanese papermakers. During the trip, Sue made the decision that that’s all she wanted to do: focus the business on dealing in fine paper. According to Linda, that was one of the most impressive things about Sue, that she could make a decision and immediately put all her weight behind it.

Sue changed the name to Paper Source, though the store came to sell much more than just paper. Some of the things you’d find in the earlier stores are still sold at Paper Source, but since Sue stepped down from the company and moved to New Mexico, the personality of the stores has changed a lot. In the old days, there were so many unusual artists’ materials that did the job like no other! Strange fountain pen inks in hand-lettered glass bottles, unusual shapes of mop brushes in #0 and #0000 sizes that you’d never see at Utrecht, rubber stamps of puzzling images, and of course paper like you’ve never seen before (nor will again) because it was made especially for Sue. Twinrocker made paper to spec for Sue, and the store also carried St. Armand, as well as so many other fine papermakers. The annual warehouse sales, where samples, slightly damaged items, and one-offs were sold, were entirely magical. I still use the full set of Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache and the intriguingly cracked bone folder I got at the warehouse sale, along with so many red polka dot envelopes and scallop-edged cards.

One thing that always amazed me about Paper Source was that it was by far a female dominated environment. And, there were no secretaries! Linda said there were also no titles, something that always frustrated me in my own role there since I was responsible for managing the bindery staff, yet I didn’t have the strict title of Manager. I didn’t realize at the time that was the case for most departments. In any case, Linda said each department head (?) had to rely heavily on her team. I do remember Linda having to spend a lot of time sending email, working late, traveling to new store openings, and even doing some of the scheduling tasks that might be done by secretarial staff in a differently-organized company. There was a lot of pressure at the time since the company was growing fast. Each Monday morning, I got to analyze the sales data for all the stores which would determine how many of each type of book we would make in the bindery. The number of stores doubled during the time I worked there.

PS Bindery

As far as our work in the bindery, we worked hard as well. Edition work makes you sweat, but the way I saw it, only in a good way. Doing multiples can help you develop your skills. Working in tandem with others also helps you develop. My teacher at NBSS told us that you had to do 500 of a binding to really learn it, and at Paper Source, I put in my 500 plus!

The Bench

Beach Books mostly complete

Our team of 5-ish part time binders cased in thousands of books per month, mostly blank journals and albums destined for sale at the chain’s 20-25 stores nationwide.

Working at Paper Source also helped me take a step back, and get some perspective on  the context of hand bookbinding in our modern world. Learning bookbinding at North Bennet Street School was harder than almost anything I’ve ever done. I had no idea how complicated book construction could be: how many different operations there are in the making of a book, how many choices of materials there are, and how the choices at each stage affect the whole. Book conservation, as well, seemed to be continuously fraught with ethical and moral decisions that I just didn’t feel at the time I had the experience or confidence to make. The position at Paper Source was much simpler, and yet the books we sold were incredibly significant to the people who bought them. Wedding albums, baby albums, personal journals and calendars that people carried with them every day were the staple of our work.

When I got the job at Paper Source, I was really fortunate to be working under Linda Barrett. Linda had been friends with Dominic Riley and Michael Burke during her time in San Francisco working for Kozo Art, and so while she readily accepted the pressure of working in the fast-paced Paper Source environment, she also knew and appreciated the type of fine bookbinding I had learned at NBSS.  Most of the materials we got to use in the bindery were terrific, starting with the main ingredient: the excellent textblocks made by Diarpell. To this day, I still use Diarpell notebooks and calendars. I just haven’t found anything better! (Full disclosure: I also have some in my Etsy store, particularly the square and panoramic shapes!) And of course, because of Sue’s love of Japanese design, we got to use fine Chiyogami and Yuzen paper when making our albums, journals, and calendars.

It was at Paper Source that I started teaching bookbinding workshops, always in the back room or stock room of one of the Chicago-area stores. In my workshops, I met people who had never made a book before. It was a transformative experience to search for the ways I could make the sophisticated aspects of bookbinding I had learned at NBSS relevant to the general public. I didn’t want what I taught them to just be a one-day fling; I really wanted people to make books forever! This started a love of teaching that still continues.

I know that Sue was tough on her staff at times, but as Linda said, “She wanted everyone to be tougher, to feel good about taking risks.” It was a great experience for me to work for Paper Source in that I got to experience a work environment created by a strong and courageous woman who also surrounded herself with so many intelligent and hard-working women.

