Sus­sex char­ac­ter

Lewes book­binder Rachel Ward-sale and her links with the Booker Prize

Sussex Life - - Inside -

They don’t make books like this any more. I’m look­ing at a deep blue goatskin cov­ered, gold em­bossed, hand bound edi­tion of the Booker Prize-win­ning The Lu­mi­nar­ies by Eleanor Cat­ton. Each year six mem­bers of the So­ci­ety of De­signer Book­binders are elected to cre­ate a spe­cial edi­tion of the six short­listed prize nom­i­nees. Rachel Ward-sale has been a part of this process on sev­eral oc­ca­sions.

“It can be quite nerve-wrack­ing as you only have five weeks in which to read the book, come up with a cover de­sign and put it all to­gether but it’s a won­der­ful thing to be a part of,” she says. “At the cer­e­mony, the book­binders sit at a ta­ble with their au­thor and pub­lisher and the year Eleanor won was very ex­cit­ing. She was only 28 and not ex­pect­ing it at all so, when the win­ner was an­nounced, we were a very happy ta­ble.”

Rachel grew up sur­rounded by books (her par­ents were both book il­lus­tra­tors) and stud­ied art, de­sign and book­bind­ing at Brighton Univer­sity in the late 1970s where she won two pres­ti­gious in­dus­try com­pe­ti­tions. She be­gan work­ing in the trade on a free­lance ba­sis im­me­di­ately after, mainly from home and with a young fam­ily com­pet­ing for her at­ten­tion.

In 1992 she set up Book­binders of Lewes, with col­league Jill Prole, which op­er­ates from one of the col­lec­tion of ar­ti­san work­shops housed in the for­mer Star Brew­ery.

I meet Rachel there where, sur­rounded by rolls of leather, reams of pa­per, em­boss­ing ma­chines, guil­lotines, block­ing presses and other tools of the trade which have barely changed since the Mid­dle Ages, she shows me how the pages of a book are folded, stitched and shaped be­fore be­ing bound into a cover.

“A lot of what we do is re­pair­ing or re­bind­ing old books, we also bind aca­demic th­e­ses and col­lec­tors’ is­sues of mag­a­zines,” she says. “That is our bread and but­ter work. The cream is the com­mis­sioned fine bind­ings.”

A straight­for­ward re­bind­ing of a book in rea­son­able con­di­tion costs about £50 and com­mis­sions up­wards of £1,500. Rachel also teaches at West Dean and other col­leges and runs small book­bind­ing work­shops from the busi­ness premises.

But the pro­fes­sion is chang­ing and de­signer book­binders are al­most an en­dan­gered species.

“There are no longer any full-time book bind­ing cour­ses and the links that used to ex­ist be­tween art col­leges and the in­dus­try have dis­ap­peared,” she says. “So, while there are a lot peo­ple in the trade there are very few peo­ple do­ing de­signer bind­ing.”

And yet a beau­ti­fully bound book is more than just an ob­ject. It is a phys­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the beauty of lit­er­a­ture and the worlds con­tained be­tween its cov­ers.

“A lot of our clients have a fa­vorite chil­dren’s book or a fam­ily recipe book, or an heir­loom they’ve found stashed away in the at­tic.” says Rachel. “Books hold a spe­cial place in most peo­ple’s hearts and the joy of my job is help­ing to pre­serve some of the ones peo­ple trea­sure.”

As if on cue, a man comes into Rachel’s work­shop with a first edi­tion of Ed­ward Lear’s Non­sense Po­ems. It had been his as a child and he loved it. Now, it’s a lit­tle the worse for wear but he wants to give it to one of his grand­chil­dren. With a bit of Rachel’s unique book­bind­ing TLC it’s a gift, which is bound to de­light for many more gen­er­a­tions to come.

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