“If you walk into our Bindery, it’s like going back a hundred years,” says Sean Codling, director of The Bookends Bindery. “Everything is done by hand.”
The Bookends Bindery restores and conserves books and other artefacts for librarians, archivists and members of the public. “We deal with some fantastic work,” he says. Some of the books they’ve restored or conserved date back to the 14th or 15th Century.
At the heart of the bindery is a sense of determination and dedication to keep the craft of bookbinding and restoration alive. There are six people who work within the business, including one apprentice. “There’s a great atmosphere - it’s a really good blend of decent, hardworking people that love what they do.”
The oldest tricks in the book
All restoration and conservation is produced using traditional materials, methods and tools. For example, for the headbands, which are attached at the top and bottom of the spine, silk thread is wrapped around a hemp cord or leather base. The covers are made from traditional goat skin, which has a natural grained surface, or calf skin, which has a smoother surface. The edges of some old books are decorated with gold leaf, sheets of hammered gold used for gilding. Gold leaf or foil is also used for lettering, which the bookbinders apply by heating individual lettered tools. Some of the end papers are decorated with a technique known as marbling, resulting in swirling colours and patterns.
“We do everything we can to keep these traditions going,” he says. “The only modern technology is an old laptop that’s about 10 years old, a fax machine we don’t use anymore and a little printer.”
Keeping an ancient craft alive
In the last three years, The Bookends Bindery has introduced an apprenticeship scheme. “It really breathed some new life into the bindery,” says Sean.
The apprentice, Sarah, is 22 and the other new recruit , Joe is 38. “We’ve brought the average age down from about 63 to 48 now,” says Sean. “We want to help pass all those skills from the old team members to the younger members of staff. Unless we do that, there’ll be no business in the future and this old established trade will not continue.”
So, what do they look for in apprentice? “You’ve got to have that creative flair. There’s got to be some natural ability,” he says. While Joe already had some experience of bookbinding, Sarah started from the beginning with no previous experience. “What she has achieved in just less than two years has been most impressive. Our manager has been in the bookbinding industry all his life and he’s never seen anyone pick it up and adapt as quickly as she has.”
Down the generations - passing on a creative and entrepreneurial spirit
As Director, Sean manages the operational side of the business and looks after the team. “I’ve taken this business over from my late father,” he explains. “Unfortunately, he fell ill with Parkinson’s disease, so I had to step in and help him.”
Both father and son began their careers on the same street in the West End - Poland Street - in London. Christopher, Sean’s father, was offered a six-year apprenticeship at Sangorski & Sutcliffe when he was just 15. He later joined The Bookends Bindery and bought it out from the current owners in the mid-80’s. 10 years later, Sean set up a graphic arts studio, after training as a graphic designer. The studio later evolved into a reseller for Apple products, selling hardware, software and associated peripherals. At the time, the only Apple stores were in the US.
Sean sold the studio and Apple Resellership in 2014 and went into managing commercial and residential properties, which he continues to do alongside running The Bookends Bindery.
Introducing technology to streamline a traditional business
As an experienced business owner and tech enthusiast, Sean was keen to make certain processes less time-consuming when he joined in 2017. “There was someone who was still going down to the bank. I’ve managed to get online banking, online accounting and streamlined a lot of internal processes - I’ve taken that whole headache away.”
His aim was to make affordable and efficient changes that wouldn’t unsettle the team. When it came to changing how they monitored holidays and sick leave, Timetastic provided the perfect solution. In the past, The Bookends Bindery used a physical wall chart. “On this little chart, everything was crossed out or scribbled in,” he says. “People would change their minds and it became difficult to read.”
Timetastic combines all the positives of a physical wall chart, such as being able to see your colleagues planned holidays, with the benefits of technology, keeping everything organised and easy to edit. “I’ve managed somehow to get all the staff to get the app - they login and now request their holidays online, which is fantastic,” he says. “The software is intuitive and quick to learn. I’ve also found the team to be very good and are very responsive.”
The Bookends Bindery allocate 28 days of holiday per year, including bank holidays, and receive an extra day for each year of service. It’s capped at 33 days total - a necessary limit, seeing as some of the team have worked at the bindery for more than 20 years.
Coping with change and uncertainty
When the government announced restrictions on travel, the bindery had to close its doors. “Obviously you can’t produce what we do over the internet or from home,” says Sean. “A couple of the younger members of the team are starting look at social media. We’ve just launched a new website and we’re coming up with ideas for additional revenue streams. As the weeks tick by, you need to be as proactive as you can. It’s a great time, from that point of view, to be going back over things and asking how can we improve?”
The team are currently on furlough, with The Bookends Bindery topping up the rest of their salaries. “They’ve been very loyal to the company so the least we can do is return that loyalty,” he says. “The workers are everything, without them there’s no business.”