Here is a link to Sue’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune if you want to learn more about her.

On the Bench

This shot, and all the shots of the warehouse/bindery/etc, were taken with my antique Sony digital camera, which took floppy discs to operate, so please forgive the focusing/lighting.



Filed under Around, About, and Through

With appreciation

Recently at the Center for the Book where I teach, the Studio Manager received a phone call from the family of a bookbinder who had passed on. Instead of selling her tools and materials, the family wanted to donate these precious items to a place where they would always be used and appreciated. As one of the Center’s many bookbinding instructors, I have a deep appreciation for this impulse. Any additional tools and materials available in the classroom save time for students, who are ever eager to dive into the next step in a project. It is a critical part of my job as an instructor to show students the correct use of these tools and equipment to ensure their longevity. This will also (I hope) widen the understanding of these tools so when the students see similar items out in the world, they will know how to properly use them.

As someone who has been involved in bookbinding for over 15 years now, I have seen the tools and materials of binderies change hands. Occasionally I have been the beneficiary, though more often not, but it’s always interesting to see what other binders save and what they use. There are always little home made or DIY jigs, guides, workarounds, and even whole pieces of equipment that people have fabricated to achieve the highly specialized goals we need to attain in our work. These are the unpaved footpaths of bookbinding. Often a secondhand piece of equipment is covered with notes or markings (usually on dried-out masking tape) based on the settings a repeat job has required. Sometimes I think I could write a whole separate blog on this topic alone.

For all these reasons, I have a strong need to be a good steward of the tools and equipment I use, and a need to use the highest quality materials I can find and afford. This principle affirms high quality work all around. But it also allows me to repay the debt of trust I owe to the people who have given, sold, or traded their items to me. Bookbinding is not possible, or at least not feasible, without highly specialized equipment that is generally no longer manufactured. With few exceptions, everything I use daily in my work is something handed down from the past.

One example is this wooden sewing frame. I did not look for one of these for my bindery for many years, not really needing one too much, or at least, not believing I did. But since I have had this one, I have found reasons to use it, and it has been amazing! When it first came into my possession, I immediately purchased 5 sewing keys for cord and 5 for tapes, to make sure it had the correct accessories. I know not everyone in bookbinding likes using sewing keys, but once I got used to them, I have never looked back.

wooden sewing frame

this bad boy

In the past, I have not often had a need for a sewing frame; sewing on external raised supports, or even sunk cords, is not something I do too often professionally, so I have never pursued finding one. Even when sewing multiples, I have often used a simple hobby-frame I acquired while in bookbinding school, and that’s worked well.

However, by hook or by crook, this beautiful old sewing frame seemed determined to find its way to me, and I must admit it has cracked the doubting facade of even this stubborn bookbinder. I found an excuse to give it a whirl, and while it has its challenges, it has a strong draw. I have to be careful in using it, and navigate around its highly charactered nature. But I wanted to share some pictures of it to give you an idea of how important it is (to me, anyway) to preserve and respect the tools of the past.

a little beausage on the bar

Just a little beausage to remind me I’m not the only one who really uses stuff! I’m not even this bad.

Another item is the giant press and plough which takes up the bulk of space in my tiny bindery. It was passed on to me from a bookbinder who had stopped practicing, but had learned from Bob Futernick in years past. Bob, a bookbinder and woodworker both, made the tub for the press. A press this large is highly susceptible to damage without a proper tub, and this tub is proper! When this came into my possession, I knew right away it needed a plough to go with it. As luck would have it, a student had emailed me some months prior to let me know she had one that she was looking to sell. At the time I thought in the back of my mind, “Good luck! That plough is humongous; you’re not likely to find someone with the right size press for it.” Well…

Wooden press and tub

This side gets the most use

Press, plough and tub

Press, plough and tub

Traditional joinery by Bob Futernick

Traditional joinery by Bob Futernick (a bookbinder!)

Another set of items for which I will be forever grateful is from fellow bookbinder Margaret Johnson. She has been a great friend and mentor to me. She sold many of her tools and equipment when she decided to stop binding at 92 years of age. Always concerned with the future of her favorite craft, she generously donated the proceeds from the sale to the Jane Aaron Scholarship Fund, which provides scholarships to Hand Bookbinders of California workshops. There were many odds and ends left over, and those she offered to me in exchange for wrapping up some of the bookbinding projects she couldn’t finish.

