“Well, I graduated from Emerson College with a degree in mass communications,” Jamie Currier replies, “and decided that I really didn’t want to work for anybody. So, I went home to Connecticut and one day read in my father’s Brown University alumni magazine of this man, Dan Knowlton, who taught bookbinding at night as an extension class. Dan did restoration work for Brown’s John Hay Library. I used to drive up once a week for a three-hour class. This was 1971. I did that for about a year.”
The scope of the class was basic bookbinding. Currier adds, “Dan started all his classes with somebody bringing in a book they wanted to repair or rebind. We learned how to break a book down to its signatures, which are groups of folded paper. This is what a good book is made up of. Then, those signatures are sewn together on a sewing frame. Then the cover is made and put on. I would come up and spend time at his bindery. He knew that I was interested in making a career of this.”
“You knew that then?” I want to know.
“Yeah,” Currier replies, “as soon as I saw that article on bookbinding. After about a year, Dan decided that he was going to buy Markey and Asplund, a commercial bindery in Providence. He wanted to keep his job at Brown, so I became the manager. The previous owner stayed on for a couple of months and taught me a lot about semi-commercial binding. Not really what I wanted to do, but it allowed an opportunity to learn another facet of bookbinding.
“I spent a few years at Markey and Asplund,” he continues. “Then, I met Ray Chin. He had just graduated from RISD, and we decided that we were going to start a workshop called Colophon Workshops. We set up a space for printmaking, etching, lithography and bookbinding. We also built a macerator for making paper.”
“What’s a macerator?” I ask.
“A macerator,” he explains, “is a barrel about six inches around of blades that will shred rags into their threads and then shred those threads into their fibers. Ray made one. We also made some papermaking screens. Our idea being that somebody could come down and make their print and then either bind or box the final result. We had a lot of people from RISD come down and learn box making.
“It amazed me,” Currier continues. “This was 1975, maybe 1976. RISD was turning out these printmakers, but they never taught them how to present their work. They would go in for a final critique with a handful of prints, just throw them down, and say ‘well, here’s my stuff.’ It should have been a fundamental aspect to turning out printmakers. About two years later, RISD started to teach presentation techniques. I did a lot of work for museums and artists. I still make boxes.”
“How did you get to Newport?” I ask.
“My father,” he replies, “was brought up in Newport. I like to sail. I learned bookbinding in Providence. It seemed like a natural place to gravitate to. I started my first bindery down on Lower Thames Street in Newport in 1978. I have had three or four shops on Thames Street. My wife, Kristyn, and I moved away to Connecticut for about eight years. We moved back to Newport in 1995.”
“So, your business really is mobile?” I want to know.
Currier says, “When we were going to leave Connecticut, we could have gone anywhere, within reason. We thought of Maine or somewhere down on the inter-coastal, like Virginia or something. Ninety percent of my work comes by UPS. The equipment is big and heavy. You don’t want to be changing your mind about where you are going to be setting up too many times.
“What services do you offer?” I ask.
Currier replies, “I do rebinding, book repair, gold stamping and slipcases, which are the open-ended boxes that books slip into. I also do clamshell boxes, which is a folding box. You open it up, and the book would be on the right hand side. The left side would be a lid. It would be a one-piece box. I also do paper repair. To a minor degree. I am not really set up for doing large paper sizes. Most of the papers are done with flour and water paste and Japanese tissue. Bob Hauser, who does the paper restoration work for the New Bedford Whaling Museum, taught me. I also do some de-acidification of paper. It’s a bath that neutralizes the acidity in the paper.”
“Why would someone want that?” I want to know.
“It might not be so much for de-acidification,” Currier says, “but for washing. A lot of times the title page of a book will be smudged and very, very dirty. Washing the title page would get it back to looking like the rest of the pages. Pretty much. All things vary. So, I do some of that but usually just as an adjunct to whatever book I am working on.
“I love restoration work,” he continues. “I like to do books that are used. I do a lot of Bibles, but I know that as soon as I give them their Bible back it’s going back into storage somewhere. Probably back to the attic from where it came because someone was suffering a guilt trip about the state of their family Bible. So, I like to do scrapbooks, photo albums, music books, cookbooks…. I love doing books that have to work. A nice thing about hand-bookbinding is that a hand-bound book works well.
