‘I’ve just started to make the kind of things I want to be making’
We’ve all heard of working studios in this virtual artists’ colony of Rappahannock. Now there’s a working museum, masquerading as the Flint Hill book bindery of Michael J. Dennis.
“I would not say that I am a bookbinder, although I do bind books,” says Dennis, leading a tour of his imposing village bindery where beautiful handmade books of all styles and shapes are complemented by antique tools of the bookbinding trade. “I would say that I am a bookmaker. I make books.”
And not just ordinary books.
For starters, he makes “palm-leaf” books, first produced in India more than 2,000 years ago (although Dennis covers his palm-leafs in Japanese wood veneer paper).
There is the “concertina” (Italian for “accordion”), consisting usually of paper pressed into into an accordion fold, thus it’s common name the accordion-folded book. Originating in China and Japan, and carried west by explorers, the concertina’s covers are of wood or cardboard, often layered with paper or cloth.
We also find in the bindery “loose-leaf” books of wood or leather, held together by string or leather straps. Original loose-leaf books, the bookmaker educates, were used for religious purposes in distant lands like Tibet.
And finally, among others, the “codex” — the fundamental form of all Western books, and a top choice by many for ts simple chain stitch and unreinforced spine, which allows the book to be opened flat. Third-century Coptic Christians in Ethiopia are given the earliest credit for codices, with its “cords laced through rough-hewn boards.”
“This is a Coptic binding,” says Dennis, showing off one of his finished books neatly displayed with the others in the bindery.
It is in the bindery’s brightly-lit mostly wood-interior forward space that Dennis gives his books their final touches, whereas the majority of bookmaking occurs in an equally impressive rear workshop separated by a peaceful pebbled courtyard and fountain.
“For the dirty work,” Dennis explains. “Paring leather, sanding boards, drilling and sawing. I keep that stuff out of this room because I don’t want to have dust and glue in the same work environment.”
So back to being a bookmaker, how is that different from a bookbinder?
“It can mean a wide variety of things, the artist book movement is so broad,” Dennis replies. “To say that all book artists are the same would be to say that all painters are the same. It depends on the materials you work in, the structure you work in, whether you are visual or verbal. The artist books I started making when I was in graduate school, they are totally visual one-of-a-kind books.”
Dennis earned his undergraduate degree in graphic design from American University, followed by a master’s in design theory from George Washington University. In fact, he taught design “for many years” in both schools, in doing so developing the “book arts” program for GW. All accomplished, mind you, while launching with a business partner a top-line graphics design firm in Georgetown.
“Which was intricately connected to the bindery, because what we did is we designed very high-end marketing materials, and then finished and packaged them in our bindery — beautiful books used for marketing,” he describes.
As the design firm moved with a tighter economy into more traditional marketing, Dennis set up his bindery in the rear of a used (and rare) book shop that he opened in Berkeley Springs, WV. It was after discovering Rappahannock County that he “got the bindery out of mothballs and started up again,” albeit now in a bookmaker’s dream space created by KC Bosch, the popular Rappahannock woodworker, photographer and poet.
“I do a lot of other things with books,” Dennis says. “I do rebinding and repackaging of existing printed material, I collect books that are in bad shape, collect authors that I like, collect some better known titles. And I rebind them and add interpretive material to them, which adds to their meaning. I also do a lot of boxing of really fine books, interesting coffee table books, to make them more special and to protect them.”
Although not actively plying his trade, Dennis offers bindery visitors an assortment of handsome books, from the highest of quality to colorful and fun “blank books” — side-sewn Japanese bindings of mulberry paper with decorative block printed Yuzan paper covers, pamphlet bindings of English hand-marbled papers, rustic handmade Japanese papers sewn with linen thread, cork veneer covers with archival paper, pamphlet bindings with leather covers, and palm-leaf books consisting of 100 percent rag bristol.
“Inexpensive and pretty,” he says of the blank books, which range in price from $10 to $25. “People like them and buy a lot of them.”
Dennis keeps busy with periodic collaborative projects, although at this stage of his career he says he mostly enjoys working alone — when his “artistic expression” comes out.
“I’ve just started to make the kind of things I want to be making,” he explains.
The bindery is located at 616 Zachary Taylor Highway in Flint Hill. Email for availability to firstname.lastname@example.org