FROM Pocahontas’ story, inscribed to Elizabeth I, a first folio of Shakespeare, to Beethoven’s scores, Nick Abrams has been entrusted to restore them all.
This year, the founder of the Tonedale-based Abrams Bindery celebrates 50 years of his art, handling and renewing ancient texts to jaw-dropping perfection for the likes of Blenheim Palace, Sotheby’s auctioneers, and the British Library.
Nick set up his workshop as an eager 19-year-old in Islington, with access to the markets of the West End and the City of London.
He’d got the taste for his trade at Francis Edwards, the antiquarian booksellers, which had its own bindery in the basement.
Today, it nestles in a nook of the Fox Brothers majestic red brick mill, in a wing designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to be fireproof; a perfect spot for an industry unchanged by the centuries’ shift.
Want to get your medieval script restored by the Abrams? You’ll have to hop on the three month waiting list.
“I think what got me hooked was just handling old books,” says Nick. “Back then I was the slowest binder imaginable, because I wanted to read the books, rather than work on them.”
His labour of love carried over to daughter Emily and son Alexander, who joined the family business in the ‘90s after completing their training at The London College of Printing and Guildford School of Graphic Communication.
Emily says: “We both grew up playing on the work bench, with gold leaf on our noses, and marble paper crowns.
“We didn’t want to work in an office – we wanted to work in leather, and marble paper, and gold leaf!”
The workshop itself is a snapshot of history. “A binder could come in from any time over the last 400 years and start work,” she says.
“Some of the finishing tools are 18th century, and earlier; the presses are mostly 19th century, and the machinery itself has never needed restoration – it’s solid.”
As to her favourite texts to date: “I really liked working on the first edition original story of John Smith meeting Pocahontas. It had the wood cuts in the back, and it was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. What’s more, it didn’t need much work.”
Nick adds: “I rather loved the Mozart manuscript. It was wonderful, just holding it, to think Mozart actually wrote this.”
Emily interjects: “It’s fab when you find a hair, or leaves and flowers in the pages.
“You think, someone was reading this 300 years ago.”
While the age of Amazon may have hit the high street bookseller, it is helping channel trade in the Abrams’ direction, she says.
“We still have collectors who buy their books on internet sites, who then bring them to us, so the modern world works for us in that sense.”
Reflecting on his 50 years, Nick says: “I’m amazed I’m still here. It’s so lovely having my children working with me.
“And I still like coming to work. So many people tell me they’re so looking forward to retiring.
“But what would I do, mow the lawn, or play golf? I’d much rather come to my workshop.”