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Tuesday, March 26, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Washington

A human touch to bookbinding: Washington bookbinder reflects on a half-century of work

John McCann sews a book at J and S Bindery on May 24, 2018, in Uniontown. (Moscow-Pullman Daily News / Geoff Crimmins)
John McCann sews a book at J and S Bindery on May 24, 2018, in Uniontown. (Moscow-Pullman Daily News / Geoff Crimmins)
By Scott Jackson Moscow-Pullman Daily News

It has been 55 years since John McCann bound his first book, and he’s been printing, trimming, rounding, sewing and backing with many of the same methods he learned in the 1960s.

“It’s about a 26-step process from the time it comes in here to the time it goes out,” McCann said.

McCann’s little shop is set up in a quiet garage behind a vibrant garden filled with violently hued violets, bachelor button blues and the busy buzz of bees at work. McCann said it is his wife who has the green thumb - his talents, it would seem, lie elsewhere.

McCann said his work in book binding began after he left the service in 1963. Then a cook in the Washington State University kitchens, he was told about an apprenticeship program with the university’s in-house bookbindery. In his time working for WSU, McCann said he was chiefly tasked with helping to maintain the university’s aging library books as well as binding dissertations and theses for students. In 1990, McCann said a new university president decided to outsource the university’s binding needs. He said he purchased the university’s binding equipment in an auction and moved it to his home in Uniontown the next year. In the early days, McCann joked his at-home bindery was a “semi-retirement” plan.

“Well, it is a retirement now,” McCann said. “I was only 54 when I brought it here, so I needed a good 10 years to make it work until social security kicked in.”

McCann has a soft voice and and a easy smile. He moves through his workshop at a methodical pace, describing and demonstrating the function of each machine as he goes.

The workshop itself is filled with long, narrow tables and heavy, industrial bookbinding equipment from the mid-20th century, the most striking of which is an old typesetting machine from the 1940s. The “linotype,” as the name implies, casts lines of raised type out of molten alloy that can then be used to stamp text and titles into freshly bound book covers. McCann said he casts the metal ingots melted in the machine - mostly lead, mixed with tin and antimony - himself.

“I save the old lead - all the scrap and everything I stamp – I just save it, and then once a year I melt it down,” McCann said.

When he first set up shop, McCann said he would bind as many as 1,500 theses and dissertations a year. These days, he may bind just 1,000 books total in a year. McCann said he still binds a lot of academic texts but also works on commission, binding family histories and repairing old bibles, for example.

Today, McCann said bookbinding is almost completely automated, with machines that can produce 1,000 printed and bound books per hour from a stack of blank paper. But, he said, book repair still requires a human touch. This is the most creative and rewarding part of his work, he said.

“Repairs sometimes, they’re a challenge. Some of the books you get in here are pretty sad,” McCann said. “Every book has got its own personality.”

While there is some modest indication that a younger generation of bookbinders may yet come forward, McCann said his methods are likely on their way out. Manufacturers no longer make parts for many of his machines, McCann said, and those with the expertise to fix them are few and far between. For his part, McCann said he has no plans on stopping, though in his retirement it is more of a hobby than an occupation.

“I’m going to continue until either I give up or a machine gives up,” McCann said.

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