Mighty realm of minia­ture books

Col­lec­tions are prized for their var­ied gen­res, de­signs, for­mats

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATE­BOOK - By Ryan Kost

Her first minia­ture book was about an inch and a half tall. It was a prayer book bound in ivory with a vel­veteen spine and satin end­pa­pers. Caro­line Brandt puts the year of pub­li­ca­tion at around 1850. The man­u­script came as a sort of bonus that a toy store owner sneaked in along with a first Holy Com­mu­nion outfit her par­ents bought for her Shirley Tem­ple doll back when she was 6 or 7.

Brandt is pretty sure that’s where her col­lec­tion be­gan, back in the 1930s while she and her par­ents were liv­ing in France. Now, many decades later, she lives in Vir­ginia and has a cat­a­log of about 18,000 minia­ture books.

“I don’t think there’s a sub­ject you can men­tion that I don’t have a minia­ture book in,” Brandt says. A com­pre­hen­sive list of the sub­jects in­cluded in her col­lec­tion runs four pages long.

Brandt is, in the par­lance of the Minia­ture Book So­ci­ety, a “minia­ture book en­thu­si­ast.” She’s one of about 300 mem­bers of the so­ci­ety, and one of 66 who will be mak­ing their way to Oak­land for the

an­nual Minia­ture Book So­ci­ety Con­clave, a trav­el­ing con­fer­ence that be­gins Fri­day, Aug. 11, and lasts the week­end. Brandt’s never missed one. In fact she’s the only mem­ber who has been at ev­ery sin­gle con­clave since they be­gan 35 years ago.

“They’re such fun,” she says, “be­cause we’ve all got­ten to be such good friends.”

The con­fer­ences, as de­scribed by Brandt and this year’s hosts, Dorothy Yule and Su­san Hunt Yule (iden­ti­cal twin sis­ters who some­times wear match­ing out­fits, or what Su­san likes to call “twin drag”), are al­most what one might ex­pect: group din­ners and tours of rare-book col­lec­tions; two auc­tions, one silent and one live; a book fair; and a con­test for book­mak­ers.

But some events might be hard to imag­ine if this small world weren’t one with which you were deeply fa­mil­iar. For in­stance, on Fri­day, con­fer­ence at­ten­dees are in­vited to join in one work­shop in which “tiny pressed plants from around the Bay Area may be sketched, sten­ciled, stamped, and saved in this mod­u­lar ac­cor­dion book de­signed by the in­struc­tor.” On Satur­day, Ju­dith Sere­brin will walk the group through the process of stitch­ing to­gether a 2-by-2¾-inch book with op­tional sewing on the cover and a cal­lig­ra­phy il­lus­tra­tion on the fron­tispiece.

“It’s a fairly sim­ple struc­ture,” Sere­brin says. But the sewing is a bit tricky, so she’s done some prepa­ra­tion in ad­vance.

The sort of per­son who at­tends the con­clave isn’t eas­ily de­scribed or pi­geon­holed, ac­cord­ing to Dorothy Yule. Though, she says, “mostly we have gray hair.” There are, of course, many col­lec­tors who at­tend. But there are also pub­lish­ers, writ­ers, il­lus­tra­tors, book artists and “just plain old peo­ple who got in­ter­ested in minia­ture books,” Brandt says. “Can you say what kind of peo­ple col­lect stamps? I can’t tell you.”

Yule, a for­mer art di­rec­tor of The Chron­i­cle, falls mostly into the “book artist” cat­e­gory, though she also writes them. She par­tic­u­larly likes to cre­ate minia­ture pop-ups. She and her sis­ter have turned out minia­ture books about their trav­els, about the “ABCs” of minia­ture books and about Bay Area bridges. The last one they’ve ac­tu­ally cre­ated for the con­clave. The book comes en­cased in a emp­tied­out wal­nut shell and is ti­tled “Bay Area Bridges in a Nut­shell.”

Minia­ture books, it should be noted, are not nov­elty items. “Th­ese are real books and con­tain real in­for­ma­tion and are not just ‘cute.’ You know, ‘cute’ is an anath­ema word to vin­tage book col­lec­tors,” Brandt says. In the United States, the cut­off for a minia­ture is anything smaller than 3 inches. Some can be con­sid­er­ably smaller, able to fit on a thumb. And yet of­ten they still can be read with the naked eye, “like you could the tag on a lady’s dress or a man’s shirt.”

The books can come leather-bound and gilt-edged. Some are let­ter­pressed. Some col­lec­tors have manuscripts that were cre­ated be­fore the print­ing press was in­vented. They are works of art and com­pendi­ums of knowl­edge, the way any book might be; they’re just a bit (or a lot) smaller.

Dorothy Yule has done some read­ing into why it hap­pens that peo­ple de­velop a fond­ness for minia­ture books and small things in gen­eral. Of­ten, the the­o­ries say, it comes down to scale and a sense of con­trol.

Whether that’s right, Yule’s not sure. “I like the in­ti­macy,” she says. “Es­pe­cially when you do pop-ups and you hold them in your hands, it’s like a magic trick. The page comes forth.”

Pho­tos by Liz Hafalia / The Chron­i­cle

Top, “He­di­day: A Por­ta­ble Hol­i­day to Cel­e­brate the Work of Hedi Kyle,” by Dorothy A. Yule. Be­low, “Bay Bridges in a Nut­shell,” by Dorothy A. Yule and Su­san Hunt Yule.

Au­thor Su­san Hunt Yule (left) and book artist Dorothy Yule are twins and co-hosts of the up­com­ing Minia­ture Book Con­clave in Oak­land.

“Bi­jou Pic­tures of Paris” was pub­lished in 1850, a tes­ta­ment to the early days of minia­ture books.

Liz Hafalia / The Chron­i­cle

“The Twins’ Trav­els” is a minia­ture book by Dorothy A. Yule, il­lus­trated by Su­san Hunt Yule.

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