Rick Kavin creates lead type on an old Intertype machine at Kater-Crafts, 
the bookbinding company he runs with two siblings.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Bookbinding businesses keep the pages turning - for now

The symptoms were grim: advanced age, crumbling physical condition, broken spine. The operation would last several hours and require meticulous care. But recovery was likely, and the procedure would cost only $100.

The patient was a 90-year-old family Bible in need of major restoration.

"I always tell people that I compare book restoration with face-lifts," said Bruce Kavin, one of three siblings who run Kater-Crafts Bookbinders. "Generally speaking, the less you do, the better." The Pico Rivera company has survived for 66 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.


Restoration specialist Grace Sanchez restores the cover of a family Bible for a client at 
Kater-Crafts,  a family-run bookbinding company in Pico Rivera.

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. 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.

Miguel Olvera uses a press to stamp letters onto a book spine at Kater-Crafts Bookbinders.

Miguel Olvera uses a press to stamp letters onto a book spine at Kater-Crafts Bookbinders
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

"It will never be as much as it used to be," said Mariana Blau, who runs A-1 Bookbinding, which has been operating in downtown Los Angeles for 55 years. She employs two full-time workers, down from a peak of nine. Blau's company has kept going partly through high-end projects for Hollywood actors and directors who want to commemorate films they have been part of, as well as jobs for other specialty clients. Even with a smaller business, finding new workers is difficult. "Nobody wants to work with their hands. Nobody wants glue on them," Blau said. "There are very few young people who would be interested in this."

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. Guild President Mark Andersson, 56, has run Panther Peak Bindery, near Tucson, since 1998. He is optimistic that there will always be a need for his kind of work.

"I like to think that everyone has one book that is very important to them that they want to preserve," Andersson said, noting that he endures frequent kidding for his hopeful "one-book theory." Still, he has concerns. "In 50 years, when people no longer have the cultural connection to what a book means, are they really going to want to fix up Grandma's cookbook?"

At Kater-Crafts Bookbinders, the owners are getting up in years but have found the resourcefulness needed to seek out new customers. "Our customers are the people who still love books," said Bruce Kavin, who, at 67, is the youngest of the three siblings who run the business co-founded by their father, Mel. Kavin works with his sister, Judy Howard, 71, and brother Richard Kavin, 73.