Bone folders and brushes are what it's all about

Bone folders and brushes are what it’s all about

I was honored to have this opportunity. It’s a rare thing when you get to do work for another bookbinder. I always do my best work of course, but it’s got to have more meaning when you know the recipient will recognize the things you did to make the work shine.

13 Clocks (before treatment)

13 Clocks (before treatment)

Margaret had peeled the decorated pastedown from the board

Margaret had peeled the decorated pastedown from the board

13 Clocks after treatment

13 Clocks after treatment

I was able to save and remount the original pastedowns that Margaret had peeled

I was able to save and remount the original pastedowns that Margaret had peeled

One small piece of news this month somewhat related to the topic of Appreciation: bookbinding supplier Colophon Book Arts has recently changed hands. This is a big piece of news to me, since I’ve been making a point of purchasing from this small, dyed-in-the-water (the former owner was a marbler) bookbinding supplier for years. I’ve been very happy with her choice of stock, and her way of doing business. I thank Nancy Morains for her many years of service to the bookbinding community, and wish her well! The new owner is also someone very active in the bookbinding community, and although the business is moving quite far away from me to Indiana, I look forward to continuing to order from Colophon. You can see some pictures of the move here on her Instagram.

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Filed under Around, About, and Through, Classes I've taught, Tool Talk

Deep Listening and Bookbinding Practice

OK, at this point I feel I need to come clean a little bit and admit I have hobbies. I feel guilty taking time away from bookbinding which for so long has been the primary occupier of my mind and heart. But sometimes I find it’s healthy to get out of the studio, step away from the bone folder…  One of the side pursuits I enjoy is singing. For the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of the good people of the Cornelius Cardew Choir, and sing with them in rehearsal and performance. Cornelius Cardew was an eccentric English composer of abstract music in the utopian vein. Readers of my blog may already know I enjoy and take inspiration from abstract, or sometimes called new, avant garde, noise, what-have-you, music… As you can tell, I don’t get too involved with labels, but ever since I was a teenager and discovered the radio program New Sounds, I have loved it. So as soon as I moved out to the bay area and discovered the Cardew Choir, I started attending rehearsals. The signature event of our group is the performance every year at the Garden of Memory. The Garden of Memory is an extraordinary musical event held in a columbarium every year on the summer solstice. Yes, that’s right, a music event in a building erected to store urns containing ashes of the deceased. Oakland has an unusual columbarium designed and built almost a century ago by a famous lady architect, and that’s where we perform in the event called Garden of Memory.

Circle of singers: some are regular choir memers, others are general public. This was very early in the evening; the circle is rather small at this point

Circle of singers: some are regular choir members, others are general public. This was very early in the evening; the circle is rather small at this point

Many of the urns are shaped like books, recalling a passage from Laurie Anderson: "When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down"

Many of the urns are shaped like books, recalling a passage from Laurie Anderson: “When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down”

It’s an extraordinary setting for an extraordinary piece: the choir invites participation from the audience, and due to the nature of the larger event in which we play a small part, audience members sift through the crowd and come and go as they like. The piece we perform was created by Pauline Oliveros and is called the Heart Chant. The general instructions for the piece are as follows: Rub your hands together to warm them. Place your right hand over your heart. Place your left hand on the back of the person to your left (thus a circle is created). Sing and hold a single tone for a full length of breath (though without strain). That’s pretty much it. The pitch we as choir members choose is often based on a practice our confounder calls “pitch shopping”: listening to the pitches of the rest of the group, and choosing one that is comfortable for your range (though you can initiate a new one if you feel it’s necessary). The performance can continue as long as the performers desire it; we generally perform from about 5:30-9:30 pm (phasing individual singers in and out to take breaks). Last year, the performance continued longer, since there were so many joining in; we even had to create a second circle to accomodate all who wanted to participate! As the performance continues, it evolves based on who is present at which time, and what tones they (we) are singing. We pick up on each others’ pitches and perpetuate them, provided they are within a comfortable range. As each note lasts the length of one breath, you need to choose something you can live with for that long. It is surprisingly harmonious. We all hear, or hear about, those singers who are always off pitch in a group, right? Well, this event/piece never ceases to amaze me in how closely people listen to each other, and how wonderful it always sounds.

