The ancient art of bookbinding survives at this 67-year-old family business in Pico Rivera.
Kater-Crafts Bookbinders has survived for 67 years while many other bookbinding companies have failed, but it hasn’t been painless. Where 100 people once worked, now only a dozen ply the trade. That sort of contraction is common given the share of readers opting for e-books rather than the paper variety. The e-book crowd has risen to 28% of Americans, age 16 or older, from 17% in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.
From a pre-recession high of 72,000 print and bindery employees nationwide in 2006, the profession suffered one of the sharpest declines of any occupation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2012, the number of jobs had plunged nearly 24% to 55,000, with the slide expected to continue.
Of course my book would have to be displayed next to John Travolta’s.
Opened in 1948 by family patriarch Mel Kavin, Kater-Crafts began as a library bindery. As the original business model gradually became unprofitable the company shifted its focus to specialty bookbinding.
The bookbinding industry has had to become nimble. It endured the loss of considerable library and academic work, for example, as more publications became available online. The disappearance of many bookstores was another blow.
In 2013, the 108-year-old Guild of Book Workers surveyed its members — professionals and amateur enthusiasts — and found that nearly 59% were 55 or older.
Leather scraps make good book covers.
Special sewing requires special machinery that takes the steady hand of a human to make it work.
It’s an intricate process to hand thread a machine from a by gone era…
…but when it’s done correctly it becomes a work of art.
The owners are getting up in years but have found the resourcefulness needed to seek out new customers. About 2 years ago, Kater-Crafts was at a crossroads. Down to 25 employees from 100, it was still doing library work, and ending up in the red.
The zeal the trio of siblings still bring to their work comes from Mel Kavin. Their father was a true lover of books.
Choices, so many choices.
Many of these machines are no longer manufactured because no one’s using them. When they’re first hired, most employees have no experience binding books. They show up needing a job, a paycheck — and they build up their skills over the years.
Mel Kavin, who died in 2006 at 89, was actively running the business into his last decade. His children wonder about what comes next, given that none of their children are interested in the business.
Kater-Crafts is the only remaining independently-run, non-affiliated bookbinder in the State of California. How much longer they’ll be able to retain that title is anyone’s guess.