We are in the middle of our first ice storm of the season, here in the South. The weather is so grey and dark and COLD, Ms. Jeannie thought this would be a lovely time to take a little trip. Where are we going, you ask? Why, it’s off to France, my dears! To visit a bookbinder in Lyon, who specializes in upcycled journals.
Since she was small, Ms. Jeannie has had a love affair with journals and diaries, doodlebooks and sketch pads. But it wasn’t until her early 20’s that she really started to depend on them as confidante, emotional therapy and creative outlet.
During one particular portion of her life, Ms. Jeannie carried a journal around with her everywhere she went. She was in her early 20’s, living in New York, attending college, working at a Manhattan publishing company and living in an old warehouse in Brooklyn. She was exploring the city with her girlfriends, falling in and out of love with boyfriends and in the last book from those years, fell in love with THE boyfriend, who eventually became her husband, the very handsome Mr. Jeannie Ology.
These are her journals from that time…
There are quite a few of them because she challenged herself for one entire year to put down her reading book on the subway (her most preferred activity for train travel) and to pick up her pen and just free-write in her journal. If you are unfamiliar with free form writing, basically you just start with a thought and go from there without any sort of restriction or point. A steady stream of conscious, if you will. For example…The train smells like onions today. There are pearl onions in my freezer, in a blue bag with a bird on it. I think the bird is an eagle, with wings outstretched. I wonder if an eagle has ever ridden on the subway. Maybe it would get on at Central Park and get off at Battery Park… maybe the eagle is going to visit the Statue of Liberty. Maybe they are friends and spend their days discussing the stresses of being national icons. (So there you go from onions to eagles to national symbolism – all in a minute with Ms. Jeannie!).
For the most part this activity occurred twice a day while she was commuting, usually once in the morning and once at night. The writing project sparked a few short stories, but mostly they were just daily observations of things going on around her…sights, sounds, feelings. Notes from a girl and a city going through their daily paces.
As you can imagine, New York is a bevy of interest and intrigue practically every moment – so there was lots of material. She started going through journals faster then she’d ever had before which meant journal shopping became a regular routine. She had this one favorite bookshop, in particular, in the World Trade Center, that she loved. They carried a whole section of handmade journals there and Ms. Jeannie loved the fact that no two ever really looked the same. Her first book purchased from that shop was made out of recycled banana leaves, the last out of silk fabric scraps from India. Both very different in style yet each had been made by hand. Selecting which one to buy seemed as important as selecting which words to write.
So that brings us to our little trip. Ms. Jeannie thought it would be fun to learn about the writer’s craft from the other side of the notebook. So off we go on a magical trip to Lyon, France to chat with Karen, bookbinder extraordinaire beyond the Etsy journal shop Spellbinderie …
Ms. Jeannie: Your shop really is magical – from the name right down the line to the contents. How did you decide on Spellbinderie?
Karen: The name came to me after many agonizing nights spent brainstorming with my husband. I wanted a shop name that reflected the concept of binding while also suggesting upcycling/transformation and my location, France. Finally Spellbinderie came to me while I was thinking about words that had -bind or -binding in them. This word said all I hoped my journals would be, enchanting, fascinating, unputdownable. I think upcycling is a bit of magic, it’s transformation, a second life, so the wordplay kept working, spell, craft, bind. Once I was settled on the name, my husband suggested the spelling, using the “ie” instead of a “y” for a French touch.
MJ: Tell us a little bit about living in Lyon. Is that where you grew up?
K: I’m American, my husband is French. We met in Brooklyn just over 5 years ago and after three years together, he asked me if I’d be willing to leave my beloved Brooklyn and move to his hometown, Lyon. I was admittedly smitten with the idea of living in France and jumped at the opportunity. Plus we both wanted to have more time to create with our hands and do more traveling, instead of work, work, work. Brooklyn is an exciting place to live but it’s very much a career-oriented, go, go, go, type of city and I felt ready for a change. Lyon is a pretty city, famous for it’s gastronomy and well-located in the southeast of France. It’s a calmer pace, which I enjoy, while still being a good sized city, but I do miss coffee to go and good Mexican food!