There are so many great things about this piece, and practicing it at least once a year as I do, I learn something new every time. It is a powerful experience to practice listening to others in this era when most people seem to be wearing headphones alla time. In all vocal work, it is necessary to listen, since your voice is not like a piano where you press a key and the same note comes out every time. It requires a lot of focus and concentration, because you must listen and sing at the same time.

Bookbinding requires being a good listener

Thinking about this process, it struck me how similar it is to conservation, teaching, and bookbinding in general. In conservation, listening to the object is the first step in treating it. You must take pre-treatment photos that tell you the item’s history and what its weaknesses and strengths are. You inspect it further, and write about how you see it, and what your plans are for fixing the problems as you see them. As you treat the item, you are continually ‘listening’ to it: the thickness of the paper, the depth of the tear, the qualities of the original sewing, the nature of the boards and covering materials. What will hold and what won’t? You need to pay close attention to the item in front of you in order to achieve a harmonious result. Extending the metaphor, your work must also match the pitch of the item’s.

I find this metaphor to work in teaching as well. It’s important to meet each student where they are, so to speak. The results of being able to do this, when possible, are really satisfying. I’m so happy when my students find bookbinding to be something they can use and incorporate into their lives in meaningful ways.

Soon I will be leaving the bay area briefly to teach some conservation workshops in the San Diego area. It’s exciting, but there are always some unknowns involved in teaching far away. I’m excited to have this experience in deep listening to guide me through!

Some of my recent work

I recently repaired a first edition of Twelve Years a Slave. While the repair of this book probably merits its own blog post, I will just briefly include a couple photos here. It was very important to save every tiny piece of the original cloth spine, which was quite a challenge.

The original front cover

The original front cover

The original spine. There was a lot missing, but I saw some potential here because most of the titling was still there.

The original spine. There was a lot missing, but I saw some potential here because most of the titling was still there.

The end result of the spine: I was able to harmoniously tone the material underneath the original spine material to blend in. It is still obvious that the book is old; no one is being fooled here. But it is all intact; the areas with titling have been preserved, and the integrity of the object has been maintained.

The end result of the spine: I was able to harmoniously tone the material underneath the original spine material to blend in. It is still obvious that the book is old; no one is being fooled here. But it is all intact; the areas with titling have been preserved, and the integrity of the object has been maintained.

The rest of the covers have also received some attention though kozo paper that has been toned to match. The cover boards will now be able to provide adequate protection for the text.

The rest of the covers have also received some attention though kozo paper that has been toned to match. The cover boards will now be able to provide adequate protection for the text.

More about my workshops in San Diego

More about Cornelius Cardew’s graphical scores

More about Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening


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Filed under Around, About, and Through, My projects

Books Are Round; and, My PSA on PSA

Many of the materials that go into the making of a book are flat: paper, board, bookcloth. Of course, all of these things, including the finished book, are at least three dimensional. But have you ever heard of a book being round? A-round, sure… for some of us more than others. But really, truly, round? In my work repairing old books, I have seen many a round book, meaning the book is no longer a book per se–it has become a receptacle. This is most often the case with family Bibles, but it happens to other books as well.

I recently had the opportunity to repair one such book for a class I taught in book repair. I usually shop for books for students to repair at Friends of the Library sales, and that was where I found The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. I wanted to write about my work on this book for several reasons, the primary one being that people are often surprised at what I do for a living, and don’t believe that books can in fact be repaired. As you will see here, even when a book has so many problems that they can’t all be repaired at once, the book’s condition can be so vastly improved as to make a huge difference to the future of it. I also wanted to write about this book because my work on it brought up some interesting issues in conservation I thought worth discussing. Finally, there were some things I learned while repairing this book that I wanted to share.

The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar front cover

front cover

Inside front cover

front pastedown: some gummed kraft tape, early cloth medical tape, acid migration…

inside rear cover

rear pastedown…early pressure sensitive adhesive worthy of further study

title page and photogravure portrait of Dunbar

title page and photogravure portrait of Dunbar

These informal photos taken prior to treatment may begin to give you an idea of what I mean when I say this book is a receptacle. In these four photos, we already see six newspaper clippings. And as I continued to observe the book’s condition, I came across many more clippings, pamphlets, three small pages of handwritten notes for a radio address, a church directory, and so on.

