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Whether Private Manuscripts or Rare Books, Custom Bookbinding Gives Them a Great Look
Stephen DiLauro
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

Bookbinders have always been an audacious bunch. Herb Weitz--Manhattan's, and arguably America's, most exclusive bookbinder--is no exception. The sign in the window of Weitz, Weitz & Coleman on Lexington Avenue between East 90th and 91st streets reads: Simply the Finest Bookbinding in America. Spend more than an hour in the man's company and you will probably hear him refer to himself in the third person as "The Great Weitz."

Weitz uses a story, possibly apocryphal, to illustrate the fact that he's not the first bookbinder in history with a surfeit of attitude: "Probably the greatest European bookbinder of the eighteenth century was Antoine-Michel Padeloup. One day a certain Louis Valois approached the great binder with a project six months in advance of a niece's wedding--for which this was supposed to be a major present. Padeloup told Louis, 'Certainly, Your Majesty, we can execute the design to your requirements. But I'm afraid the wedding of the duchesse will have to be postponed.'"

Weitz quickly adds that, while he has bound books for present-day royalty, including King Juan Carlos I of Spain, his clients have yet to provide him with a backlog of work in excess of six months. "Really valuable books, volumes worth $10,000-plus, we tend to move in and out as quickly as possible," he says. Other notables from the realm of world politics who have Weitz-bound books on their library shelves include former presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

Fine bookbinding, like fine cigars, is an extravagance that can become a pleasurable habit. Movie director Martin Scorsese, no stranger to good cigar smoke, began by having his working scripts bound in fine leather after "wrapping" his productions. To celebrate the release of The Age of Innocence, Scorsese had Weitz bind albums of some 70 still photographs from the movie as presentation copies for friends and co-workers. The bindings were done as facsimiles of books from Queen Victoria's library. Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and clothing designer John Weitz are also regular customers.

All this activity might seem anomalous as movies, television, Congress and even some publishers are touting Internets, webs, faxes, cell phones, CD ROMs, E-mail and 500 cable stations that threaten to make books obsolete. But the finer things the world has to offer have a way of enduring.

In fact, the custom of having one's oeuvre done up in elegantly tooled Morocco goatskin--whether by oneself or one's agent or publisher--is enjoying a revival. Oddly enough, the motion picture industry--not noted for respecting writers and their words--has gotten into the act. Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz (who recently signed on with Disney) has received some Weitz-bound books as gifts. Universal Pictures has begun to employ the binder's services. Spike Lee has his original screenplays--which the director writes in longhand--bound by Weitz.

Likewise, spouses of authors are not immune to the pleasures of extravagant bindings. Mrs. Martin Cruz Smith goes to Weitz for a hand-tooled folding box to hold the notes, manuscript and reviews whenever her husband publishes a new book. She chose a blue Morocco, the spine inlaid with red stars, for Gorky Park. A fishnet in leather adorned the box Polar Star. But she claims a mundane impulse; she likes to clean out her husband's overflowing desk drawers when he finishes a book. (Sufferers of ephemera overload, take note.) Danielle Steel's husband has had all of his wife's paperback romances bound in leather.

Of course, there are other fine binderies in the United States and overseas. It is possible in Florence, Italy, to walk across the street from the Pitti Palace and order bindings from shops that bound books four centuries ago in the same location for the likes of Lorenzo de Medici and Machiavelli. In Great Britain, Sangorski & Sutcliffe is considered by many to be the world's preeminent bindery.

In the United States, Weitz, Weitz & Coleman, established in 1909 by Weitz's father, Leo, a dealer in rare books, is the closest thing we have to a tradition, although the firm has been in the business of fine bindings for only a quarter century. Yet Weitz, Weitz & Coleman has carved out a niche as the premier emporium for sumptuous bindings. It is not only the client list that bears this out; the proof is in the product. When a book travels through the workshop here, it emerges in a binding that is unquestionably opulent and unique. "What we do with contemporary titles," says Weitz, "is take a $20 or $25 book and turn it into an object d'art. It's not for everybody.

"Binding as we know it today has not changed all that much since the Renaissance," notes the 61-year-old Weitz in the gravelly, unmistakably Brooklyn accent with which he lectures on the subject at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan. "That was the age that gave us the invention of printing, a literate nobility, a nouveau riche mercantile class and the influence of Islamic artisans--then the finest hands in the world at tooling and decorating leather. It was a golden age, and bookbinders were pampered, as they should be."


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Comments   1 comment(s)

Mark Hincks November 8, 2011 1:06pm ET

Weitz truly is a great book binder. I've personally tried to emulate him to an extent with my own <a href="http://www.perfectboundbooks.org.uk">perfect bound books</a>.


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