In an age of Kindles, Harcourt Bindery sticks to tried-and-true book methods
The Charlestown, Mass., bindery still makes books by hand, using a 19th-century production model.
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“I spoke the right language. I had a tweedy jacket. I loved old books. It was a very comfortable move,” Ellenport said.Skip to next paragraph
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Step inside the bindery and you’ll immediately see a workshop from another era. Two cast-iron arming presses tower over the hall. There are shelves full of decorative paper, some dating back to the 1880s. Huge rolls of leather, mostly goat and calf skin imported from North Africa and tanned in England, fill another bookshelf.
At Harcourt, the day begins at 8 am. Every employee is assigned to a specific task. Some sew the book’s spine and add end papers, others round the spine, cut the leather, and bond the leather cover to the book.
Each task is exacting and requires the use of tools mostly confined to antique stores. The finished product is a sight to behold: more satisfying than a Kindle to many, and the reason Harcourt still has a loyal customer base.
The client base has changed from universities and museums, which used to order the bulk of the work, to book dealers, private collectors, and New York publishing houses who want to give their bestselling authors leather-bound copies of their work.
Despite its success, Harcourt is fighting an uphill battle. Ellenport was the last independent owner. He sold to Acme Bookbinding Company, a larger industrial binding company, at the height of the housing bubble in 2007 when developers bought the property where Harcourt was located near Boston Harbor.
Ellenport remains on as the head of the Harcourt Bindery division and operates as he did when the company was independently owned. He says he doesn’t know what will happen to the bindery after he’s gone. He travels around the country more often these days, giving talks and writing.
But he’s not afraid of the future. On the contrary, he demonstrates a keen perception, probably natural to the trained historian, of the past and the present. He identifies the present era as the second great information revolution. The first, he says, was caused by Gutenberg’s press in the 1400s.
“This shift is going to represent not only an enormous change in technology, but also how we think about information,” he said. “I’m not against it. In the long run, the information and the technology are neutral. It’s really what people do with it.”
Chelsea Sheasley is a Monitor contributor.