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Whether Private Manuscripts or Rare Books, Custom Bookbinding Gives Them a Great Look

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."
To recreate the look and feel of bygone ages, Weitz, Weitz & Coleman has a collection of more than 2,000 antique brass leather-working tools and stamps. More than a desire for authenticity prompts the binder's quest for old tools that have retained their clarity. "The brass tends to be harder and the detail and workmanship tends to be finer than in tools made today," Weitz says. The collection includes tools for Baroque curlicues, Adam ovals, Chippendale chinoiserie, Art Nouveau swirls, Art Deco geometrics, birds, fish, animals, horseshoes, anchors, holly sprigs and Mr. Pickwicks for Dickens, fishing creels for seventeenth century Compleat Angler author Izaak Walton, urns for Poe, gryphons and wyverns.
Elspeth Coleman, Weitz's business partner and resident designer, helps customers with choices that make the books they have bounded uniquely their own. She can fashion cover designs that allow either a personal imprimatur or a statement about the contents, or both.
When having a tome bound, choosing a grade of leather is important. The most durable leathers for bookbinding are the top grades of Morocco, which is made from goatskin. Calfskin is another favorite with bookbinders due to its ungrained texture, which takes tooling extremely well. But Coleman warns that its ultrasmooth surface scuffs easily.
The best bookbinding leathers are vegetable-tanned. This makes them softer, more receptive to tooling, and free of the acids that cause many book materials to decompose over time. These leathers are five to 10 times as expensive as the best shoe or jacket leathers.
The decorative possibilities are almost unlimited with a designer like Coleman guiding a client. Leathers can be dyed to order in almost any color. In addition to the more traditional tooling in gilt, varicolored pictorial leather inlays, inlays of mother-of-pearl or ivory, metal corners and clasps, and silk or hand-marbled endpapers are available. For one regular client who collects the works of certain children's book illustrators, Coleman painstakingly renders in leather selected details from the illustrations in the books. The results are exquisite. For a rare edition of Aesop's Fables illustrated by Arthur Rackham, Coleman fashioned a delicate silver web with black leather insects--a faithful adaptation of Rackham's illustration for the spider and the fly.
In addition to stylishness, two improvements over nineteenth century methods for processing bookbinding leather have evolved. Bookbinders formerly ran acid down the leather for "treeing" or "mottling"--creating a mottled effect that gave texture to the leather's color. The acid eventually eroded the leather, so it is no longer used. Today the dyes are all acid-free. Likewise, in the last century, bookbinders aimed for a dainty look by paring the leather to paper thinness. This is why many old finely crafted bindings are split at the joints and bald at the corners. Trimness without excess paring requires more work. But Coleman is certain that the results, in terms of durability, are worth the effort, even though "the bindings do tend to have a more masculine aesthetic as a result."
When asked what constitutes a fine binding, Weitz gives a clear, concise answer: "The look has to be solid but not chunky. The leather is smooth, the corners neatly turned. The raised bands on the spine are well defined. The gold tooling is always sharp and bright, which is easier said than done, and that's why finishers are the aristocracy of the bindery.
"Above all," he continues, "a book, being a device for the storage and retrieval of information, should open and close easily. The pages should fan out independently, rather than turning in a clump. The materials should be durable enough for the book to withstand the final test--literally the acid test--of time."
The leather bindings of the past, which should have lasted for hundreds of years, are now suffering from the effects of modern industrial pollution. Airborne sulfur dioxide combines with trace amounts of iron and water in the atmosphere to form sulfuric acid. This causes old bindings to decay, crumble and tear under the strain of normal use. Sometimes a restorer or conservator can "reback" a book--that is, give it a new spine while keeping the old boards of the cover. Other times, the book must be entirely rebound.
In rebinding, whether it is a tome from antiquity or a contemporary presentation copy, the cover is removed first. A long-bladed knife and a scalpel are used to cut the boards free of the spine and to cut and scrape the spine away from the body of the book. It is difficult and painstaking work. The old bindings, like newly hand-bound books, are practically welded together. The old leather and glue must be removed without damaging the text.
