Monday 27 February 2023

The Mysterious Art of Bookbinding and Bookdealing - Stephen Conway interview part 1


I’m currently working on a project that involves the world of books and I’ve discussed aspects of this with a number of very helpful bookdealers. Among them is Stephen Conway, whose premises in central Halifax house a splendid second hand bookshop and also a bookbinding business. Given that my first literary award was the CWA Dagger bestowed on my short story ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’, you can gather that this is a subject that has long fascinated me. Stephen kindly agreed to be interviewed about his work and there is so much info of interest that I’ve split it into two posts. This one is about bookbinding. Another, on second hand bookdealing, will follow at a later date.

1.          How did you get involved with bookbinding?

I have been involved in Bookbinding now for almost 50 years, starting with a six-year apprenticeship in 1974. I became self employed in 1985 and have been running a small hand bookbinding business ever since. Over the years, we have worked on a variety of high profile

Projects, including The Booker Prize and The Highgrove Florilegium, a limited edition fine binding of 350 copies (2 volumes) for the Prince of Wales Trust. Over the years, we have worked on many Private Press editions, as well as bespoke boxes, in either cloth or leather for rare and valuable books. In fact, this has now become a large part of our work load. Whilst the world climate is an everchanging landscape, thankfully, the demand for high quality work still remains.

2.          What is the appeal to you of being a bookbinder?

Not being an academic and coming from a working-class family, I needed to find an outlet for my interest in arts and crafts. I had ambition to attend Art College, however, this never materialised and eventually I started work as an apprentice bookbinder, working mainly on account books, still in use in the early seventies. Luckily, this turned out to be a good move as I was able to develop my craft skills, and later, put those skills to artistic use through design bookbinding. Later in life,I served a four year term as President of Designer Bookbinders, a society devoted to the art and craft of bookbinding.


3.          Some people might think bookbinding is an old-fashioned craft. Do you think it is a dying art or does it have a real future?

Although working methods and techniques are constantly improving and advances made, the basic techniques and materials remain unchanged. As a commercial venture, perhaps hand bookbinding is not an obvious choice, but it is an extremely rewarding career option for young people coming into the trade. I would say that hand bookbinding is as popular now as ever, if not, more so.


4.          From a bookbinder’s point of view, what are the main do’s and dont’s about getting a book professionally bound?

There are no easy answers to this, as much depends on who is looking to have work done, be it a member of the public with a family heirloom or Bible, a bookdealer or a private collector. The criteria for each of these varies. Family heirlooms are repaired and restored so that they can be passed down to future generations. For a bookdealer, original condition is important and if work is required, must be sympathetic and in keeping with the book. As for collectors, particularly collectors of modern books with dust jackets, again, they look to finding the best copy available, with the condition of the dust jacket being an important aspect in terms of its appeal. In these instances, we make book boxes, either cloth or leather, lined with archival materials to protect the book from further damage, including sunlight fading, particularly jacket spines. Sometimes, the book may need totally rebinding, but all options must be explored with discussion between the client and the binder.


5.          And from a customer’s point of view, what are the main do’s and don’ts?

The only thing I would say is keep an open mind and explore the available options. Each book is different and has to be looked at on an individual basis. In today’s climate, costs have increased significantly, so making the right choices is important.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed that, Martin. Will be paying Stephen a visit soon

Martin Edwards said...

He's a fascinating chap and the shop is definitely worth visiting