MJ: How did you become interested in binding?
K: Honestly it just sort of happened. My romantic move to France had the ugly reality of finding a job. A big hurdle considering I did not speak a word of French. My former career was in documentary film editing but I wanted to change my path. A friend of mine back in the US was doing really well selling vintage on Etsy. He encouraged me to do the same here. I began going to flea markets, thrift shops and yard sales, picking up this and that to sell, constantly drawn towards the gorgeous vintage books, often damaged but still enchanting. I’ve always had a passion for old books, started to collect them when I was quite young. I started to collect more here thinking eventually I’d figure out what to do with them. From there I researched upcycling ideas online and stumbled on bookbinding. I knew that was it, I just had to learn how.
MJ: I love how your books are actual stories within stories. Does it take a long time to concept the construction a book? What is your most favorite part of the process?
K: Right from the start I wanted to make my journals more than just blank pages. What inspires me is a book’s history, where it’s been, who’s hands held it, what were they thinking, doing, eating, sitting, dreaming? The old paper calls me with it’s soft texture and warm color and I’m absolutely smitten by old handwriting or bits of paper or cards left behind. In the end, it’s my own imagination, my need to tell stories, my love of secrets and mystery, that is my favorite part of the process. I want that to be bound right into the journal.
MJ: Do you have a sourcing method for all the old books and papers you incorporate into your items? Are you scouring France for great papers?!
K: I’m scouring my section of France for sure! I have a wonderful local thrift shop and the proceeds go to help the poor and needy, so an added bonus for buying there. I also shop the flea markets and vide-greniers, or “empty attics”, the French version of a yard sale. I’m lucky that my in-laws are avid thrifters and often find amazing books for me to use as well. My vacations tend to include a bit of thrifting now too.
MJ: What is your most favorite item in your shop at the moment?
K: My custom made “Layo” artist sketchbook, I think. The photos don’t do it justice, I’m limited to how many photos I can add on Etsy so kept the focus on practical matters. The “Layo” was made for a repeat customer who’s an artist and avid journaler. We always work together to create very unique sketchbooks that fit her needs and I love each and every one of them.
MJ: What’s your best customer story? Do you sell your books anywhere else besides Etsy?
K: My best customer story is related to the “Layo” sketchbook. The sketchbook is named for her of course. She is very creative and pushes me, in a good way, to be more creative and learn new things. Her orders are the most time consuming because they are never simple and sometimes I need to think outside the box to make what she wants or to find suitable material. I love the challenge and the result. She’s been a customer for almost a year now and has become a friend through our conversations and collaborations. I probably would not know this amazing woman if I weren’t selling online!
MJ: Are most of your clients writers?
K: I’d say my clients are brides, next would be writers. I also get quite a few men ordering custom journals as gifts for their creative girlfriends. I LOVE that! It’s really exciting to make a special gift for someone and I have to say it, I’m impressed with these super cool and thoughtful boyfriends.
MJ: Do you have an educational background in bookbinding?
K: No, I am self-taught through instructional videos and books plus lots of practice before I opened my shop. I am interested in taking a few courses in high level binding in order to improve and perfect my technique and be able to offer more variety in binding style but haven’t found the right course in my area. I’ve also reached out to some professional bookbinders for advice and found the community supportive.
MJ: Do you have a shop bestseller?
K: My wedding guestbooks are by far my biggest sellers but next would be my Retro Journal Series which are crafted from small antique books that have a math, literature, science or geography theme. I fell in love with this type of book early on, drawn to their distressed covers and simple cream and black color scheme.
I wanted to make them more distressed and mysterious, gatekeepers of secret formulas and agendas, by adding bits of the text, tattered reclaimed paper and burning the paper edges. I loved that it looked like it had been traveling around, maybe having a few too many drinks and a bar fight for it’s own good. When I listed the first one, it sold immediately, which shocked me because I honestly thought it would take awhile to find the right buyer. Turns out people love them just as much as I do and just like that this line was born. Which just goes to show you, ALWAYS follow your heart and your own style.
