Books with heft
Creating them can get personal; that’s how she likes it
Sandy Kahn in her Erving home runs her Old Leather Books business.
“Books are not absolutely dead things … They do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”
— John Milton
(Who wrote this in 1644 and later proved his point by remaining in publication long after his death.)
Sandy Kahn of Erving devotes her efforts to Milton’s metaphorical vial. A bookbinder with a unique style blending old and new, Kahn binds favorite books, religious texts, blank pages or the accumulated ephemera of her customers’ lives.
Kahn has bound yearbooks of a winning season for the Miami Heat basketball team, bibles as gifts for Rupert Murdoch’s family, film props and, once, German pornography.
She has bound 10 years of call sheets — the daily agendas of filmmaking — for a Hollywood stuntman as a gift from his wife, printouts of all the emails a woman exchanged with her husband in Iraq, the screenplay to the film “The International” and a book in the fantasy-medieval style of the TV show “Game of Thrones.”
While that particular book was commissioned for an advertising presentation and will not see the screen, another of her books played a bit part as a rare first edition of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” gifted to someone by Laurence Fishburne’s character in an old episode of “CSI.” She recently completed eight books for an upcoming episode of the show “Touch.” The volumes will play as one book on screen and the customer has told her she can expect to see the pages ripped out and burned sometime in the coming season, which began Friday, Feb. 8.
“I couldn’t even dream this stuff up,” Kahn said.
Kahn’s style incorporates thick, high-quality garment leather covers trimmed with bits and pieces of old books, antique keys, semi-precious stones, decorative metal and other objects.
“I think to some people it’s sort of the antidote to the digital age,” Kahn said. “To have an artifact, something that feels old and hefty and is meaningful to them in some way.”
What goes onto the book can be as personal as what goes into it.
A shark’s tooth wrapped in sterling silver appeared in the mail for a book on fishing and a mother once sent her dead husband’s coat and belts to work into legal pad sleeves for their children.
“It’s very personal and that’s what I love about it; these are very meaningful to the people that order them and it really is a collaboration,” Kahn said. “Once we’ve finished with the book, nobody else has anything like it.”
She works out of her Erving home and with products expensive enough — she mentions examples ranging from a couple hundred dollars up to a $1,000 — to require a deep pool of potential customers. All this is made possible by the Internet.
“You Google ‘bookbinders’ and ‘leather’ and not many people do what I do, which is custom, so people will call me, send me a pile of papers or send me a book they want bound and we’ll collaborate by phone on how they want it to look,” Kahn said.
On her Web site, Kahn displays photos of the various options that make up her palette, revolving around carefully excised scraps of gilt leather lifted mainly from the intricately decorated covers of bibles dating back to the 1800s.
Working with old bibles purchased through eBay, broken-down tomes torn and disintegrating with age, Kahn slices away the gold tooled, embossed or stamped patterns, religious tableaus and lettering from the covers.
Where books are salvageable she will give them new covers, and where not, saves the illustrations to bind into the endpapers of new books.
“Basically what I do is strip them, if it’s an old beat-up bible, usually its very, very difficult to get the gold off,” Kahn said. The remedy for which is time and careful application with an X-Acto knife. “It’s kind of like how people use animals, every part of it gets used.”
While she offers the butchering metaphor, Kahn is not killing the books but scavenging their remains for transplant.
“Whatever can be salvaged, I use,” she said. “That’s part of the thing, to give new life to things that otherwise don’t really have one.”
The pieces she glues to the new covers, often alongside other scraps — keys, hinges, wrought iron and brass hardware gleaned from antique stores — are tied, sewn or affixed with nails or screws as necessary.
The leather itself is a major element of the aesthetic; she works in various leathers, including what is termed pull-up leather. This is leather treated in such a way that when bent or stretched, its color lightens dramatically but temporarily.
Glued to a binding board backing, the leather forms the skin for a hardcover binding, or stands alone as a softcover.
Kahn also incorporates straps, clasps or wrap-around covers, which may conceal more of the found and rescued embellishments.
Kahn’s particular style is the product of 17 years with the craft. She compared the learning process to a novice attempting to building a house.
“You wouldn’t be very precise in cutting the beams, you probably wouldn’t have all the tools on hand that you needed,” Kahn said. “There are a lot of technical details that you have to learn and then, once you know physically how to do it, then to form a style that’s distinctive, that people will like.”
Kahn made her first leather-bound book in a class through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, covering the book with material from an old Moroccan leather purse.
The highlight of her education in the craft was a week-long workshop with a master bookbinder in Florence, Italy. As a sideline to her career in education, she ran her own shop stocked entirely with one-of-a-kind books for a time in Belmont and then Cambridge, where she eventually threw in the towel in the face of an exorbitant rent.
Having retired from Northeastern University, where she taught anthropology and world religions, Kahn has now lived in Erving for three years and is looking to return to teaching.
“I’ve taught workshops around the country and one of my favorite things that I’m trying to revive here is teaching kids,” Kahn said.
She has applied to the Massachusetts Cultural Council for a grant to work in Erving Elementary School, something she has done in the past, teaching children to make their own books.
These books can be as simple as two pieces of leather sandwiching paper, drilled or punched with a nail and bound with ribbon.
At the adult level, Kahn teaches a more involved workshop combining craft and therapy.
Kahn’s “Wisdom Workshops” are the product of her many years teaching and studying and are intended to help her students discover themselves and their place in the world.
In one workshop, students are asked to craft and fill their own literary “life-vials” — a standard book, an accordion book, a scroll and a Mobius strip — as different ways of visualizing a spiritual autobiography composed through exercises and visualizations that recall formative events and memories.
Kahn’s work can be viewed on her website at www.oldleather.com, which evokes half the name of her former shop, Old Leather and Dried Roses. More information on her workshops is available at
Staff reporter Chris Curtis started at The Recorder in 2011. He covers Montague, Gill, Erving and Wendell. He can be reached at
email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.