I learned bookbinding from a cantakerous communist with soft side in San Jose, Costa Rica. When I returned to the states, I worked at a tiny bindery under the Trinity University Library for a short while before moving to DeKalb, IL, to start a new life.
After getting married, we spent a chunk of wedding money on two lots of equipment, tools and materials. The first was from a wonderful woman named Virginia and the second came from a short, wild man named Matt. I’ve been making books in basements ever since.
Man, the short version is boring. Let’s put some meat on those bones:
In 2000, I took a trip with my university to Costa Rica for a two-week seminar. The first week was taking classes and doing service projects in San Jose and the second week was spent doing trail work in the rainforest. A few days into the trip, after a delicious lunch, I failed to stay awake during a presentation on the history of the church in Latin America. I was sitting in the back row, solidly dozing, when the professor, Dr. Arturo Piedra, caught me and called me out in front of the class.
After the class, I introduced myself to Dr. Piedra and apologized. He was very kind and we had a nice conversation that ended with an invitation to join him that evening for a service at his church. He was a pastor as well as a professor (as well as an author and social leader). I immediately accepted the invitation, to the shock of my classmates (“you’re going off with a stranger? here?”). The truth is, I trusted him more than the people I’d come to the country with.
The church was in Hatillo 5, one of eight Hatillos skirting San Jose to the southwest. Frankly put, it’s just not a place that a lot of white people tend to visit. Don Arturo gave me a tour of the neighborhood, showing me his church and the various extensions they’d built: the senior center, the emergency clinic, and book bindery.
Book bindery? I didn’t even know bookbinding was still a thing. But there we were, among stacks of books in various states of assembly or repair. And there was this little man, Emilio, flitting around. He had this weird elastic smile. Ashamed of his teeth, he’d flash a grin and then quickly close his lips, as if his teeth were going to escape from his mouth if his lips didn’t keep them in. Don Emilio was the maestro, the teacher, the boss. This picture was taken during this visit, Don Emilio is on the right, Don Arturo is on the left.
The bindery was called La Fundacion Amor al Projimo — the "Love Your Neighbor Foundation". It was a working compromise between Don Arturo and Don Emilio; The church owned the building and Don Emilio could use it rent-free if he would agree to hire and teach local women in the neighborhood. It was a brilliant solution a common issue in the community. Young mothers and middle-aged women who had kids at a young age had never held a job before, so this was their first job. They would learn a few skills and could then graduate to another job once they had something to show. The bindery also became a refuge for a few young immigrant men who needed similar structure in their lives.
After Arturo and Emilio discussed some business, Emilio let me use the hot foil stamping machine to stamp (see also: burn, melt) the cover of my journal. That wasn’t the only mark made that night.
After the neighborhood tour and the church service, I was deeply moved by the tactile, physical good that Don Arturo and his church was doing in that community.
Almost two years later, I got off a plane in San Jose and was driving back to Hatillo 5 with Arturo. I had saved enough money to live there for a year and had offered to work wherever the church needed a hand. Before we arrived in the neighborhood, he said “We can use your help in the bindery, Tobie, and you can serve lunches at the senior center.” I couldn’t have been happier.
My Spanish at the time was infantile, but they say immersion is the best method. I drowned myself in it. If I wanted to eat, I need to speak Spanish. And learning a craft in another language was another layer completely. After returning to the states, it took months to learn the English words for everything in the bindery. In my head, I still call my bone-folder a “hueso”.
I worked alongside a few sweet women and two guys my age, Nahum and Jair, who became close friends. We were all learning the trade but I approached it quite differently at the time. I’d learn a base skill and then go bonkers trying to do something unique with it. Emilio would scoff or laugh. I’d tear the covers off books I’d bought at the used bookstore and cover them with the new methods I was exploring at the time.
The business made so little money, we had very few materials to work with. Most of the equipment was made by welders in the neighborhood. The knives were either home-made or repurposed from the kitchen. We saved all the scraps, no matter how small. We bought cheap vinyl and repurposed shopping bags for cover materials. We didn’t have a computer, but we had a copy machine and a typewriter. You can do a lot of cool things with a copy machine and a typewriter. That resourcefulness became an integral part of my creative DNA.
In preparation for a trip back to the states for Christmas, we built almost 500 books out of scrap materials. I carried them home in my trekking backpack and sold them to friends, family and at church. The income from that project doubled the income of the bindery for that year.
After almost 13 months in San Jose, I returned home looking like a naufrago. (castaway). A friend of mine worked at the library at Trinity International University and mentioned they had a bookbindery. He took me for a visit. We walked in and he said to the manager, “This is Tobie, he knows how to bind books,” and the manager, Michael, replied, “You’re hired.” He didn’t know I was looking for a job, but I took it. The pay was lousy and the hours were few, but I was happy to be working on books again. Most of the work was doing recases of library books, but every now and again we had cool projects. We were allowed to work on our own books off the clock, so I had a lot of fun. We took a field trips to Tandy Leather and The Paper Source and I was simply overwhelmed by the options available. It was immobilizing, actually. I am sure I spent more money than I made during that time.
Early in 2004, I moved to DeKalb, IL with everything I owned in the back of my car. I wanted to marry my girlfriend, Anna. I had told God and man I didn’t want to live in DeKalb, but that’s where she was so that’s where I went. I called all around looking for a place to apprentice and no one was binding books in the area. Two names continued to come up, so I pursued them. Virginia was a sweet, elderly woman who was a queen of craft. She was no longer binding books and happy to find someone interested in her equipment. She gave us an incredible price and, after she passed, bequeathed us her entire library. The other person, Matt, was a wily one. It took him months to return my calls and when he did, was very excited to find a buyer for his stuff. And when I opened his storage unit to find tons, literally tons, of cast-iron equipment, lead type, paper and leather… I was excited, too.
His story was a rough one; “I’m divorced, I’m broke, I’m recovering from esophageal cancer and I can’t be trusted with large sums of money. You have to pay me $100 a month, no more, no less, until it’s paid off. No interest. OK?”
And so, with those two purchases, I had a bindery that exceeded even that of Trinity International University.
In DeKalb, I ran a bike shop for over a decade and the bindery lived in my basement. Over the years, I became known as “the guy at the bike shop who works on books”. I made a nice little side gig repairing Bibles and restoring plat books and always tinkered with my own projects. Ultimately, I decided to call it Mordecai Book Building. The name came from the book of Esther in the Old Testament. I'll be sharing that story in another blog post soon.
When we moved to Madison in 2015, the bindery sat in storage for over a year, but we finally installed it at our home in February of 2017.
In hindsight, the hiatus was healthy. I’m newly inspired to work and learn and make again.
Thank you for reading.