Near the back wall of a small Eastside factory that looks much the same as it would have in 1920, a young woman named Chelsea van der Meer is smacking the spines of coverless books with a hammer, then pushing them into a machine that thuds like a low-speed collision.
It's called a rounder. It performs one of 49 possible steps in the artisan bookmaking process at National Library Binder Co. of Indiana Inc. This niche and mecca for bibliophiles remains the oldest manufacturing concern in Indianapolis at age 143, according to its owners.
"It's a cool thing to still be doing handcrafting," says Erik Lindseth, an IUPUI history professor and expert of rare books who bought into the business back in the 1990s after bringing his own 17th- and 18th-century books there to be restored. "And we're still using 100-year-old equipment."
Keeping the machinery rumbling is the responsibility of Joseph Cox, the president, who bought the company in 1987 from the founding (1873) Schnabel family when it was at its longtime location downtown. The operation later moved to 55 S. State Ave. Expecting to be downsized from his corporate job at the time, Cox and was looking for any enterprise that might exploit his business and mechanical acumen. He and Lindseth, the book-lover, complement one another, but everybody in the small workforce has to be a Jack of most trades.
Or Jill. From the rounder to the backer to the paper slicers aptly called guillotines, Chelsea van der Meer can feed the indestructible old beasts that make the beauty. But she's the future as well. An artist who's plugged into the local cultural and marketing scene, she's designed several sets of annotated, illustrated journals on pursuits ranging from cheese-making to brewing to family cemetery archiving. Her niche within a niche is called Yonder Bound, an effort to keep the venerable firm vigorous via self-generated crafts.
"Tradition combined with flexibility," Lindseth says. "That's our business model."
Right now business is brisk, thanks to National's special expertise in two areas. Small to moderate printing runs of custom books comprise part of its business. Then there's the restoration of worn and damaged volumes that may be heirlooms with only sentimental value or the preservation of historical tomes worth hundreds of dollars.
If it really matters to you beyond all price, you may want to go for the Nigerian goat leather cover. A vestige of British colonialism, the strong, supple material comes from pampered animals specially bred for this deluxe doom. Their hides are tanned in the U.K. and shipped to the U.S. at premium prices. It's one of those little touches that make National a boutique business.
But Teresa Walker, the chief restorer, can turn a torn yearbook or abused McGuffey reader around for a pretty reasonable price. It takes ingenuity, intense searching for the right match of cover and paper, and an average of two months, unless there's a rush order.
"People are pretty happy when they get them back," she says as she spreads her hands over the flattened cover of an ornate Bible in major surgery. "I get lots of hugs."
Few can hug an old book harder than Lindseth, whose passion is not just that of a hobbyist. He views with alarm the mass infatuation with digital media. Lindseth is far from alone among educators who believe tactile books are superior brain exercise compared to sparkles on a screen. As a preservationist, he has still another set of practical as well as sentimental objections. More susceptible to alteration and indiscriminate duplication, "E-records are an inefficient replacement for printed material."
Losses mount. National bound the archives of The Indianapolis Star until the paper ceased the venerable practice a few months ago. The budget now being debated in the Indiana General Assembly would eliminate funding for the Indiana State Library genealogy service, a living, growing trove of 100,000 records from the state's past for which National has been the bindery. Lindseth wonders what these guys must be thinking, just as he tries to fathom how children who no longer are taught cursive writing will be able to do historical research when they grow up.
At the same time, he perceives a rediscovery of the old ways among people much younger than his 53 years -- appreciation for houses fortified with oak and plaster, for local food, for books sewn and glued and rolled and stamped. He hopes for the reverence of books that are beribboned to open flat for generations of readers and a desire for books fit for the landfill to be brought back to life through labors of love.
Combine those trends with National Library Bindery's scarcity of competitors, its customers who come from all over the country and across the pond, and there's nothing decrepit about its quaint tools and techniques. In this biz, small is bountiful, old is gold and, in Lindseth's words, the way to make a nearly 150-year-old business relevant into the future, "You just keep hammering away."