Post-treatment: the book plus all the inclusions that weren't glued, taped, or nailed down

Post-treatment: the book plus all the inclusions that weren’t glued, taped, or nailed down

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born only seven years after the end of the Civil War. His parents had been slaves, so he was the first generation of free African-Americans in his family. He wrote poems, novels, and plays, some in dialect, some not. He died young of tuberculosis, dying well before the Harlem Renaissance gained steam. However, many writers from the Harlem Renaissance onward have cited Dunbar as an inspiration, and many feel that he was America’s earliest great African-American literary figure. It makes sense to me, in view of all this, that someone chose to place all their most important notes, desires for self-betterment, news articles on Wendell Willkie, and even Christmas greetings within this volume.

Something I happened to learn while I was repairing this book, through an unrelated string of concurrent events, was how a photogravure is made. Though common in image output generation in book production, I guess I never had the reason to study the making of photogravures before. Someone I know told me he had made some, and when I said I didn’t know what they were, he described them. At that point, I realized that the book I was working on contained one. A pretty nice one, I thought.

Photogravure Portrait of Paul Laurence Dunbar

A photogravure is basically a way of using a film positive to burn an image into a copper plate suitable for use in printing with ink, combining photography with intaglio printing.

I’m happy with how my repair of this book came out–the book opens well, and all the pages have been stabilized. I’m even more pleased with the repairs completed by my students in the class. The students did so well we even had time to create protective four-flap enclosures for our books, so in my case, all the inclusions now have a contained place to reside that does not compromise the opening and closing of the book’s covers. However, there is one topic that is not addressed in the limited time available in that particular class: tape removal. Tape removal often requires the use of toxic solvents, requiring a vacuum table, a fume hood, and/or a fitted respirator: equipment and materials we do not have at SFCB. The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar has several kinds of very old tape that are all causing various kinds of damage to the paper. The worst instance of this is on the reverse side of the lovely photogravure portrait.

There are many types of tape, and they all age in different ways and at different rates, causing different effects to the paper they’re stuck to. Some of the adhesives dry out and flake off or can be gently scraped off, as was the case with the opaque white tape on the inner front pastedown. Others melt into the fibers of the paper they’re stuck to and create an inextricable bond, and an irreversible stain. This process can take decades, but once it happens, there is not much to be done about it. Holding this page up to the light shows where the tape on the reverse side of this page is located, and where the stain might be headed.

Tape StainLet this be, then, my one and only Public Service Announcement on Pressure-Sensitive Adhesive. Just say no, okay? It does not matter if the product says it’s archival. ‘Archival’ is an even vaguer marketing term than ‘organic’. Believe me, I understand the challenges of possessing an item in need of repair. The temptation to use a quick fix is strong. There are many book repair manuals out there that instruct on the use of tape–unfathomably. But, as common sense dictates, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Books are really amazing. The more I repair and make them, the more respect and awe I have for the ones that stick around. I have seen and repaired many fine and treasured books, but the ones that amaze me most are the ones that seem the least likely to succeed. The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, despite all appearances, has “good bones”: it was sewn through folds and was printed on decent paper. And despite the copious use of tape by one of its previous owners, I was able to put it back together and give it a gentle push down the road. When things slow down, I may be able to give it some attempts at removing the tape, but for now, the tape will have to stay where it is, unfortunately.

New beginning


Filed under Around, About, and Through, My projects

The Literature of Bookbinding

Today’s post comes out of some thoughts I had after “reading” a book with no binding at all: an audiobook version of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks while I work and really enjoying it. (By the way, did you know that many public libraries offer free downloadable material through their websites? ‘Tis available 24/7 as long as you’re square with your library– that is, you have a library card and don’t have excessive fines.  People are often surprised when I tell them that libraries offer these kinds of services. Actually, my librarian friends are some of the more tech-savvy people I know! Another resource for free downloadable audiobooks is the Internet Archive.)

Anyway, there is a scene early in Flow My Tears when the main character visits Cathy, a young woman whose function in life is to falsify ID cards, and while he’s in her workshop, sees what he takes to be a page from a medieval illuminated manuscript on her wall. Actually, it is something Cathy copied herself– in addition to copying official documents, Cathy is skilled at calligraphy and illumination with such a heightened sense of paper and ink that (by her own admission) her piece would “fool a museum”.

The placement of her character in this alternate-reality novel of flying cars, ultrasurveillance of private citizens, and a society at least an arm’s length from itself was startling to me. Being the kind of person I am, it made me wonder a moment that a lot of the authors I really like include references to fine books, calligraphy and printing.

