Bookbinder Jeff Dahlin: A Renaissance man finds his calling

The smallest books at the E&L Bindery are the novelty “triangle books”: they’d fit into a Christmas stocking. The largest are the buckram-bound volumes of full-size newspapers, a steady semiannual project for owner Jeff Dahlin. In between are the short-press-run memoirs and family histories, periodical collections, and niche projects like emergency response manuals customized for a New York client.

There are personal projects: customers trust Jeff to rebind their well-worn family bible, their favorite poetry collection, even Mom’s cookbook with the splattered pages. And there are specialty items, like a gift for Michelle Obama: the bound music manuscript for “Fanfare for a First Lady,” performed for her visit to an Iowa college. All of them pass through Jeff’s skillful hands in his workshop here in the CEZ.

Jeff has been helping keep alive the craft of traditional bookbinding since 1988, when he bought the Erickson/Lundblad Bindery, eventually moving it to a new home at 708 Vandalia. Nothing in Jeff's background prepared him for this line of work: his college degree was in business (a switch from dentistry), and he had a post office job at the time. He’d never used—let alone repaired—any of the machines of the trade: the guillotine-like board shear that cuts covers to size, the gluing rig with its adhesive rollers (right), the letterpress tools for debossing titles on covers and spines, the foil-stamping press that gilds those words. But Jeff is a Renaissance man. And not just because he spends seven weekends a year as “Master Loose Leaf,” the Minnesota Renaissance Festival’s resident bookbinder. He’s a versatile, can-do guy. Jeff taught himself the technical skills and used his native aesthetic sense, soon finding new customers in this special market. Through the 1990s, as demand for bound periodicals dropped thanks to digitizing, a new customer emerged: the self-published author or poet who arranges for a small print run, then needs the books bound and hand-finished. And there's always a market for some classic items, like hand-bound bibles.

A visitor glancing into the E&L Bindery’s work area sees a pleasant mishmash of historical periods, from medieval to laptop, but the general tone is Dickensian. (In fact, Dickens is the name of one of the bindery cats; his sister is Petunia.) A hand-cranked screw press is neighbor to a Ludlow hot-lead casting system. Ancient stitching machines look like they’ll last forever, and so does the Airstream-era page trimmer. For a look around the shop, see the 3-minute "Minnesota Niche" video.

Near the entrance, a shelf holds a few samples of items Jeff makes when he has the time: gorgeous blank journals bound with hand-marbled paper ($30–$50 range, above), along with those tempting triangle books ($5, right). Stop by during business hours on a weekday, and you might be lucky enough to score one. The E&L Bindery building is also home to other artists: the "Yeah, Maybe" group, Axis Pottery, Davie Duke, and stonecarver Peter Morales. Make sure you visit during the next Art Crawl.

Julie James