Last fall the Friends of the Bancroft Library, at the University of California in Berkeley, exhibited books from their private collections. There was a reception on the opening day of the exhibition, and Gale Herrick gave a talk which is reprinted in full in the Newsletter of the Hand Bookbinders of California. Excerpts from his talk are reprinted here with permission.
These days two of the special expressions which are being used extensively and which furnish evidence of our search for solutions to some of our challenges are the word "collectibles" and the phrase "leisure time." I would like to deal with hand bookbinding as it fills these two needs of today--collecting of fine bindings and pursuing binding through study and practice....
In the Bay Area alone there are 13 hand bookbinders seeking commissions. Those 13 binders accept commissions to bind books such as you have seen in the exhibit today. These people not only complete fine bindings, but some of them offer to repair, restore, or rebind books.
A fine hand binding is a unique work of art. It is issued in a limit of one How does one go about collecting fine hand bookbindings? Booksellers and binders offer books already bound. A book collector may find on his shelves a precious book which needs rebinding. Or publishers now offer for sale their printed pages prior to binding.
Having seen a binder's work, one visits the binder with the book to be bound, If the binder will accept the commission he will quote a price. The binder should be allowed to make the design. He nay submit a drawing of it to the collector for approval. The collector may even originate the design, but this is not likely to result in as beautiful a binding as would be had from allowing the binder a free hand.
Our exhibit includes four extraordinary examples of various binders' concepts of designs for the sane book. Our member and lender, Norman Strouse, has made a practice of commissioning bindings of books from binders throughout the world. As a consequence we have the privilege of seeing Mr. Strouse's complete set of nine books, C-S The Master Craftsman, all with identical text but each bound by a different binder in a design the binder has conceived and without Mr. Strouse making suggestions as to design. There is also a set of four bindings of another book--Four Lectures, by Cobden-Sanderson; six of The Silverado Episode; and three of The Passionate Pirate, Mr. Strouse wrote three of these books.
The other bindings in the exhibit are generally from private collections in which the collector bought an existing binding. There are exceptions where these collectors commissioned the binding of books they supplied.
Only five collectors have loaned bindings to the show. This gives me a good opportunity to persuade you that the collecting of modern fine bindings is not followed by many. These five are, I believe, the only significant collectors of modern fine bindings in Northern California. Fine binding is a neglected field of collecting. Here we have a book of value in a unique binding which will outlast all other copies of the book and which does not present any problem of storage or display, as it nay be stored on your library shelves. It will outlast the trade editions because the entire trade binding is removed and replaced with a binding of the finest materials applied in a time-tested way....
So--instead of collecting matchbooks, coins, stamps, fine art, consider fine bindings. Of course much of the interest in collecting in general cones from a hope to invest in articles which will increase in value at least at the rate of inflation. Such success is possible, but the beauty and feel of the binding and the love of the book itself should be the prime motive for collecting bindings.
Now for binding as a leisure-time solution: I am an amateur hand binder, having started my lessons in 1968, was then nearly sixty years old and had never pursued any hobby. My family knew only too well that I had little patience and had never indicated any of the skills applying to binding. So my family and friends attempted to dissuade me from studying fine binding. Now--and, in fact, for many years--I have greatly enjoyed hand bookbinding as an avocation.
We are especially fortunate here in the Bay Area because there are many able binding teachers. Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History office has in fact been commissioned to record a history of the great binders in this area in the past.... Until the binding student has made some progress, it is not necessary to equip a studio at home, and even then much of the equipment can be made by the binder and--if the person who does the family's cooking permits--the kitchen may be turned into a binding studio temporarily. As with all crafts the procedure is simple at the start and the student has something to show for his efforts.
The field is departmentalized, and the objective need not be to produce the exquisite fine bindings such as you have seen in the display cases. From soft-cover blank-page pamphlets one nay progress to rebinding the favorite paperback, Then, too, repairing and restoring is possible, A simpler form of binding than fine hand binding is called library or case binding. Leathers and other fine materials need not be used until you are ready for them.
I have known happy binders eighty years--and even ninety years--old. The binder need not stand while doing the work. A steady hand and first-rate eyesight are not essential and there is no need for speed. It is not too late to enter the field and one need not assume he must give it up as he grows older. The process is creative, the product is durable, and useful. There is great satisfaction.
So ... I am saying: What to do with your spare money--collect fine bindings. What to do with your spare time--study bookbinding.