Owner John DeMerritt provides top-shelf bookbinding services for a variety of clients in addition to publishing artists’ work and educating students about his craft.
DeMerritt laughs about being hailed as a “Bay Area legend.”
“Bay Area historical footnote,” he quips back.
Only time will tell what DeMerritt’s place in history will
be. But the fact remains that he has already earned an international reputation
for assembling books while also teaching, publishing artists’ works, and
promoting bookmaking within one of the longstanding global centers for
publishing, the Bay Area of California.
As a bookbinder, DeMerritt assembles limited editions for
artists, poets, photographers, and galleries. But he has also done work for
architectural firms and computer companies like Apple and Hewlett-Packard. One
day he might be at work binding together 25 quarterly reports for a law firm.
On another he’ll be devoted to producing a single oversized book (approximately
27 inches tall, 23 inches wide, and 4 inches thick) for an upcoming exhibition
by Belgian artist Koen
Vanmechelen. “My heart really is with the fine arts and literary
stuff,” he admits.
At his shop in Emeryville, DeMerritt takes the printed
material he receives for a book project and, most often, hand sews the folded
and collated sheets together with linen thread in order to create a text block.
After that, he says, “We glue that text block up [along the side] so that it
becomes a unified object rather than just a bunch of sheets of paper. Then,
we’ll make some sort of cover for those pages. And then, we’ll apply some sort
of decorative or text-based printing on that cover to identify [the title or
The tools of his trade include a board shear to slice the
cover’s hard substrate material before it’s covered with, say, cloth or
leather. And he employs a guillotine cutter to slice the text block of pages
to the desired dimensions. Additionally, there are presses to facilitate the
gluing together of the text blocks and to laminate the book covers to the text
blocks. DeMerritt says, “Most of my equipment is from the early 20th century,
and it’s all modeled after 19th century bookbinding equipment, which was
developed when bookbinding became more mechanized and uniform during the
industrial revolution. All cast iron, super heavy — and it’s here before
you’re born, and it will be here after you’re dead, and you’re just kind of
using it in the interim.”
In addition to bookbinding, DeMerritt’s business includes the
related pursuit of constructing boxes — housings that will hold books,
artifacts, art prints, or even digital media. He has made boxes for work held
within collections by The Bancroft
Library and the Fine Arts
Museum of San Francisco, as well as for artists Lynn Hershman Leeson and David Hockney.
DeMerritt and his wife, the printmaker Nora Pauwels, have published a
handful of art books as DeMerritt |
Pauwels Editions. They annually display their releases at the renowned
CODEX International Book Fair,
an event that adds to the Bay Area’s reputation as an epicenter for artists’ books. DeMerritt notes how the Bay Area has “always been a big hub of both
commercial printing and art publishing.”
And for arts education as well. For over 10 years, DeMerritt taught
bookmaking courses within the photography department of the San Francisco Art Institute. Additionally, he has
conducted workshops at the Columbia
College Chicago and the Penland
School of Craft in North Carolina. In the mid-90s, he co-hosted a
playful cable access San Francisco TV show, The Book Boys, on which he discussed
the craft. And, more recently, he has appeared within the PBS-aired documentary
The Book Makers.
As a child growing up in Denver, DeMerritt was influenced by
his mother’s workplace, the Park Hill
Cooperative Bookstore, which also offered a variety of craft
classes. Later, he took courses at the University of Colorado Denver as an
English major but left for the Bay Area before earning a degree. In San Francisco,
both luck and persistence won him a job working for Klaus Rötzscher, a German
immigrant who imparted to DeMerritt some of the training Rötzscher picked up
during his own European apprenticeship and his subsequent work as a master
DeMerritt says about bookbinding as a field, “It checked a
lot of boxes for me — literary interests, but also interests in the book as
object. Having an arena where you could have both a literary interest in this
stuff, but also be engaged in making them. That’s continued to be interesting
When he visits family in Belgium, where his wife is from, he
occasionally spends time at the Museum
which houses a large collection of rare books that date back hundreds of years.
On the grounds of the museum, he’ll occasionally meditate on “the lineage I’m
The upshot of that lineage is that books as physical
objects won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Although he owns a Kindle himself,
and does a lot of reading online, DeMerritt describes an innate human desire to
possess books, which after hundreds and hundreds of years, are still “the
perfect information vehicle.”
“It’s this sensory experience that you have with the book,” DeMerritt reflects. ‘You’re holding it, and it makes noise, and you smell it,
and you’re also looking at it with your eyes. It hits all the senses.”
Challenges: “Making sure that I’m able to do the work
I really want to do — and do more work in the fine art world,” says DeMerritt.
However, in terms of his present workload, he says, “I’m happy where I’m at
production-wise. I do about 40 projects a year.”
Opportunities: “I want to shift a little into doing
more design work because I’m very interested in that,” says DeMerritt. That
could include personally choosing the format of the book, the materials to be
used, and the typographic and graphic look of how the book will appear.
Needs: “Better organization in terms of business,” says