Mark Andersson greeted us at the door of Panther Peak Bindery, smiling a welcome as we pulled into the parking yard of his workshop. We emerged from vehicles, a seventh grade class from the Tucson Waldorf School, driven and accompanied by four adults, already enjoying our field trip of exploration having just driven through a ruggedly beautiful section of the Saguaro National Forest. We were looking forward to knowing more about the work of a bookbinder.
Panther Peak Bindery sits at the end of a long beaten path right at the foot of Panther Peak in the Tucson Mountains, west of the city of Tucson. The proprietor Mark Andersson is a book conservator, bookbinder and instructor with impressive credentials in the painstaking craft of bookbinding. As he invited us in, we entered a small and well ordered room and saw books laid out around a large work table. Lined up along one wall of the shop stood a row of book presses, both cast iron and wooden, giving an historical feel to the clean modern space.
Beginning with an explanation of the books on the table, Mr. Andersson led us through the history of book construction, from small books with pages stitched together and held between wooden covers to leather bound volumes with rounded spines. Holding these hand crafted books and looking more closely at their construction under Mark’s guidance, we felt something of the magic of the bookbinders craft live in the room. Filled with the traditional tools needed for the daily work of book construction and restoration, the workshop at Panther Peak Bindery presented an entry into the history of a craft that goes back to the fourth century.
Books contain and embody history. Be it a cookbook that has been handed down through the generations of a family, with great- grandma’s hand written notes in the margins, or a history of the English Revolution with an embossed gold leather cover worth a fortune to collectors, the book holds humanity’s cultural memory. On the bindery table we also saw slim volumes with blank pages and marbled paper inside covers, books waiting to be written, holding potential for the future.
Thoughts and feelings put into words and pictures mark our passage through time. And the book itself is a thing of substance, with weight, color and texture. Along with the content, books themselves speak of the times in which they were made. The thread used to stitch the pages together, the quality of the leather and the type of glue that was used, even the chemistry of the paper, whether made from textiles or wood, each aspect of a book’s construction tells a story of the economic and working conditions of the time the book was made. Mark’s knowledge of the craft and his years of experience making and restoring books came to us seamlessly presented with gentle humor. He brought these ideas of history and craftsmanship alive to the students, and they responded with many questions about the life and work of a bookbinder.
Mark told the students that he grew up in a home where books were respected, which meant that one took care in handling them and in seeing that they were not damaged. Although he was no friend to reading when young, he did absorb the feeling that books themselves were worthy objects, and he still possesses the first hardcover book that he owned as a child.
In addition, his childhood home included space for making things, and he sees in his youthful woodworking projects an enjoyment of handwork that he employs now in his adult work with book making.
His quest for opportunities to gain experience in the world of book restoration and construction led him to the North Bennet Street School, a world renowned craft and trade school, in Boston, Massachusetts, and to Sweden, where he travelled with a Fulbright Scholarship to study book making.
The traditional tools of book construction and restoration are mostly simple and quite varied. From stitching needles to bone folders, spokeshaves to guillotine paper cutters, the tools can be as light as a linen thread or heavy as a cast iron book press. In this world, drawing blood on your thumb from barely touching it with your newly sharpened knife can be a cause for congratulations from your fellow workers. Keen edges and precise measurements require calm and concentration, and with that calm concentration, it is possible to make beautiful objects that will last for many years and carry important information to the future.
Mark Andersson told his story with a warm enthusiasm that opened doors of possibilities to the students, and many of us left hoping to return for another session on book making at Panther Peak Bindery.