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Thirty years of bookbinding in Telluride

 Folios awaiting their covers at the American Academy of Bookbinding in Telluride.
Gavin McGough
Folios awaiting their covers at the American Academy of Bookbinding in Telluride.

The tradition of hand bookbinding dates back thousands of years, to when Romans first began replacing scrolls with folded pages bound beneath a cover.

While much about bookmaking has changed, there is still a devoted community of craftspeople who study it. One of the few places to learn the craft — the American Academy of Bookbinding — is located in Telluride.

Eli Ball is closing in on the final touches of a book he’s spent the last two weeks painstakingly constructing.

Ball is a student at the American Academy of Bookbinding, and over the last couple of years, he’s been coming from his home in St. Louis to learn the craft of bookbinding at the AAB’s studio in Telluride.

“When I tell my friends about it they’re like ‘You’re pilgrimaging to a monastery to make books or something.’ And it kind of feels like that. You’re trekking over here,” said Ball.

“You’re staying in a beautiful mountain-filled town, and you get to make books. And you get to do it for two weeks and really just focus on it. It feels a bit like a meditation, y’know?”

Further down the workbench, Bonnie Thompson Norman is also a bookbinding pilgrim — she hails from Seattle.

Why come to Telluride to learn the craft? Norman says the school trains the best of the best.

“The graduates of this program are producing books at the highest level of art,” said Norman.

“They come at it with a sense of design, a sense of accomplishment; people make paper, people create leather for the binding of books, or people create decorative papers for use in the binding. All of those are really elevated crafts.”

Taken together, that level of focus, design, and tradition combine books which are in some ways works of art, one of a kind, and bearing the touch of the maker.

Around the studio are leather-bound volumes, their dimension stretching past a foot, a foot and a half, and their covers inlaid with hand-stitched designs.

Peter Geraty, a longtime teacher at the AAB puts it as such:

“When you think about reading a book, you might think about curling up on the couch with a cup of coffee. The books that people produce here demand a different approach, and anyone can see that when they see the book. They know this is not a ‘cup o’ coffee’ book,” he said.

 A workstation at the American Academy of Bookbinding in Telluride.
Gavin McGough
A workstation at the American Academy of Bookbinding in Telluride.

Bookbinders have been coming here to learn the craft now for 30 years — the school opened in 1993, and this fall the school is celebrating its milestone anniversary.

For a number of years, the bookbinding program was a part of the Ah Haa School for the Arts.

Daniel Tucker, the Ah Haa's founder, was friends with the internationally known binder Tini Miura, who began traveling to Telluride to teach classes.

Miura was legendary in the bookbinding community, says AAB’s Managing Director Chip Schilling.

“From the beginning, people started coming from around the country and around the world to study with her,” he said.

And, the school has stayed here ever since.

It’s moved a few locations over the years, now set up in a renovated former horse stable on Willow Street, where the windows open to the sounds of the quiet street, the mountain air, and the soft tones of birdsong of the day outside.

The sense of pilgrimage, the devout focus, the essence of magic which naturally exists in this landscape — all have made the experience of studying in Telluride unique.

But, recognizes Geraty, there is a downside to being an internationally recognized school in such a far-flung location,

“Because you can't get there from here, it's expensive. And it’s something we’re having to contend with,” he said.

“We’re one of maybe three schools you can go to, in the world, so if you want to go to the highest level of training, this is where you come.”

Students brave the housing crunch, the altitude, the expense, the isolation.

Don Glaister, at 78, has been binding for far longer than the AAB has been around.

He directs the Fine Binding Program at the school and spends some eight weeks each year in Telluride teaching courses.

Of his students, Glaister says:

“I think they’re kind of like searchers; seekers. And sometimes it just really clicks, and then they’re like junkies — it’s over. They’ll go however far they have to go. I mean that was like me. I was just a junkie like everybody else.”

As the AAB marks its 30th year, Schilling says the mission and the ethos of this tiny school high in the mountains all relate back to that community of searchers, of bookbinders.

“If the AAB can be a resource for them to move forward in their careers and support them, that’s what we need to be — is just an advocate for all the binders in the world,” he said.

And for that worldwide community of craftspeople, they’ll always have a home here in Telluride, should they be able to make the journey.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Copyright 2023 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio .

Gavin McGough