Another author I love who often includes references to fine books is Joe Frank. Most of his shows that have aired on the local public radio station lately have had some mention of his love of antiquarian books, and old books occasionally figure into his plot lines also! It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find free Joe Frank content on the web, so many people don’t know about him, but you can find him at

Studs Terkel included an interview with a bookbinder in his book Working. I just found out, too, that he spoke at the Guild of Book Workers conference in Chicago in 1998. (-sigh- Why wasn’t I there??) But I can still read and re-read the entry in Working, which in many ways still accurately describes the life of a freelance/self-employed bookbinder.

Another work of fiction pertaining to bookbinding is The Journal of Dora Damage. A bit rough around its proper Victorian edges, this is a rambling tale of a woman whose husband is a bookbinder and her consequent involvement in the trade, which becomes rather significant through the course of the book.

Pretty often these days I run into people who are interested in what I do for a living, and are fascinated that someone is still doing what I do. Occasionally I get bogged down by how tedius bookbinding can be: lots of manual labor and sore joints, administrative tasks that take me away from the bench, etc. Of course, I have always maintained that bookbinding shall be my profession, not a hobby or pastime, and I know that’s just the nature of work. It is nice, though, to read stories in which bookbinding and related crafts capture an author’s imagination. I am drawn in again to the exciting aspect of what I do and once more begin anew.

Any bookbinding literature you’d like to share? Please feel free to leave your recommendations in the comments area.


Filed under Around, About, and Through

Wow! CODEX 2015

I was fortunate to make it to the CODEX festival this year. Very fortunate. It was amazing. There was something for everyone! Fine print, artists’ books, suppliers to the bookbinding and printing trades, book dealers, individual artists, everything you can imagine and more. I was not able to make it until the last day, but as a friend assured me who went on the first day, “There is so much to see, don’t worry about missing anything if you go at the end.” She was absolutely right! My buddy Annemarie and I spent pretty close to five hours there, and it went by like the blink of an eye.

One other great thing about CODEX was the people. So many fantastic people involved in elevating the making of books. I saw lots of work I enjoyed very much, and was able to strike up meaningful conversations with the makers right there, on the spot. Positive energy in abundance!  My CODEX buddy and I stopped for lunch and sat down with Jeff Altepeter, and had a great chat with him about how things are going back east at the North Bennet Street School. Sounds like the new building is wonderful and things are going well. He had gone to the Antiquarian Book Fair the previous weekend, as had I, and we talked a bit about how great it is to see beautiful old books that are not in need of repair. How unusual! Ha.

Anyway, in case you were not able to attend this year’s CODEX festival, here are some snapshots I took. Scroll over the photo to see a caption, or click on any photo for the slideshow. I must warn you that this is only a tiny, tiny slice of what was there! These are just the things I saw that I wanted to photograph, so this is my bookbinder’s-eye view.

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NBSS on tv

While having a deep conversation of a bookbinding nature with a friend recently, and wrapping up one of my typical thousand-ply yarns, I said, “Guess that was more story than you bargained for!” “Well, it just means I don’t have to watch more Craft In America episodes,” she answered. A pause. “Wait, what’s Craft in America?” D’oh! My tv was one of the many things given up in my move from Chicago to California. Although I don’t miss it, I suppose there are work-related things on tv from time to time I miss by not having one. I caught up on some of the episodes available online of this 2009 PBS series, and to my surprise discovered a segment on my alma mater, the North Bennet Street School. This episode also has an interesting and thoughtful interview with bay area book artist Julie Chen along with some shots of her beautiful and well-composed work. Another beloved bay area artist and printmaker, Tom Killion (yessss!!!), is featured in this same episode. I am always interested in how craftspeople integrate their work into their lives– the different work environments we create and the business models that result. The PBS series does not go too deeply into these issues, just gives us small, tv-shaped windows into the work and lives of craftspeople in a variety of fields.

