Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review of The Thread that Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders

The Thread that Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders

My review of The Thread that Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders by Pamela Train Leutz (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2009).
Published in College & Research Libraries, November 2010.

In The Thread That Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders, Pamela Train Leutz interviews 21 “independent bookbinders in private practice: general bookbinders, book conservators, book restorers, book artists, designer bookbinders, edition bookbinders, and box-makers,” exploring their training and their work (1). Preeminent representatives of the field include Catherine Burkhard, Jim Croft, Tim Ely, Gabrielle Fox, Peter Geraty, Don Glaister, Karen Hanmer, Craig Jensen, Scott Kellar, Daniel Kelm, Monique Lallier, Frank Lehmann, William Minter, Tini Miura, Eleanore Ramsey, Don Rash, Sol Rebora, Jan Sobota, Priscilla Spitler, and Cris Clair Takacs, with a special interview with internationally recognized conservator and “bookbinding father figure” Don Etherington (313). Leutz, a binder, book arts teacher, and college administrator, conducted interviews from 2004 to 2008 with bookbinders across the country, as well as overseas. She writes, “Each independent bookbinder has a ‘story’—significant, fascinating and unique, that revels the path that unfolded, leading them to bookbinding and sustaining them as they continue their craft” (1).

Viewing book workers as “mechanics, engineers, designers, craftspeople [requiring] imagination, creativity, intelligence, problem solving, and passion,” the book evolved out of Leutz’s curiosity about becoming a bookbinder in private practice (321). Her focus is not on the technical aspects of their craft, but on their character and perspectives; their training, skills, career paths; and the pros and cons of business. As the author states, she “wanted to know about the people themselves and the lives they led….I also wanted to see where they worked, to get a fuller sense of their lives—and to record my images and impressions as I interacted with these people and their work” (2). The interviews begin with an introduction of the binders and their qualifications, followed by a question and answer interview format. The book includes photographs of the studios, as well as the bookbinders themselves.

A common thread throughout the interviews is how to run your own business, and the book, through an assortment of voices, offers examples of a plethora of successful methods. The binders are diverse, employing a range of cultivated skills and experience. For example, conserving historic manuscripts requires knowledge about the chemistry of leather, wood, and paper, and the ornamentation of different eras. Bookbinding “requires the synergy of painting, drawing, and other fabrication techniques as well as a lot of referencing to arcane source material,” notes Tim Ely, who creates single-copy handmade books as art objects (47). The interviewees discovered specialized facets of bookbinding to explore their interests and abilities, ranging from edition binding to artist books, design binding, restoration, book repair, teaching, and conservation. Their training includes self-education, informal and formal apprenticeships, international training, workshops, graduate school, and often a combination of all of these. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the binders share an interest in lifelong learning and a passion for working with the highest standards as possible. Leutz notes, “Bookbinders are interconnected, almost like a family tree, through their training, work, collaboration, or friendships” (322).

Not surprisingly, the economic aspect of private practice is explored thoroughly, and this is the book’s strength. As binder and conservator Don Rash reveals, “What makes a good bookbinder doesn’t necessarily make a good businessperson” (197). In the final Reflections section, Leutz writes, “The majority of [the interviewees] voiced their frustration about feeling unable to charge a fair wage for their work. Unlike a plumber who charges per hour at the end of the job, a bookbinder is usually expected to give a firm price up front. The need to do extra work is often not discovered until a book is disassembled or the unique structure of a book is begun” (321). Frank Lehmann, a San Diego-based physicist-turned-binder, states, “If you are going to make a living off of bookbinding, you have to charge a decent hourly rate….I should be making a higher hourly rate than my car mechanic (who is very good). I have a lot more training than he does, and there are a lot fewer of me than there are of him....The craft of bookbinding is hurting itself by undervaluing its work” (37-38). Catherine Burkhard, a Dallas-based binder specializing in rebinding and restoring bibles, notes, “The money part of it is the bottom line. You can’t just set up shop with a needle and thread and a bonefolder; there is bookkeeping involved” (149). Throughout the interviews, advice about how to price work is given, a vital subject if hand bookbinding is to survive in contemporary society.

The Thread That Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders is an excellent book for those considering entering the bookbinding field and into private practice, specifically, and serves as “a testament to the continued life of the artist/craftsman” (323). Due to its specialized subject, the book may have limited appeal to a general audience. However, the book elevates the status of those in private practice by documenting common pleasures and obstacles. The interviewees emphasized that with dedication, sacrifice, and luck, it is possible to make a living in the tentative world of private practice, “a life of hard work and perseverance [holding] the risk of uncertain finances” (1). Not surprisingly, unbounded copies of The Thread That Binds are also available; as of this writing, two exhibitions are scheduled to display innovative, one-of-a-kind bindings of the book.

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