“How would you profile your clientele?” I ask him.
“Somewhere back in the ’70’s,” he replies, “I met a book dealer, Judith Bowman, who is probably one of the premiere dealers in angling. I started doing work for her, and it wasn’t too long after I started doing her work that I got a few of her collectors, then a few more dealers who were friends of hers. She was really my step into the book dealers. Most of that was all word of mouth. Book dealers are probably ninety percent of my business. Not all book dealers do any work to any of their books. A lot of the dealers buy a book and sell it as is.”
“Where are these dealers?” I want to know.
Currier replies, “I have some in New York. I have a couple of in California. Also, Mississippi. They are really all over. The majority of them are within three hours of Newport. Then, I get some of their collectors, some of their clients. They want to know where they can get a book fixed.’
“How do you estimate a job?” I ask.
“Most of my dealers,” Currier tells me, “will send me a box of books. They know more or less what it’s going to be. For individuals, they bring me a book and we discuss the possibilities, which would range from restoration to rebinding or boxing. Then I would come up with an estimate and go from there.”
I ask Currier to describe his equipment.
“My board cutter,” he explains, “is 1880, 1890 maybe in vintage. It will cut a piece of binder’s board, which is a cardboard that you make your covers up with. You can cut cloth on it, paper on it, board on it and leather on it. That’s one of the most important pieces of equipment. I have a backing press. That’s a vise with beveled jaws. You use the backing press to put the round spine onto a book. Then, there are hand tools for gilding. Those get heated up and impressed onto the leather, and gold leaf put on, and then hit again with the tool to melt the gold.”
For titling and doing labels, Currier has probably 30 trays of type. It is the old way of doing things, setting lead. He explains, “The type goes into a holder that gets heated up and brought down to the book cloth or leather and the gold is melted. And, then there are hand-lettering pallets. Basically the same process. Also, I have seven or eight wheels to create different designs. Sewing frames. I have two of them. Needle and thread. Scissors.”
Currier also has computer equipment. “What are the applications?” I ask.
He replies, “I use the computer a lot. I do quite a few angling books. Many of them during the period 1880’s to 1940’s were issued in boxes, slipcovers, folding boxes or two-piece boxes. Over the years, a lot of the boxes have been lost. As I come across an original box, I’ll measure it and take the specs. I might scan the label on the original box. Then, if somebody wants a facsimile of the original, I make it up. I use that for a database. Sometimes the endpapers, which are the papers that paste down inside the cover, are printed with a design. There might be a piece missing on the front, so I might scan the back where that missing piece is shown. Then I can print that on to a piece of paper and fit it into the front. I just bought a wide-format printer, and I have been putting book cloth through it. That opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”
“So, what would be the application for this printer? I ask him.
Currier gives me an example. “I did an early edition set, twenty-five volumes, of Mark Twain. It was a fairly valuable set. The first volume was signed by Mark Twain. Each volume needed the title, a volume number and a listing of what stories were in a particular volume. The covers were shot, and ninety percent of the spines were missing. They were leather volumes, and to repair them would have cost three times what the set was probably worth. So, we decided that we would rebind them in cloth. I figured that I would print the cloth using the computer. It worked very well, and it made that job cost effective.”
“What,” I ask Currier, “is your competition?”
“I don’t think of competition,” he replies. “There is a lot of work out there. I don’t feel that I am in competition with anybody. I am a member of the Guild of Bookworkers. They meet yearly and have lectures on various aspects of restoration or bookbinding.”
When I ask him what advice he would give people that want to go into bookbinding, he tells me, “I would try to get a good apprenticeship somewhere and maybe apprentice with several different people. There’s so much to learn. I think that you miss out on a lot if you go off on your own too quickly.”
“I have had apprentices,” he continues. “I usually don’t look for somebody. It works a lot better when they find me. Somebody would have to really profess an interest. An apprentice will start off doing the most mundane things. Like taking books apart and sewing them back together. Then they would learn how to lift up the materials that need to be replaced. The basic three are leather, cloth and paper. They would also learn how to put the covers onto the book, how to repair the endpapers, how to tool, how to title, how to skive leather, and how to make boxes. You have to be somewhat skillful with your hands. You can’t be too clumsy. But, it’s not rocket science.”