It was inevitable, really; an unlooked-for but wholly fated consequence of a lifetime’s passion for books.
Book-love takes several forms and expressions in the hearts of its swains — voracious reading, collecting, even selling. In addition, the worlds opened between the thin pages of a book have driven many an ardent admirer to pursue the perils and joys of authorship.
I can personally testify to all of these manifestations in my own relationship with books. But there is another, perhaps less common, but no less fanatical, which has seized my heart and fancy and propelled me into a venture as delightful as it is harebrained. My love for the old books in particular, the cloth-sheaved beauties with their stamped and gilded covers, original artwork, and exquisite fonts and typesetting, has inspired both my personal collection as well as the types of books I list in my shop. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized my affections had shifted: I wasn’t just content any longer to enjoy the craftsmanship and beauty as a bygone art. I wanted to get my hands into the very process — to appreciate the value of time and skill that once went into the presentation of the written word.
In short, I wanted to bind books.
What started out as a rather ridiculous idea quickly materialized into a tentative ambition. One day I found myself daydreaming out loud to my husband about this dancing vision I had. It was so absurd I couldn’t help being enchanted by it: a small-scale run of books made entirely by hand. Was it possible? Was it even remotely financially feasible? Was I crazy?
I’ll never forget his reply. He looked straight at me and smiled.
“We can do this,” he said.
And, oh, how I love that “we.” It has made all the difference.
In January of 2010 we made a plan. I selected a public domain text for the first run and began to acquaint myself with the mysteries and mazes of Adobe InDesign. I read everything I could on the craft of bookbinding, and schemed over how I could maneuver a one-at-a-time process into a multiple copy run.
My husband built the presses for me — and there is a world of love contained in that one little phrase. He made them all by hand and set me up with everything I would need to make books. I still just sit in my shop sometimes and gloat over my tools, they are so beautiful. And I realize, in bookbinding as in other arts, that I love the instruments and devices as much as what is produced by them. I get a little giddy over things like English bookbinding needles and Irish linen thread.
As the year went on, that “we” expanded to a circle of dear and extremely talented folks. My amazing and creative brother-in-law taught me how to use that ornery old InDesign, and spent hours on the phone with me, sending files back and forth, and formatting things exactly the way I wanted them. My artist sister — the one who introduced me to book arts in the first place — designed the logo for my press. And she created two supremely gorgeous original oil paintings to illustrate my book: one for the cover plate and one for the frontispiece. Local letterpress artisans and dear friends helped me figure out how in the wide world we could deboss and imprint so many cases at once, and invested literal days into making it work. The result of their labors took my breath. I am overwhelmed at the support and excitement these people leant to my project, and deeply grateful for the mark of their talents upon it.
My first book released last fall, a reprinting of Kilmeny of the Orchard by L.M. Montgomery. I selected that title for many reasons, chief of which being that I fell in love with it as an impressionable teenager, and I wanted to honor Montgomery herself and her influence on my life with an affectionately handcrafted edition of her second book.
I was sixteen years old when I first made the acquaintance of Kilmeny Gordon. I had known her older sister, Anne Shirley, for about four years at the time, and the blessed hours I had spent in her company had given me a love for Lucy Maud Montgomery and her writings that was akin to reverence—a reverence which remains steadfast to this day.
—from the preface, Low Door Press edition, 2010
Valid as they might be, however, gratitude and sentiment were not the only enticements in my choice: Kilmeny herself seemed so appropriate to the initial dream behind my press. There was a lowliness about her, a sweet modesty that was already old-fashioned even in the year of her original publication over a century ago. I think one of the reasons I identified with her so keenly as a girl, even amid some of the endearing implausibility of her tale, was that Kilmeny didn’t quite belong to the world in which she found herself. She was already slightly outdated, yet strangely keen to the possibilities around her. She was a curiosity caught between the romance of the old ways and the promise and potential of the new. Even at sixteen, this paradox had begun to trouble me wholesomely; now, all these years later, it is a tension I have learned to love and embrace, if not fully comprehend. This journey into bookbinding has expressed as few things could my reverence for days gone by and the loving skill that was once applied to the most everyday objects. And yet, it wouldn’t have been possible, in a strictly practical sense, without the fascinating world of PDFs and vectorized images and desktop publishing. I am so grateful for the opportunities afforded by the internet to connect and communicate and get the word out: and one of the very things that my readers and customers and I have connected on has been this mutual esteem for the past. In this endeavor, I have given my heart to the old ways, while extending my hand warmly to the new.
The naming of things is extremely important to me, and in the early days of this venture I really could not proceed until I could actually call it something. I spent a few weeks praying and brainstorming, giving a few ideas the 24-hour test. But when the name for the press came to me, I knew it, as if it had always been so. And with the name there was a deepening of the vision.
Low Door Press.
I had this notion of a swallow, the image of love and sacrifice, winging through a little arched door, such as might give on to The Secret Garden or Wonderland or perhaps even the forgotten rose bed in Burnt Norton. I thought immediately of Jean “Davy” Vanuaken, my real-life heroine of A Severe Mercy, and her chosen “low door” of obscurity and service for the love of Christ. I thought of all the beauty that has ever gone unlauded by the world, and the love that breathes life into it and the joy that rises from it like the incense of a thank offering — and I knew not only what I wanted to do, but why.
I have to believe that any act of creation executed for love makes glad the heart of God, as it does the hearts of His people. I have to believe that I, as one created in the image of a Creator, cannot help but create — and that when I do, I am affirming something fundamental deep down in myself that somehow, in ways I cannot comprehend this side of eternity, has its answering antiphon in heaven. I have to believe that beauty is valid and that in a world of slipshod and plastic and hurry, there is a place for something impractical and time consuming and existing only because someone cared enough to bring it into being.
There is a parable for me, as well, in the transformation of raw materials — board, cloth, paper, thread, and glue — into a live book that can be seen and held and read and loved. A book that can communicate on behalf of its author. A book that is, in the truest sense, a new creation.
Bookbinding may have its harrowing moments, but it really is one of the most contemplative undertakings I can think of. There is plenty of time for reflection and peaceful thought throughout the long stages of folding and piercing and sewing and drying. The cutting is a precision act, and fraught with aching concentration. But what joy, when the last paste has been applied and the endpapers smoothed into place, to hold an actual book — almost a living thing — and to know that it will endure.
Kilmeny proved herself a plucky lass for a maiden voyage. And even as I’m putting the finishing touches on the final copies of her run this spring, she’s given me both the courage and the excitement to commence publication of the next Low Door Press title. I plan to announce it later this year, but the ideas that have been percolating are so thrilling to me they’re ready to go at a touch.
It is an amazing thing to bring a book into the world, by whatever means. I have been astonished by the joy of it: fulfilled, delighted, and deeply, deeply humbled — not only by the rewards of the process, but by the kindness and love with which my little books have been welcomed by kindred spirits who catch the vision. Lucy Maud Montgomery would say they were “of the race that knows Joseph.”
Which is utterly true, of course, and just another way of saying that they, like me, are dreamers of dreams. And perhaps a little moonstruck into the bargain.
Lanier Ivester is a homemaker and writer in the beautiful state of Georgia where she maintains a small farm with her husband, Philip, and an ever-expanding menagerie of cats, dogs, sheep, goats, chickens, and peacocks. She keeps a web journal at www.laniersbooks.com and is also the proprietress of an online bookshop specializing in rare and out-of-print titles from a gentler era.