Serious collectors of modern first editions eschew rebinding. The condition of the original dust jacket and cover are prime factors in determining a book's value as a collectible. Yet pre-twentieth century collectors' volumes are seldom in their original bindings anyway, says Weitz. The steadily rising market value of these books often justifies, even demands, rebinding.
The primary difference between modern hardcover binding and traditional hand binding is found in the way the pages, or signatures, are sewn. (Signatures are sets of pages cut and folded together in multiples of four to make uniform sections.) In contemporary editions, the signatures are sewn together with the endpapers, which are then glued to the insides of the covers to hold the text in place. In hand-bound books each signature is sewn to a cord on the spine. These cords underlie the raised bands that are a hallmark of fine binding.
The amount of handwork that goes into binding a book is impressive. Weitz and Coleman employ four full-time craftsmen in their shop. "I consider myself the impresario of bookbinding in America," Weitz says, yet "I've never bound a book by hand. Why should I? Did [performing arts impresario] Sol Hurok play the piano?
"When I started this business, the craft was almost dead here," he says. "A few more years without someone like me coming along and the technique would have been lost in this country. I lecture. I give classes for amateurs. I'm keeping an important cultural tradition alive. The president should give me a medal for this."
In fact, one president--the head of the New York City Council--did give Weitz a medal, after he donated hundreds of hours of his time in free bookbinding lessons for nearly 50 public school students, whom he taught in groups of five. He still gives lessons today.
Because his father was in the rare book business, Weitz grew up hearing the names of the great binders of yore--Derome, the binder to Louis XV; English binder Riviere; Sangorski & Sutcliffe; French binder Chambolle-Duru; and Marius Michel, a late-nineteenth century French master. Bennett Book Studios, America's premier bookbinder in the early part of the twentieth century, often did work for the senior Weitz.
"My father instilled in me the lore of fine bookbinding," Weitz recalls. "He was a font of apocrypha about the great bookbinders of the past. I grew up thinking that all books, other than children's picture books, were bound in leather. At age five, when I entered private school and was handed a cloth-bound book, I thought the teacher didn't like me."
Eventually, Weitz inherited the rare book business. At first, he sent restoration work to bookbinders. But he had no quality control, and the craft by that time was in decline. He opened his own bindery in the basement of his bookshop.
Weitz has also maintained his company's status as a specialist in rare books. When, for example, The New York Times needed an appraisal of its complete archives several years ago, Herb Weitz was singled out for the job.
In the interim between school and taking over the family business, Weitz was a self-described "Jewish wise guy," hanging out with gangsters and running nightclubs and bars. This Runyonesque background is something he will elaborate on at great length, given an attentive listener. His abilities as a raconteur are not slight, and his generally garrulous demeanor has, of late, landed him a second career as a provocative guest on various television talk shows. His favorite topic is gun control. His position is that every law-abiding citizen who wants a gun should have one and that dueling should be restored as a way of settling disputes. "Forget about the courts," he shouts at his interlocutors. He seems to revel in his ability to outrage audiences.
Outrageousness aside, Weitz delivers a quality product, while Elspeth Coleman adds a welcome grace note of serenity that customers seem to appreciate.
Coleman also creates the stencils that guide the craftsmen who execute the cover designs. In the final stages of binding, the stencil is laid upon the cover, and the binder uses heated brass tools to leave a dark impression of the outline. The binder then removes the stencil and skives (pares) away the leather. The inlay is then cut and glued into place, piece by piece.
Weitz, Weitz & Coleman provides potential customers with a formula by which the basic cost of having a volume bound can be determined in advance. It is based, not surprisingly, on the size of the book. A custom design can double or sometimes even triple the basic cost. The bindery will send a binding price list and a pamphlet on the care of leather-bound books upon request. Prices can range from $300 to $5,000 per volume.
Has Weitz ever bound any incunabula (books printed before 1500)? "Oh, yes," he says. "Several copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle, which was an illustrated history of the world, the world's first coffee table book. That's among others. I've also bound some medical incunabula."
But Weitz considers the binding he did three years ago for a $200,000 nineteenth century copy of Lear's Parrots his most serious commission to date. The cover was a color inlay replicating, in leather, a color plate from the book. His most frivolous assignment, he believes, was binding a copy of a Rolls-Royce owner's manual.
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="">perfect bound books</a>.

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