Readers, you are in for a most fascinating Fearless Friday. So grab a cuppa, prop up your feet, and enjoy the post by guest Kitty Shields.
What is a bookbinder? Traditionally, a bookbinder is the person who sews and covers a book. Nowadays, machines do this, mostly with glue. Sometimes a machine will sew a book (depending on costs, hardback vs. paperback, etc). Most contemporary books are bound with glue and the cheapest kind at that.
What I do is sew books, cover them in leather, repair them. Basically, I do book makeovers.
So, what the hell does this have to do with #FearlessFriday?
In 2008, the stock market took a dive. A lot of people lost their jobs, and I was one of them. I was a graphic designer for a trade business magazine, nothing fancy, but it paid the bills. The Great Recession, as it’s called, forced me to move back home, where I spent a miserable year working in retail and trying to figure out my next move.
I started researching grad schools and sort of stumbled on art conversation, specifically book conservation. See, conservationists are entrusted with the most important cultural objects. Paintings, books, jewelry, monuments — a conservationist’s job is to repair, maintain, preserve, and stabilize these cultural treasures so that they can be passed on to the next generation.
You know the part in the movie National Treasure when they steal the Declaration of Independence from that special room? That’s where the conservationists work. That’s the kind of job I’m talking about. A book conservationist gets to repair and handle the most fascinating books in history: Gutenberg’s Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio, a first edition Isaac Asimov, a clay tablet of cuneiform writing. Honestly, can this job sound any cooler?
I may have stumbled upon this career path, but I wanted in bad. The prerequisite list for admittance into an art conservation program was long and arduous. And there were only two art conservation grad programs in the country. One of the requirements was to have 150 hours of conservation experience already logged before applying. Um… where the hell was I supposed to do that?
Enter: North Bennet Street School.
North Bennet Street School is a vocational school for old world trades. There you can learn violin-making, preservation carpentry, furniture and cabinet making, piano technology, and, of course, bookbinding. This is a school where a special kind of hands-on nerd goes. If people go to Hogwarts to learn to change the world through magic, people go to North Bennet to learn to change the world through craft. As part of their curriculum, students learn the basics of book conservation technique. As part of the curriculum, I could log 150 hours of experience.
The catch? The bookbinding program only takes eight students a year. It is a two-year, full-time program located in Boston. Two years of vocational school before even applying for grad school. Then another two years of grad school before I could play in the backs of museums and libraries all day. And that was assuming I was accepted into both programs.
The idea was ludicrous. Like a good, mature adult, I let it go.
I found a fantastic job, got my own place, adopted a cat, traveled to foreign and wondrous lands. I rebuilt my life, and it was pretty good. But I couldn’t help myself. On weekends, I went to bookbinding workshops and rare book libraries. After a few years, I applied to North Bennet on a lark, thinking they would never let me in. There was only eight spots! I was a hobbyist. Then I got a call to come visit.
’ll ever have. Across the street is a gorgeous public park, and you can smell the salt water of the harbor from the front door. And the inside!
The bookbinding department has over a thousand brass hand tools just to decorate leather. There are book presses from two centuries ago and more pretty paper than an art store. The teacher, Jeff, has a dry sense of humor and a mustache that curls at the ends.
We launched into a conversation about the program, books, tools. It felt like someone was finally speaking my language. I had found my tribe. We talked for over two hours. At one point, he pulled out my portfolio, and we went over the examples I submitted one by one. Finally, the conversation wound down and he shrugged and said,
“Well, we have one spot left. It’s yours if you want it.”
If this were a movie, this would be the moment where the music changed. I remember sitting back and reminding myself that this was insane. I’d have to quit my job, move to Boston, somehow afford to attend the school full time for two years. Who does that? Who leaves a perfectly good life when they were just settling down to go to a foreign city with no friends, no family, to attend a school for bookbinding?
I did. And I don’t regret it.
I moved to Boston and graduated from the Bookbinding program. In those two years, I had many, many adventures. I got to see Paul Revere’s library card, repair books owned by Franklin D. Roosevelt, touch a curl of the Statue of Liberty, visit the archives at the Guinness Factory in Dublin, hold a book bound in human skin, see Harvard’s conservation lab. I ate better than I have ever eaten in my life. Boston is a foodie city for sure. I made lifelong friends and discovered that I did not, in fact, want to be a book conservationist. Book conservation, it turns out, consists mostly of repairing itty, bitty, teeny, tiny rips in paper. Although they get to play in the backs of museums and libraries and handle some of the most amazing objects ever, I found 150 hours to be plenty of experience logged. I didn’t need anymore. It was the best midlife crisis ever.So what do I do now that I am a certified bookbinder? I take people’s favorite books, graphic novels,
gaming manuals and transform them into works of art. My Harry Potter set looks like it came out of the Hogwarts library. My RPG gaming manuals appear to have been stolen from the dungeon master. My graphic novels match their super heroes.
I can’t pretend I’m not lucky. Lucky they offered me this amazing opportunity, that I was able to go for it. Perhaps, most of all, I was lucky to discover that one path wasn’t for me. I’m incredibly lucky and grateful. All I can say is if you have a ludicrous notion that equal parts terrifies you and sings to your soul—be fearless. Like me, you may come out realizing that some paths aren’t your path, but the stories you’ll collect along the way will be worth it.
Kitty's Amazon Page
(she/her) lives outside Philadelphia, where she writes to overcome the fact
that she was born a middle child with hobbit feet, vampire skin, and a tendency
to daydream. In her spare time, she binds books, takes bad photos, and tries to
avoid the death traps her cat sets for her. You can check out her writing at . Her new book The Second Pillar is
coming out May 2023!
Want to see more bookbinding? Visit her on Instagram @theshadowbindery or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/theshadowbindery.
When another Pillar of Heaven is killed in a natural disaster, Kate must travel to Indonesia to locate the body and pass the Pillar on before the sky teeters and falls. Soon enough, Kate and her team realize the natural disaster was, in fact, supernatural. As powerful enemies strive to destroy the world, Kate, with the help of some new friends, fights to restore the balance. Oh, and she needs to find a new job too.