Secret Pocket Books

The last couple of years put a stop to in-person art classes, so the YouTube video rabbit hole became my teacher. I’ve always wanted to try bookbinding, so Librarians look away now!

I found an old Daler-Rowney sketchpad lying around, and trusty Amazon supplied a few basic tools. I wanted to make a hardback book, but didn’t have the aptitude, artistic skill or materials to make a decent-looking book jacket, so decided to use one from an Observer’s Pocket Book. Those little books were cheap and pretty, and there was a plentiful supply for me to practice with, so I could learn from my mistakes and gauge my progress. They’re on every family bookshelf, at every car boot sale and in every charity shop, and more importantly, have standard dimensions. The only thing that would change would be the number of signatures (folded sheets of paper sewn together) needed in each book, depending on the width of the spine. I gave a few prototypes to family and friends as gifts, and got the same reaction each time –  from an 80 year old man to a teenage girl – utter delight. They thought the notebooks were cute, sturdy, useable and unique. People kept telling me that I could sell them, so I decided to give it a go.

The earlier versions of those little books, without their dust jackets, are what fashion-people refer to as ‘bang on trend’. I think they’re perfect for creating a very specific vintage look when ‘staging’ a photograph for social media of a cosy, cottage (#cottagecore is a thing), mid-century modern minimalist, or simple childhood nostalgia. I get the impression that some of the brighter jackets (for example, pottery and porcelain, house plants, cathedrals, pond life, and cacti) sell for more because of how they look, and not necessarily their rarity. 

I love seeing the original price sticker, someone’s name or a greeting and the year on the inside cover. I’ve kept the flyleaf page intact from one or two because it had a stamp on it from the now-gone organisation or institution to which the book once belonged. I like to imagine the life the book had pre-internet. I’ve repurposed a few other vintage books recently, and one had a stamp inside from 1897, and another from 1904. These books were awarded as prizes, and probably cherished as sentimental items. After the owners’ deaths, those books turned up on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, to be then sold to me. Although the jacket of these books were in good condition, the pages were foxed and musty. I felt they deserved to be made into something special, so I used top notch, Italian, Fabriano artist paper for the pages.

The images below show one that I worked on this weekend.

Things I’ve learned about bookbinding so far.

  1. Always use branded glue. Cheap glue isn’t the same.
  2. Duck Tape isn’t the same thing as bookbinding tape. I’m trying out micropore tape as it’s stretchy, thin and breathable.
  3. Measure from the middle outwards when marking the placement of holes for before sewing.
  4. If I prick my finger when sewing, put the work to one side.
  5. Have separate rulers for inches and centimetres.
  6. Change my cutting blades often.
  7. Save a double page from each book to use as a measuring guide.
  8. Don’t underprice myself to try to get more sales. Again, suspiciously cheap, translates as poor quality to a buyer.
  9. I can never have enough binder clips.
  10. Measure twice and cut once. Don’t cut anything that requires accuracy when I’m tired.

Now you can hide your diary in plain sight

I created this tag line to imply that the casual observer would not spot the difference between the intact original book or one of my up-cycled versions on an ordinary bookshelf. (Does anyone else store their tiny scissors in a concrete doll’s head?)

I’m sure it is only a matter of time before someone is outraged enough to reprimand me for being a book destroyer, and they are perfectly entitled to hold that view. Some things are not for everyone. I am enjoying learning the craft of bookbinding and turning these little books into notebooks, so they can have a new life out and about in the world. After all, Observer Pocket Books were designed as books to carry around with you in your pocket, or for our American readers, in your pocketbook. The encyclopaedic knowledge contained on our phones may be more convenient these days, but a physical paper notebook has not yet gone out of fashion.

I sold my first one on my Etsy shop, within two hours of my shop going live. I only had one item for sale at the time! I never thought that I’d enjoy watching videos on how to maximise my SEO analytics and future trends. (#coastalgrandma #cottagecore #darkacademia or #crustaceancore anyone? Yes, they’re all lifestyle trends)

Unfortunately, I’m only selling to the UK at present. Laziness, Brexit and fear of customs paperwork has put me off, for now. However, if you like what you see, then you can claim 10% discount on a purchase by using the code RILEY10 at checkout.

8 thoughts on “Secret Pocket Books

  1. The tape I used when I was a trainee bookbinder (2 years at Brunel Tech in Bristol in the 1990s, gained me a C+G) was woven linen – so any thick grosgrain ribbon in a natural fibre would work I think for the tape between the stitches, and we used clasci Irish, undyed linen for lining the spine afterwards, with animal glue, or standard PVA (because both are easy to ‘undo’ later for conservators). And I think this is a genius idea, giving life back to something that would usually be lost.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your tips. I’m in no way any kind of expert and I think if a professional bookbinder saw my efforts, they’d cringe! I mean, I use bits if zips as end bands! It’s such a rewarding thing to do. I get totally in a flow state.


  2. I salute you! What a charming endeavor. Let us know when you decide to make them available here in France. Perhaps my friend in London would enjoy it? I shall have to look into that. In a world obsessed with destruction, it is those who are actively involved in creating that can save us.

    Liked by 1 person

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