Entangled in a world of awls, scissors and golden seams

  • 2010-02-11
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

BOOKBINDER FERDINANDAS SALADZIUS IN HIS SHOP: Bookbinding requires meticulousness, responsibility and scrupulousness and the understanding that old books represent the warmth of a human being.

KLAIPEDA - When thinking about bookbinders, you will likely conjure up images of a murky and musty cell of a 16th century monk in a secluded monastery, but Ferdinandas Saladzius, a representative of the rare handicraft, grins at that notion and hesitatingly nods. Regardless of the high tech century, modern bookbinders use the same utensils as their ancient predecessors did – bodkins, awls, scissors, clumsy hand-made pressers and even golden threads. Bookbinding retains its ancient mystery and inscrutability. However, the occupation lately has been reshaped by the ongoing economic meltdown – customers are not requesting golden seams.

“I do not use expensive materials lately. I do not make particularly costly books. I do not paint them with golden dust and I do not encrust them with jewels anymore, for one simple reason – for the most part my clients are intellectuals and they cannot afford it. Honestly speaking, I have never been particularly crazy about using lavish encrustations and golden threads. I believe that an old book has to beam the warmth of a human being; gold itself is not warm,” Saladzius says.

A majority may assume that a profound schooling and apprenticeship is mandatory to become a good bookbinder, but Saladzius, who is a former lecturer at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, maintains that the bookbinder’s excellence lies solely with the would-be bookbinder’s determination and dedication.

“I have been bookbinding since finishing secondary school, back in the eighties. When, after graduation, I started looking for a job, I accidentally found that the university’s Sciences Library needed book restorers. What I did, I applied and got the position. Nobody had prepared these kinds of specialists before; I was lucky to find a few experienced elderly bookbinders in the library, so they conveyed their knowledge to me. However, I had to learn many things about the craft on my own. It was then when I learnt that paper has its direction and books should be bound along it. It would be difficult to open up otherwise bound books. Regretfully, nowadays, books in print houses are being bound in any sequence, because it is easier to cut paper in this way. There are bookbinding schools in Western countries but, as you know, we do not have such ones in Lithuania. Therefore, many bookbinders are self-learners or came to the handicraft from relevant professions, such as a curriership or graphic arts,” the self-established handicraftsman reveals to The Baltic Times.

Ten years ago, still lecturing his students at the technical university, he made up his mind to quit the restorer’s job and assume a new challenge, one which he had foreseen in bookbinding. “I keep repeating that the job chooses the man, not to the contrary. That is what happened to me,” Saladzius grins. Since then he has been earning his living by carrying out abundant business orders, binding various menus, diplomas, et cetera.

Being a single father of four young adults, the man always needs to work a bit extra in order to support his children. “I have been bringing them up on my own since their teenage years. Bearing in mind that bookbinding orders have considerably petered out recently, I was even pondering on selling an inherited house. However, I am trying to avoid doing that by securing my customers,” the single father of four admits, but he refuses to delve into his family matters, referring to them as “too personal.” He prefers talking about the job he truly loves.

Bookbinding abroad is an exclusively aristocratic occupation, its history reaching old, ancient times. Lithuania’s bookbinders cannot boast of such deep traditions. “Only rich people abroad tend to assume bookbinding as their hobbies. For example, a well-to-do banker or a book collector buys up the necessary utensils and rebinds all the books from the collection himself.  The Lithuanian state considers bookbinders to be rich handicraftsmen. There is imposed on these craftsmen an excessive annual tax of one thousand litas (290 euros) for this kind of business certificate, but the majority of them are hardly surviving. We do not have rich collectors, who are the main clients of foreign bookbinders. Now we mainly depend on scarce orders, from restaurateurs, university libraries and diplomats’ wives, who ask to rebind medieval books here, since the service is much more expensive in their homelands,” Saladzius acknowledges.

He is one of a dozen professional bookbinders in Lithuania. For most bookbinders the handicraft is an extra activity or a hobby. 
The handicraftsman compares his profession to a doctor’s job – his occupation requires a lot of profound meticulousness, responsibility and scrupulousness. “Sometimes I have to explain to my clients that there is no point to bind every book they consider precious. On many occasions, it is better just to change the book’s cover or to make a nice box for it. Nevertheless, some people just cannot grasp it. Some customers cannot perceive why binding sometimes is costlier than the book itself. When encountering such kinds of clients, I have to patiently tell them the whole history of bookbinding, explain to them that the procedure of bookbinding is, firstly, handwork, for which I have to sacrifice days, weeks and sometimes even months. From that standpoint, I suggest to bind the books, which eventually will get more value,” says Saladzius revealing the peculiarities of his passion.

He can talk for hours about his every book. Each book is exceptional to him. But some of them are particularly precious to the man - like the smallest book (yes, literally meaning its size!), which he created according to the famous Lithuanian novelist and poet Sigitas Parulskis’ writing. Saladzius likes to invent novelties that surprise people. For example, the handicraftsman made a “traveling book” with the inscription “Read me and give me to somebody else” on it. Miraculously, after four years of traveling the unique book came back to its begetter. He intends to bring it for “traveling” to another city, since its mission in Vilnius has been accomplished. Many of Saladzius’ books have a circulation of only ten copies.

Some of his bound books have been donated to Danish Queen Margareta II, former French President Mitterand, poet Ceslav Milosh and other royalty. The bookbinder is known not only for his excellence and genius, but, also, for his exhibitions. The last exhibition, “Between the sky and the soil,” has just been held at the technical university’s library. As one can expect, bound books and book covers were on exhibit. Many of them were exceptional collector’s items. “I wanted the exhibit visitors to see exceptional - sometimes the only copy - books. I showed “non-exhibition like books – the ones that I collected from personal collections,” the bookbinder revealed.

Saladzius does not want to be called an artist, though. “Bookbinding is a handicraft, a way to make my living, a quite unusual one,” he modestly admits.