Since some time has passed since I left NBSS, it was nice to watch the segment on my school, although at the time of filming, the bookbinding department had a different instructor and had moved to a different floor. I hear that spring 2013 marked the final year of classes in the building where I spent my two years beginning to learn my trade, and that the school is moving to a much larger building as of fall 2013. It’s great to know the school is growing; hopefully a good sign for the traditional crafts taught there. But oh! if those basement walls could talk. I remember that tiny closet with the Tormek where we all honed our knives, and the closet on the other side where the finishing tools were kept. My year was the first class that had the distinct advantage of a full set of gouges including a blender set for finishing tools, and wow, did we all keep those in heavy rotation. One of my classmates tooled a line drawing of Hank Williams and his wife Audrey on a plaquette! Amazing. My class also shared the distinction of producing the first bookbinder to win the prestigious Stanislov Cup. NBSS, the Fighting Craftspeople! Thanks Mark.

The segment on North Bennet Street School is about 44 minutes into the episode; Tom Killion is at about minute 18, and Julie Chen is 37 or so.

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Modern Shop Talk

The bookbinder’s trade has evolved in a rather solitary way these days, at least in North America. It hasn’t always been such. Depending on the size and region of the shop, there would be enough workers to support a division of labor into separate departments such as folding, sewing, forwarding, finishing, paper beating, paper sizing, ploughing, and edge treatment. Binders in European seventeenth century encyclopediae and manuals show jolly shops with generally cheerful workers all doing his or her own part. (For more on those, see Mirjam Foot, Bookbinders at Work, Oak Knoll 2006.) Even as late as 1906, we see the roster of the Doves Bindery in this photo, happy together and probably fresh off one of their lunchtime croquet matches. (If you made books as finely as the Doves, one might say you’d earned your afternoon croquet.)

Doves personnel

By comparison, this oft-published etching of Roger Payne from 1800 shows what happens when a bookbinder works alone in a garret for too long, though Payne took the status and skill level of bookbinding much farther than anyone working in the trade at the time.

rogerus payne

Is there some kind of line to be drawn between happy bookbinders working in concert with one another and unhappy, solitary, dark souls, hammering out reading material fit for the bookshelves of a king? I don’t think it’s quite that simple these days; however, one thing I do know is that it’s great to get together with other bookbinders and swap horror stories, tall tales of glory, and of course, just a sliver of plain old-fashioned gossip. Some might call this “shop talk”, but since no bookbinder I know works in anything similar to what is known as a “shop”, perhaps we can call it kvetching? Venting? Or just the modern bookbinding version of shop talk.

My old friend and compatriot in bookbinding from Chicago, Karen Hanmer, visited San Francisco for a few days in October to teach her brilliant way of doing things, and I was ultralucky enough to host this Famous Bookbinder while she taught here. Karen’s formal training in bookbinding is from the American Academy of Bookbinding, but my immense respect for her stems from the fact that experience is her guide, and she is constantly working and trying new techniques and binding styles. The space race of the 1950s, the early history of computers, and midwestern prairie imagery figure heavily in her work, and I must confess some envy of her quirky creative perspective. She and her husband travel by train almost everywhere they go, and they’ve taken some pretty neat trips together.

I also like Karen’s unpretentiousness, her humility about her own work, her uncompromising work ethic, and her desire to learn something from every project regardless of how well it turns out. Over the years I have seen Karen’s work evolve and her focus change and change again, and it is fascinating to me how dynamic the field of bookbinding seems when I think about the range of projects she has taken on. Typically I am not a “content guy”, as some have noted– rather more interested in technique and structure, but Karen’s creative work inspires me to devote more time and energy to design, color, and maybe even one day, content. That is one quality of a great friend– he or she likes you as you are, but will also draw you outside your comfort zone and encourage you, either literally or by example, to try new things. When we both lived in Chicago, we would show each other our worst binding mistakes, the most embarrassing boo-boos or bad design choices, and we assuaged each others’ guilty feelings as only the best friends do. Will do better next time and keep soldiering on.

While Karen was here, we didn’t have too overmuch time for hanging out– she taught classes over four full days, mostly to full groups of ten students. It is exhausting to be on stage all that time for anyone, and I also had to work each day she was here except Saturday.  We would eat dinner together and pretty much pass out just after! On her last day here in San Francisco, we went to see the mural by Diego Rivera at City College. It’s something I’ve always meant to do, but never devoted the time to doing it, and it was amazing. It’s remarkable that the mural is open to the public, viewable anytime the theater is open (11-4 Tuesday through Saturday). There was a student docent (history major, no less!) sitting near the mural to answer questions about it, and he was really helpful and informative.

Thanks for visiting, Karen! I’ll miss you! And thanks to Hand Bookbinders of California and the San Francisco Center for the Book for arranging for Karen to teach here.


