The Bessenberg Bindery is easy to miss. It’s a squat brick building tucked between two big houses on Fifth Avenue in Kerrytown. But the unexceptional factory acts as a second home for Jon Buller, the owner, and houses all the tools of the trade that has become his life pursuit: bookbinding.
Buller has been binding books since 1974.
He got started “by accident,” he said. “I answered an advertisement that said, ‘hand binder wanted, no experience necessary,’ and I had always been very good with my hands, so I went there for an audition.”
He’s been binding ever since.
For most, the binding of a book seems unremarkable. It’s just some glue holding a pile of paper together. But for a small group of people, a book’s binding is a piece of art. The craft may draw few to pick up its tools, but when it does convert adherents it can supplant much more conventional career paths. Imagine a future lawyer tossing out law school applications and sending a letter of interest to the Ann Arbor branch of the American Academy of Bookbinding. Similar scenarios have happened before.
After his introduction to the craft, Buller rebound old books part-time for collectors while he worked on an undergraduate degree in engineering at Oakland University. But he dropped out of school just a few classes short of graduating to pursue bookbinding full-time, “because I had a six month backlog of work and two part-time employees and a rented space, and it just seemed a whole lot more fun than doing engineering work.”
Buller said the craft has suffered in recent centuries. He said when he moved his bindery operation to Ann Arbor in 1982 there were three other binderies in the city, but Buller saw all of his peers close up shop. Today, Bessenberg is the last commercial bindery in Michigan to do the full range of bookbinding work, from sewing to typesetting to embossing – all by hand.
But the skill of fine binding, as Buller calls it, is coming back into style. “There’s a whole lot more interest being shown now, in (bookbinding), than thirty years ago,” he said. At that time, you were “darn lucky” if you found someone to teach you to bind books, he said. But now classes in bookbinding are common.
Students here at the University can dabble with the craft in a class called “Book Arts,” offered in the School of Art and Design. The class, which has about 25 students, is led by local bookbinder Jean Bartlett, and provides an introduction to basic hand-binding techniques.
Buller has taught about 40 people himself since coming to Ann Arbor. Although his students have varied in age, he attributes bookbinding’s comeback primarily to young people becoming interested. Their youthful idealism compels them to breathe life into a craft often overlooked, he said.
Janie Brynolf is one of Buller’s employees at the bindery. Bookbinding never occurred to her as a potential career while she was studying fine arts and graphic design in college, or even when she saw it in the course catalogue for her study abroad program in Florence, Italy.
“I looked at it, and I’m like, ‘Who the hell would want to do book restoration? How boring!’ ” she said. “So I went over and took a painting class, and then five years later or something, I took up bookbinding and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is great! What was I thinking?'”
Last week Brynolf sat at a table strewn with medieval-looking metal implements, sewing up the spine of an old book that outlines “how to be a good Catholic,” as she put it. On her first day, Buller sat her down at the same table in front of a book older than her great-grandparents and handed her a knife, a needle and some thread. It was a little scary, she said. Brynolf, who is 30, has worked for Buller for four months and has yet to restore an entire book herself, so each day’s foray into uncharted territory holds an allure for her.
Even as an avid reader, Brynolf’s perception of books has changed since she took up the scalpel at the bindery. Now, when she walks into a bookstore, she notices minute differences between books, invisible to most, like various stitching techniques and whether or not the deckle was left on the pages.
The same goes for Buller. After more than 25 years of taking books apart and putting them back together, he has an intuitive sense of their structure. “That’s something that all bookbinders have whenever they pick up a book,” he said. Maybe only bookbinders have this understanding these days, as most finely-bound books are under glass in libraries or personal collections, he said.
If you ask Buller about the oldest book he’s ever worked on, he’ll pull out a slim, warn volume with a cover from the 1800s and handwritten pages from the 13th century. As he turns it over thoughtfully in his hands a few times, it isn’t hard to imagine a University student following in Buller’s path – dropping conventional career goals to take up the craft.
Click here to view a multimedia presentation on Bessenberg Bindery.