Bookbinders Strive to Keep Craft Alive

Sam Ellenport covering books at Harcourt Bindery in 2004.
Sam Ellenport covering books at Harcourt Bindery in 2004.

By Shujie Leng
BU News Service

Sam Ellenport likes playing crosswords. The satisfaction of filling the entire grid of blanks, across and down, overwhelms him, as finishing the binding of a 19th century book always does.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of downtown Boston, Ellenport’s workshop is a cave of binding tools: a paper cutter, a lithograph stone, a book press, scrolls of marbled papers and leather, and hundreds of hand tools including fillets, gouges, center tools, emblematic stamps and plate dies. Ellenport, over six feet tall, wore round black-rimmed spectacles and a long blue apron over a blue-striped shirt, as he stood behind a long bench, stirring a bowl of paste made of flour and water. He said he was one of the oldest bookbinders in Boston.

For 40 years, Ellenport owned the Harcourt Bindery. In 2008, he sold the company to Acme Bookbinding but he continued to run it as a division until retiring recently, at 70.

The craft of hand bookbinding is dying, crushed by advanced mechanics and technology. Binding needs time, patience, concentration and intensive labor. Few people will spend a whole afternoon practicing using 50 kinds of gouges, or gilding a leather-bound book. Living through the decline of hand bookbinding, Ellenport was sure of one thing. As he wrote in his book, The Future of Hand Bookbinding, published in 1993, “There is never a clear break from the past. The legacy will remain.”

Modern bookbinding by hand revived in the beginning of the twentieth century, after the English Arts and Crafts movement brought back the standards of the craft established in medieval times. After World War II, the craft suffered a steep decline from growing dependence on technology. Today, bookbinding divides into three vital areas: design binding, traditional leather binding, and conservation, repair and restoration.

To Ellenport, repairing an old geographical dictionary’s full leather binding can be as easy as wrapping a textbook in paper, and as complex as working out a thorny crossword puzzle.

“It depends on how many years you’ve practiced. For me, three hours, 50 years,” he said, stretching a piece of brown leather cut from calf skin. He wet the outside of the leather, put it on a large piece of paper, pasted the inside of the leather and folded in both edges around the dictionary. Then he cut the corners of leather, pulled it tightly over the book cover, and put it aside for time to dry. Ellenport said he likes the leather work more than the gilding or decorating part. In a regular workday, he can finish covering 15 books in leather.

“Few binders can produce at such a level today,” he said. “One of reasons is that most binders work alone or in very small groups. They have little concern about time and overhead, as large binding companies do.” According to Ellenport, the finishers in the department of decoration at Harcourt Bindery in the 1970s could decorate about eight to ten spines with gold leaf every day. Such output was not considered extraordinary at that time, but it would be today.

The Harcourt Bindery remains the largest for-profit hand bookbindery in the U.S. When it was founded in 1900, Boston was home to over 47 book binderies and 1,452 craftsmen, according to the company’s website. Few large binderies exist today.

The economics of bookbinderies follow the trends of the age. After World War I, decorating rooms with books was common in well-to-do homes in all major cities. In its heyday, Harcourt received orders for “sets of sets” classics, bound in full leather, from interior design firms to line the walls of private libraries in the homes of Hollywood stars and other wealthy Californians, the former owner of Harcourt Bindery, Fred Young, recorded in his recollection. During the Depression, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy, yet managed to stay alive.

Before the 1930s, there were about 15 people working in the Harcourt Bindery; the number fell to five during the Depression, and the company changed hands three times between 1927 and 1931. When Ellenport took over Harcourt in 1971, there were only four employees. Two years later, the oil crisis forced many universities and libraries to cut their budgets, and bookbinderies lost most of their best customers.

To tide the company over, Ellenport set up the Harcourt School of Binding and began to teach hand bookbinding. Soon, the class varied from basic to advanced level. At the same time, he sold binding supplies to schools and museums.

Even in the hard times, Ellenport could still get apprentices to work for him. Today, the bench experience has almost disappeared.

One problem for independent workshops today is that young binders get less and less on-the-job training. Because of the small size of workshops, new binders today have little chance to master all aspects of hand book binding, from basic sewing to gold-leaf decoration. In the old days, it took at least seven years for an apprentice to get familiar with the whole process of bookbinding, said Ellenport. He believed that as digitalization rises, the skill of traditional hand bookbinding is going to die out.

Boston’s North Bennett Street School (NBSS) is the only school in America which has a two-year, full-time program in hand bookbinding, covering the whole process from basic sewing to final finishing. In the past three years, many people have visited the school to see how traditional craftsmen survived the financial crisis.

Jeffrey Altepeter, head of the NBSS bookbinding department and a former employee of Ellenport, said there are 16 students in the program, eight students in each year; ten years ago, there were only six students, including himself.

Altepeter, born into a family of picture framers, was eager to find a job “without abstract skills,” he said. After working for the library of Harvard University and the Harcourt Bindery for a while, he went back to NBSS in 2007 to teach bookbinding.

Christine Ameduri, a first-year student, was sewing a model book in sheets. Her final project is to sew ten model books with different stitches.

Ameduri spent 12 years working in Gettysburg College as a librarian in charge of the rare and special book collection. Being interested in book conservation, she had attended a workshop in the American Academy of Bookbinding five years ago, but thought it was not enough. Three months ago, she quit her job and came to Boston.

“I will go back to college after graduation, since I’ve combined my academic background and hand skills,” said Ameduri.

Passion was the only reason for Avery Bazemore to learn book binding.

Bazemore, in her second year at North Bennet, attended ten bookbinding workshops before becoming a full-time student. She has recently bound three copies of an illustrated book about Afghanistan refugees for a customer. This was her first time learning the whole process of binding a book, she said.

On the wall beside her work table hangs a banner that reads, “We surrender.”

“Pain, but fun,” Bazemore said, doing gold tooling on a piece of blue leather.

Altepeter said he would ensure that every student could find a job after graduation, either self-employed or working for someone in the field.

In 1986, when the Harcourt Bindery moved from Harcourt Street to Fort Point, Ellenport donated some equipment to the school to help establish the bookbinding program. He serves as an advisor to the program and at times has hired some graduates to work for him in the workshop.

“The desire overcomes the experience. I just cannot stop. It’s my life,” said Ellenport.

Workspace for the bookbinding program at the North Bennett Street School
Workspace for the bookbinding program at the North Bennett Street School

2 Comments so far:

  1. Why do you say Sam Ellenport is “overwhelmed” by completing a puzzle, or a binding – he sounds professional, competent and committed to his craft!

    • Thanks for your comment, Henrietta. “overwhelm” is probably an inappropriate word here. Actually Ellenport himself doubted it too. I was trying to stress that the feeling of completing a puzzle is as powerful as binding, to Ellenport. The emotional impact of these two acts are quite similar, as far as I’m concerned. But I should probably change it to “The process of filling the entire grid of blanks…satisfies him, as binding…does.” Does it sound better?

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