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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    Patricia Rosen has worked for 8 years at Harcourt, which is the largest for-profit hand-bookbindery in the United States and the last one in the country to operate on the 19th-century production model.
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What is a traditional paper-and-ink book fan going to do in the age of Kindles, Nooks, and iPads? The percentage of readers who have made the switch to e-readers is growing quickly: Over the winter holidays, the number of adults in the United States who own e-book readers nearly doubled from 10 to 19 percent, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

But readers who prefer a turn of the page to a swipe of a finger should not despair yet. Instead, they should make the acquaintance of Samuel B. Ellenport, who not only loves paper-and-ink books, but also earns a living making them – the old-fashioned way.

Ellenport is the president of Harcourt Bindery, a hand bindery business in Charlestown, Mass., that is the largest for-profit hand-bookbindery in the United States
and the last one in the country to operate on the 19th-century production model. Books produced here have landed in the halls of Ivy League universities and major museums. A custom case was once made here at Harcourt to hold the sleeping cap of Charles Dickens and Ronald and Nancy Reagan commissioned work from this bindery when they were in the Oval Office.

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The operation runs much as it would have at the height of manual bookbinding in the US, when each person in the shop was highly skilled in one area of the process.

“The beauty of it is that the sum is bigger than all the parts, because you have expertise in different areas,” said Ellenport in an interview at the bindery. “The downside is, whether you get bored or not.”

Bookbinding is a repetitive process. While we tend to glamorize the trade as it becomes rarer, Ellenport says it has never been a romantic practice.

“It’s like going into a bakery where the wedding cake looks so pretty, and it smells so good, but the baker’s been up since 4 am making rolls.”

Ellenport himself has been in the book binding trade for nearly 40 years. A former history professor who taught at Brown University, Ellenport found a job at Harcourt in the early 1970s when academia was rife with young professors and teaching jobs were scarce. At the bindery, he bridged the gap between a mostly blue-collar workforce and an elite clientele.

He became the office frontman and bought the business when the previous owner, who had been there since 1918, offered to sell.

“I spoke the right language. I had a tweedy jacket. I loved old books. It was a very comfortable move,” Ellenport said.

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.

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