MJ: Is there an ideal type of book you look for when your sourcing your papers?
K: I look primarily for whatever catches my eye, could be great illustrations, a beautiful cover, a wonderfully distressed cover. I stay away from anything rare or in demand as well as too damaged or fragile.
MJ: When you are not working on your books what else occupies your time?
K: I love watching movies, reading, traveling, camping and photography. I also love to cook, and eat quite frankly. I enjoy infusing booze too! I make my own bitters and infused rum, known as rhum arrangé here, which comes from Reunion, an island off of Africa. It’s delicious! Only hard part is being patient for at least three months before you can enjoy.
MJ: Are your customers mostly in Europe or the US?
K: Primarily in the US and UK, then Canada and Australia.
MJ: Are you a journaler yourself? If so, do you make all of your own journals?
K: I’m always a bit nervous when asked this question because I am not a journaler and wonder if buyers would be turned off by that. My pleasure is in bookbinding and designing though, not in writing. I’m a storyteller but do so visually. My former career as a film editor probably seems so different from my new career but both involve taking pieces of something and stitching them together to create a new thing. Both end up with my interpretation of the story.
MJ: What is it about the art of journaling that attracts people?
K: I think I’m not qualified to answer since I am not a journaler but I would assume it’s the same thing that attracts me to bookbinding or film editing: it feels good to do and it’s necessary to do, to create.
MJ: Do customers ever send you pictures of their journals or guest books all filled out? I bet they’d look incredible!
K: I’ve been hoping someone would but I think journaling tends to be a private thing more than not. I made a guestbook for a friend of mine in Lyon and that was so exciting. I got to see the reaction of her guests to my creation and see the guestbook afterwards.
MJ: What is your design space/studio like?
K: We live in a loft like space with a mezzanie. The area of Lyon that we live in is known for these kind of apartments because this area was formerly a silk weaving neighborhood. The buildings have very high ceilings to allow for the silk weaving frames and the mezzanines were where the weavers slept or for use as offices.
My studio space is not separated from my living area which means there is no door to shut, making it hard for me to really draw a line between work life and private life. That can be tough sometimes but I love my neighborhood and my open space. As much as I’d love to shut the door and go home at the end of my work day, I enjoy having everything right at hand too.
MJ: What inspires your work (besides antiques books, obviously!)
K: My neighborhood. I walk around looking at the architecture, I’m particularly drawn to the distressed doors and wood beam ceilings. I am also a fan of Keith Smith, a book artist. His work is very very different than mine but inspires me and pushes me to try new things.
MJ: As far as gathering books for eventual re-purposing into journals, what subject matter interests you most?
Generally fiction because of the ornate covers and pretty illustrations. I love the drama, especially a darker, more gothic type. I also love geography and history books with old maps and descriptions about various places. I recently started making journals for a US buyer who spends quite a bit of time in the Alps. He’s an avid mountaineer, skier and journaler. He contacted me to find old books on the subject to transform into journals and now I am hooked on these books too. I discovered Pierre and Georges Tairraz, amazing photographers who traveled around taking incredible photos.
MJ: Do you have any new year’s resolutions? What is one thing you plan to accomplish in your Etsy shop this year?
K: Double my sales, hire a part time assistant for the spring/summer wedding rush, come up with new ideas, learn a new binding technique.
Karen is currently reading:
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. My favorite author!
MJ: What music are you listening to?
K: Hmmm, I’m 44 and sadly finding I’m listening to less and less new music! My iTunes recent playlist shows: Joy Division, Bjork, Kate Bush, Portishead, Bear In Heaven, Birdie Nam Nam, Mahmoud Ahmed, PJ Harvey
Do you have questions for Karen? Post them in the comments section and Ms. Jeannie will be sure they get to her. Or you can visit her shop here. Also, click on any of the Spellbinderie journal pictures in this post for more detailed information.
Not ready to leave the beauty of France quite yet? No worries, my dear, read a previous interview with French photographer Yann Pendaries here.
Or enjoy a year full of Ms. Jeannie’s other interesting interviews here.