Friday, February 25, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: Bookbinding—A Family Tradition

Our guest today is Marianna Holzer, a third-generation bookbinder, who also happens to be Heidi’s sister. She owns the Holzer Book Bindery in Hinesburg, Vermont, and specializes in book restoration and preservation. She was recently featured on WCAX TV's Made in Vermont series. To learn more about Marianna and the Holzer Bindery, visit her website. And be sure to check out the WCAX video of Marianna at work.

I grew up in a bookbinding family. It all started with my grandfather, Ulrich Holzer, who emigrated to Boston from a Swiss village on Lake Constance, after learning his craft in Italy. His two sons and three daughters all worked in the business. Everyone loved to read and the story went, “you have to wait for your books to be read by each member of the family before you get them back.”

Our house was filled with books, most of which were beautifully bound in leather with colorful marble paper and gold lettering. Every evening, my father, Albert, would read stories to us from those precious volumes: Mother Goose, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Han Christian Anderson, or Mark Twain. Then I discovered Gone With the Wind, Jane Eyre, and the works of Louisa May Alcott. All these stories stood on our shelves and I wouldn’t go anywhere without a book in hand. We even had a complete set of Dickens, crafted with a blue leather cover and matching marble paper that a long-ago customer had commissioned then failed to retrieve.

Years later I became a bookbinder myself. My father had died when I was still young, but my mother, who’d learned the craft in her native Germany, set up a small bindery in our new home in southern Vermont. There she taught my sister and me some of the basics skills needed to bind books. We made simple blank journals and repaired a few literary treasures for family friends. After college, I discovered a small bindery in northern Vermont and went to work for them. This bindery mended and repaired municipal records for cities and towns all across the United States. What a gift it was to get paid to do what I loved: take care of books. I deepened my skills in creating those leather covers, stamping gold letters and designs on the spine as well as restoring and rebinding books that were falling apart.

In addition to working on the municipal records, I took on smaller jobs—the cookbook that was falling apart, the treasured family bible, the much loved and worn children’s books. Sometimes we would get a request to create a special book for someone’s birthday, wedding, or another special occasion. These were the projects I really loved to work on.

The company that had employed me for nearly 30 years was sold to new owners out of state when the original proprietors decided to retire. This brought many changes, culminating in extensive layoffs. I had collected a lot of tools over the years, which augmented those I already owned, left over from the family’s Boston bindery. Some of them are big heavy cast iron tools like a guillotine to trim the pages, a backer to hold a book while you round the spine with a special, fat-headed hammer, and a big press to press the books in the final stages of the work. Other essential tools are small, like the bone folder, the glue brush, a ruler and good quality, sharp scissors.

I was collecting all these tools with the intention that “some day,” “after I retire,” I would open a small bindery of my own.  Well, that day came a lot sooner than I had planned. After the initial shock of losing a steady paycheck and company health insurance, I am finding renewed joy in having my own family business, working with my husband, Rik Palieri, to repair that abused cookbook, imprint a name on a bible, or make a beautiful cover for someone’s first book.

Our current project is rebinding a book called The People’s Home Library, published in 1917. This copy was in terrible shape with the front and back pages torn and crumpled, many of them falling right out of the book. It is exciting to take something in such poor shape, mend the torn pages, re-sew the book and put it all back together, using the original cover material and making it readable once again. This particular book is so interesting that the customer may find herself waiting for us to read it before she gets it back! Together, Rik and I are continuing the Holzer family tradition of turning old books into new and creating finely crafted heirlooms for future generations to enjoy.


  1. Oh Marianna, you have my DREAM job!! What a great story, right from your family bringing the tradition over from Europe. And so cool that you get to do your dream job now rather than wait till you "retired." Also cool that both sisters are involved with creating books in such different ways. (That would make a good premise for a novel, I'm thinking.) I've always wanted an inside peek on this career -- many thanks for giving us the inside scoop.

  2. Talk about traditions - what a great one that runs in the family! My Dad did some bookbinding years ago, but back in Russian he didn't have the leather and his tools were much simpler so his creations didn't look as good. But, he saved a lot of old softcover children's books from total destruction...

  3. Marianna, Supriya took the words right out of my mouth. I would love to be able to see your book shelves, or that of the joyous people you work with. My mother reads books until their coming unbound, and often I've wanted to know how to repair some of her valued keepsakes. If she'll part with them, may I contact your?

    Also, has business slowed or have you noticed since e-publishing has risen to the forefront?

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. That's so awesome that you get to do your "someday" job today -- and what an amazingly cool job it is :)

    One of the reasons I'm hesitant to buy an e-reader is that I LOVE the feel of real books. I'm a graphic designer, and my favorite classes at school were book arts courses.

    Living near San Francisco, I'm fortunate to have the wonderful San Francisco Center for the Book, which has shows with beautiful books as well as workshops.

  5. Supriya - definitely a dream job as I watch the snow falling heavily outside our window today, I can appreciate the beauty without having to drive in it, and still get some work done!

    Lina, the books don't have to be fancy, just being able to save them is a great skill to have.

    Donnell - I'd be glad to take a look at your mom's books. I think folks are valuing their paper books more than ever with the rise of e-books, but that is the big question, can or will e-books replace paper books? There is definitely a place for the e-reader. I have several books on my iTouch (haven't graduated to a larger format yet) and love pulling it out when I'm waiting at the doctors, or traveling & don't want to carry a suitcase full of books. But nothing replaces a good book in the hand!

  6. This brings back nice memories of childhood! For some reason, I feel as though I can still smell the hot bookbinding glue from the Boston bindery, although I don't see how that is really possible...

  7. Smells have powerful memory triggers and that smell really permeated the bindery, whenever I smell that hot animal glue I think of the Boston bindery.

  8. Marianna, your passion for your job and love of books came across beautifully. I can only imagine the wonderful feeling of preserving history and creating new futures for old books. Thanks to you and your husband, history is at our fingertips.

  9. Marianna, beautifully written!
    As someone who worked with Marianna in that small northern Vermont bindery I know firsthand how dedicated to the craft she is! I wish her continued success with a growing business!

  10. Thank you Alli and Sue, I really am so fortunate to be able to do the work I love and am always grateful to those who helped me along this path, my parents, my former co-workers and especially the former owners of Brown's River Bindery who created such a wonderful environment in which to work and learn for so many years!