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Books with Friends

The Friends of the Public Library giant spring book sale at Fort Mason Center happened a couple weekends ago, and I helped out this year again as a volunteer cashier.

So many books! So little time to shop…

Compared with antiquarian book fairs such as last weekend’s in New York (for a bookbinder’s-eye-view, see Gavin Dovey’s post here), the offerings at the Friends sales are somewhat more humble (though I have seen some rare editions go out the door for the mere $3 for a hardcover). But what I love about the Friends sales is that they are for people with a Serious Reading Habit, who have to have the real deal: a Book. I like to work the checkout lines at these sales to see what people are buying and chat with them about the thing that has brought us together: reading!!! That way, I also get to pair up with another volunteer, which makes the time go by quickly. Laurie, who I worked with, is a retired math teacher from San Jose, and was superfun to work with. When our shift was over, I got to pick out some things for myself (as well as for my Intermediate Bookbinding class). I love to see all the books at the sales that reflect life in the San Francisco Bay Area: tons of back issues of Sunset magazine, hiking books up the wazoo, coffee-table photo books of highway 1, and tables full of books about Linux and other code- related endeavors. I was pretty happy to find a rare vintage copy of the 1971 Anybody’s Bike Book, published by Berkeley’s own Ten Speed Press.

Another thing I did that same weekend was take a printing class at the San Francisco Center for the Book! As an instructor, I get credit to sign up for their other classes, and I never miss an opportunity to do so. This time I picked Double Trouble: Type and Image on the Vandercook with Adam Ewing. Check out his work here. So beautiful! In the class, we all carved linoleum blocks with images, then used the Center’s wood type as a base to transfer from and carve letterforms in our lino as well. With just two inkings, we made these cool posters.

The field of printing and printmaking is totally new to me, and it’s a great learning experience for me to branch out a bit from bookbinding. Next week I will start one of the Friends of Calligraphy classes– of course I had to choose Bookhand. Typography, calligraphy, graphic design, and printmaking as well as bookbinding truly flourish here in the bay area– there is always more to learn.

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Filed under Around, About, and Through, Classes I've taken, Classes I've taught

Another Installment: Pleasure Reading, Summer Updates

artwork by Vanessa Renwick

artwork by Vanessa Renwick

Last night I had the great good fortune to visit one of this fine land’s most fascinating libraries. It has no formal cataloging system nor many of the usual finding aids, inhabits a single room, and yet is one of the best-organized and most expansive collections I’ve seen. How can this be? For the answer to that riddle, you just have to visit… It’s located at the corner of Howard and Eighth Streets in San Francisco. You could also read Megan Prelinger’s own statement about how the library is organized and how it came to be.

Lucky for me, it’s just a short bike ride away, but for those of you who can’t make it in person, the Prelingers have digitized many of the materials in their collection.  Did I mention they’re appropriation-friendly? That’s what “Free Speech, Fear-Free” is about. Thousands of their books and other materials are available for viewing or downloading for free through the Internet Archive. One of my favorites is here: who knew that another term for shipwreck is ‘submerged cultural resource’?

Since I am able to visit the library in person, and since the Prelingers are so encouraging of snapshots, I’ll share some of my own here. They’re just from a very small section I browsed. I came upon many more happy coincidences while I was there—some recipes from Nance Klehm on sourdough bread starters turned up in a small publication on Soil that was hanging out on the Returns shelf.  I also found articles from the 1940’s journal Modern Industry with titles like, ”Six Ways to Tell if Your Employees Are Doing Their Jobs” opposite the biography of Frederick Winslow Taylor and other labor history and Situationist International books. So here’s just a little smattering of front covers and shelves I found…

…a page of Cage…

…some really great tips here!…

…Whole Earth Catalog… a few pages before this one had some very precise instructions for removing porcupine quills from your dog’s fur. aww…

…more Whole Earth Catalog…

…mightn’t everyone need these books someday?…

…vast shelves to be explored…


In early August, a friend and I took a road trip up the coastal highway of northern California. It was mysterious, magical, and so new for me, as I had never travelled it before.  Unfortunately I can’t come up with a single connection to bookbinding… though maybe that’s the point. I finally did something totally unrelated to bookbinding, and I actually had a great time! There are too many pictures to post here, so visit my flickr page for views.

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Filed under Around, About, and Through, My projects