Sunday, 28 February 2010

Mrs Beeton & the Bookbinders

I mentioned having gone into the LitPhil library

to copy some recipes from a cookbook by Mrs. Beeton. It was in fact her squillion-page book on household management, the kind of thing I love to read, mainly because I know I don’t have to do all that stuff.

Anyhow, this was shortly before Christmas and I had a list of errands to run in Newcastle before my car parking ticket ran out. However, after copying the recipe, I took the time to take a couple of photographs of the book cover (just for you...). This got the attention of the two men also sitting at the big table. One of them commented on the state of the book’s spine, it being rather old and worn (it is pictured at the link above). I said I rather liked the shabby look as it did honour to the book’s age. He said they left it that way on purpose when they repaired the bindings, was I interested in seeing how they did the bookbinding? He was treasurer of something or other and could take me next door to where they were working.

I said I needed to check my Christmas shopping list to see where I was with it and he answered ‘Quite right.’ and carried on his conversation with the other man. I think he took that for a ‘No, thank you’. I found, however, I could scratch off all but one or two things by then so, after disappearing to the ladies room where I decided one should always jump on serendipitous opportunities, I came back and found him gone. I spotted him reading over letter before affixing his signature and handing it to one of the library staff. He seemed surprised to see me standing there when he finished but then realized I was in fact interested in his kind offer.

I followed him through a couple of doors which connected the LitPhil to Bolbec Hall next door on the corner. A large grand room

was crammed full of tables and chairs and 20 or so people were all busy stitching, gluing or pressing various books. The man started to introduce me to a few people, then realized we’d not met ourselves. His name was Chris. I’ve no idea the names of the 4 or 5 people I shook hands with, but the fiddly work they were all doing looked fascinating.

Chris showed me how to tell the direction of grain in paper. He said most cheaply published books had the grain going the wrong way (horizontally across the page). He showed me a book he’d been working on for 7 years. It must have been in wretched condition to

take that long, mind I took away the impression that they only do this volunteer work on Thursdays. Also, he struck me as being too hyper and too extroverted to sit and sew for long, though he was obviously very enthusiastic about his subject.

I asked how long it took to learn bookbinding skills. He said the basics could be learned in about 3-6 weeks. I told him I did quite a bit of hand sewing and thought I might be suited to this sort of thing. He mentioned classes and gave me a name and phone number to contact. He gave permission to take photos, so long as I got permission of the people who would be in them, he knew there were a couple who disliked photographs.

Leap forward to here to eavesdrop on the conversation Bill and I had after I contacted Derek, the man who leads the bookbinding group and found that one pays an annual membership of £55, plus £8 per class, plus either £3.80 Metro fare or £2.00 parking and about £2.60 in petrol…. I‘ve been to my second bookbinding class now.

I can now tell you (if allowed to consult my scribbled notes) three different ways to tell which way the grain runs in a large sheet of paper, also how many grams per square metre different types of paper weigh. I am well on the way to finishing 2 A-5* sized booklets, each having 72 pages. I folded the large easel sized paper into quarters using a tool made from bone (I forgot to ask whose). Then I cut the end papers to size and glued a strip of linen onto the folded end papers.

The next week we set up a sewing rack and after making holes in each section of paper and the end papers, I sewed the pages to linen tapes, using linen thread, then glued the next to last section to the last section at the fold (apparently this is a weak point in most books and where they fall apart) and the last section to the end paper so the linen strip wouldn’t show. There are special tricks for joining more thread to a dwindling length, for splitting the thread with the needle to keep it from coming out of the needle and for making a neat job of gluing. Apparently I’m a good sew-er, but (no disrespect) Margaret is the neatest. I plan to watch Margaret sometime.

I know that next week I need to take an old (and therefore thin edged) kitchen knife with a rounded end (so it doesn’t poke through where you don’t want it to), we have a million from the flea market and from Ellen, in order to cut the folded pages apart. It was that or pay £1 each to have them sliced on a machine (I ask you!) I’ve no idea what comes after that, but I’m really looking forward to it.

The majority of people there are mostly in their 50s and 60s, I would guess, and extremely friendly and welcoming. Most have been doing this for years – anywhere from 3 to 30 and they were all pleased to tell me about their current projects. They bind their own books, they bind some for private customers, but mostly they repair books for the LitPhil Library. If I understood correctly, those doing work for the library don’t have to pay the £8.

Derek is the Master Craftsman that everyone gets advice from, even the ones with the most experience. He’s a lovely, cheerful man with funny stories to tell about his apprenticeship and work in the commercial world. The library staff bring in coffee and tea at 3pm and Derek's wife always sends several dozen cupcakes and he says he's not allowed to bring any home. I haven’t taken my camera with me to classes, wanting to settle in a bit first, but I have some photos I took that day back in December and you can be assured you will see my finished booklets.

By the way, I belive Bolbec Hall (the corner building below) is currently for sale, for something like a million pounds. Because it was actually built to be part of the Lit Phil Library (pictured at the top).

and it seems to only consist of a couple of rooms on each of 5 or 6 floors around a winding staircase, I can’t imagine what use someone would put it to. However it is a gorgeous thing, as you can see.

Also, on the floor above the bookbinders is the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society, of which Bill is a member. I believe because he is a member I can join for just £2. They are seeking volunteers for various transcription and other jobs. Must go in early one day before class and check them out. It won’t be anything to do with my family tree, but it might be interesting all the same…

*Re: A5. I've linked you to an explanation, but I'm not sure it helps. Apparently everywhere in Europe uses this paper system instead of 'legal' and 'letter' like in the States. It was part of the new language I had to learn when I came across. The simplest way of explaining it is to tell you that the big pads of paper used on easels for presentations with magic markers, back in in the dark ages, would be sized A1. Fold it in half and you have A2. Fold that in half and you have A3. Do it again and you have A4, which is your standard printer paper, close to letter sized but slightly longer and narrower. Fold that in half and you have a nice little booklet sized A5 that you can tuck into your purse, which is what I'm making.


James said...

An interesting post. you never fail to enlighten. Thank you!

Frugal Scholar said...

Oh, this is a wonderful story! I love these unexpected meetings and opportunities. So lucky.

Anonymous said...

You come across the most interesting items. How did you ever have time to work!

TKW said...

What an interesting skill! Who knew?

Revanche said...

How intriguing! Part way through I was thinking how cool it was that you were able to take photos but to meet someone who could show you 'round their project? Even better!

Love that you're learning how to do this in a place with history.