High-quality, handmade ethic keeps three Philly bookbinders in business

Photo by Julien Roubinet

Photo by Julien Roubinet

Bound

by Matt Bevilacqua

Behind a set of red double-doors on South Philly’s quiet Alter Street, Bridget Morris is hard at work. Her bookbinding company, Bella Forte, typically handles between three and 10 orders at a time, all of them handmade by Morris, her husband, Paul King, and two other employees. On a recent Friday in March, they were assembling a set of 50 clamshell boxes for fashion company Bluefly and compiling, in handsome volumes, final projects for a host of art, architecture and graphic design students.

Here’s how it works: Clients submit a digital file, which Morris and her team review for size. Then they send it to a printer. When it comes back, they cut the paper and begin binding. Finally, they might customize the cover. It’s a quick, simple process—orders tend to turn around within a few days—and it works because the business maintains a small scope. 

“There are companies that do higher production lines, but they don’t have the [same] quality,” King says.

Morris first learned her craft in Italy in the early 1990s and has since operated out of several locations in Philadelphia, including her home studio in University City. (The floors there couldn’t withstand her equipment, among which is a massive, pre-war Vandercook press.) She initially specialized in book restoration, then expanded to custom bookbinding and letterpress printing. About five years ago, she realized she had to diversify to survive.

“When I looked at my business model, I realized that I had to completely change my focus on who my clients were and what kind of things I was making,” Morris says, adding that Bella Forte now deals mostly in high-end presentation boxes.

Her decision makes sense in light of industry trends. A larger commercial bookbinder in Philadelphia, Allen Geiser and Son, closed its doors in July 2013, four months after Technical.ly Philly called it “one of the last bookbinders on the East Coast.” The Port Richmond-based company had been in business since 1979 and counted libraries, universities and hospitals among its clients. The digitization of journals cut into its profits, however, and the family had to call it quits after the company lost its lease.     

“We had a pretty large operation, so it was kind of hard to maintain,” says Allen Geiser, the “son” in the company’s name. “We just didn’t have any money to move the equipment or anything like that.” 

Locally, that leaves two contrasting options in the city: corporate print shops that offer binding services, and independent studios that bind books by hand. In addition to Morris, the latter category includes David Donahue, a Bella Vista-based binder who specializes in restoration, and Anne Krawitz, who runs AKA Bindery in Mount Airy. 

Krawitz also started in book restoration and conservation, work that she still takes on. About 10 years ago, however, her company shifted its focus toward cloth and leather boxes for books. She has worked on many volumes (“hundreds of them,” she says, “thousands of them”) and markets her business in a high-end book magazine. When asked how she stays afloat, she echoes the need to maintain quality in her work. “Really good clients that stick with you,” she says, “and a really good product.”    

In other words, the remaining bookbinders of Philadelphia are boutiques, eschewing mass production in favor of craftsmanship—and the kinds of clients willing to pay for it.

“I’ve been in business for 26 years,” Morris says. “Everybody I’ve known that has had a commercial bindery is out of business.”