Apr 15

How and Why a Bookbinder

Filed under: bookbinding

Jill Deiss, Bookbinder and Proprietress

Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding

Winchester, Virginia



On Facebook: CatTailRun

I am frequently asked how I became a bookbinder. The question really implies two parts: Why did you and What did you do to become a bookbinder? In earlier times, bookbinderies—and by default bookbinders—were common fixtures in the commercial communities of towns and cities, so I am guessing those crafts (largely) men were rarely asked to describe how they came to bookbinding. Now, when fully 70% of our individual clients are making contact with a bookbindery for the first time in their lives, bookbinding—and bookbinders—clearly seem to be useful but at the same time a bit of a curiosity not quite of this century or maybe not even of the last one.
Over the years I have boiled down my (boring) story to a few (I hope) semi-interesting sentences that satisfy the curious without making me feel I am droning on and on like the person who trapped you at that party a couple of weeks ago. But here, I plan to rehydrate my condensed version of “How and Why a Bookbinder” first, because Beth of the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair asked me to do so for the Fair’s blog, but also because in my fourth decade of bookbinding I realized her request would force me to give a nod to Socrates while undertaking a bit of self examination in which I rarely indulge.
I grew up in a house where things were fixed and made. My father was a clockmaker and repairer and my mother was pipe organist who also composed. Our house was a quiet place without a television where much reading was done. When it came time to go to college, it seemed most of my peers had some idea of what they wanted to “become” as adults. I had no clue and frankly was becoming somewhat worried, but I figured college would sort it out. My senior year of college arrived, and, generally, I felt I enjoyed everything I studied, but no subject stood out for me above all the others. Panic was really setting in at this point.
My mother (ever impractical) suggested I look to a museum for a job. So I set out to find a position in a museum (not quite understanding that the country was in an economic slump meaning cultural organizations weren’t in prime hiring mode, plus, while I had a solid education, it was not one particularly geared toward museum work). Ignorance being bliss, I mailed off dozens of résumés and cover letters, hearing back from not a one of them, until one day my cover letter and résumé fell on the desk of a Massachusetts museum director who that very morning had simply had it with her assistant. She liked my letter and my enthusiasm, and by graduation day I Had A Job. I packed my pickup and headed north.
The job was wonderful, and I dove into it. I adored my boss, the museum director, whose influence I still feel, although she has been gone for nearly a score of years. Seeing a non-credit introductory bookbinding class listed in the UMass course listings, I decided to sign up (after all, I loved reading, what more could I need in way of preparation?). The class was twice a week in the evenings for six weeks. I liked it, but, again, no more, no less than any number of other things I had studied.
For the class we each had to bring a book that we would dissemble down to the signatures, then resew and restore its (cloth) cover. I took a favorite book about the artist Holbein that was worse for wear. I moved my book along through the stages, pleased that I seemed able to do the steps. On the last night of class I placed my book in the press for one of its final pressings and, always enthusiastic, overdid it: I split the joint of my restored cover. I was clearly disappointed, so the binder (who owned the bindery and was teaching the course) offered that I spend a little time at the bindery to get my book back into working order. I readily accepted. The bindery ran from 7:30 in the morning to 6:30 in the evening (and often later) every day of the week except Sunday, so I could slip in to the workbench before and after my museum job.
After a couple of weeks, I had my book back in working order, and told the binder that since he would accept no payment for the extra time he took with me, could I please do something to help as repayment. After assuring him this was absolutely necessary lest my mother make the trek up to Massachusetts to tell him in person that it was necessary, the binder had me do some prep work on materials to be utilized in restoring several large atlases from the museum where I worked. He said he had quoted a very low price for the work as a way of making a contribution to the museum’s efforts, but it was ultimately proving difficult for him to devote time to what essentially was not paying work. I was happy to help, and I was given a key to the bindery. I left my apartment at 7:00 each morning, walked to the bindery, let myself in, and picked away at the work to repair the atlases until 8:55 when I walked on to my job at the museum. At 5:05, I walked back into the bindery. Soon I was there on Saturdays as well and also was borrowing books from the bindery’s library to read at home. When I finished the work set out for me on the atlases, I knew I never wanted to leave. After a respectable amount of time working at the museum, I resigned so as to devote myself to bookbinding. It was then my parents trekked north to make more formal arrangements for what was to become my apprenticeship.
And what an apprenticeship it was. This was a fully functioning hand bookbindery that was in a mid-19th-century house, where the binder and his wife had rooms upstairs, with a kitchen and a sitting room-dining room behind the first-floor bindery. In the five-college area of western Massachusetts, you never knew who would walk through that bindery door nor did you know what treasure of a book would be brought for the careful ministrations practiced in that shop. For my part, I swept, wiped counters, and did ample time at the bench. I learned to pull books, round and back them, make new bindings, do restoration and repair work, skive leather on a stone, set type like Gutenberg did, and countless other tasks that constitute the craft of hand bookbinding.
Little did I know that the normal life in the bindery was but a slightly modernized version of bindery and apprenticeship life from ages past. The building was heated with wood, and every fall a large truck of split wood arrived from the Berkshires, and the apprentices stacked it up at the back of the house. Some of the apprentices or any students in for shorter studies could kip on pads along a balcony of sorts that ran near the ceiling along the wall of the sitting-dining room. The banister allowed for no privacy for those bunking there, but free lodging was part of the deal, so it was easy to take the arrangements in stride.
Saturday evenings are precious memories for me, as the bindery day was winding down. Around 7 p.m. the binder would come through the swinging door from kitchen with a tray of delicate, long-stemmed glasses and ask each of us if we would like a “snort of wine.” And, in this communion, we ended the bookbinding week.
Later, I headed off to graduate school and to several institutional internships, preparing to go in the direction of being an institutional conservator or head of preservation at a university. But as I was closing in on that goal, I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning—surprised to find myself wrestling with the path I was on. I arose the next morning steady and determined. By noon I had redirected myself so that I was no longer bound for an institutional career, but instead for one modeled more on the experience of my apprenticeship. With this decision, the apprenticeship I loved would not be just a happy memory, but would be the mold for a future I knew I truly wanted.
And how did it all turn out? In answer to that, I include below the Facebook entry I posted in 2016 on the 25th anniversary of the founding of Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding.




Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one. - Augustine Birrell