The story of Pittsburgh is one of love and hard work, and that certainly extends to the craftspeople and creatives who call this city home. One of these is Vince Curtis, a designer-craftsperson who creates gorgeous journals under his business Vers Libris. His creations range from customary lined journals covered with whimsically patterned fabrics, to leatherbound journals with gilding reminiscent of something you’d find in a loved one’s library. (For those interested in tarot, Vince also makes clamshell boxes that can help protect your divination tools.)
“That’s one of the things I love about Pittsburgh: Everyone has an artsy side gig.”
—My buddy Gil, who (sadly) no longer lives in Pittsburgh.
As a book-lover, aspiring Pittsburgh creative, and happy owner of one of Vince’s Halloween-themed journals, I was excited to speak with him about his history with creating journals by hand, his process, and what motivates him as a craftsperson.
To start: What is your background? How did you get into bookbinding? I imagine the road to doing this is pretty winding.
Winding is a good word indeed. I was more interested in bands and music after graduating from [the University of Pittsburgh] with a BA in English and a studio arts minor, so I spent the early and mid-1980s in Real Enemy, White Wreckage, and Half Life. At one point when I was in Half Life, I had this sudden desire to start making jewelry, and that led me into the world of the designer-craftsman. I had a booth at the Shadyside Arts Festival for several years in a row before I became a full-time kungfu teacher. It wasn’t until six years ago, after various life changes, that I happened onto a bookbinding video on YouTube, and in the space of a few weeks, completely dove into it. It’s become a rather big portion of my life since.
How did you get into learning the basics? What drew you to this work?
Having been away from [the] applied arts for a few years, I saw the chance to work with materials, colors, and designs again as I went deeper into types of bindings and techniques; because as someone who has a natural desire to make things, I have to get my hands into stuff. The first journals I made were solely on my own, and while they weren’t turning out too bad, they lacked consistency. After a few workshops at a craft school in Boston, my quality of work improved dramatically and drove me deeper into researching different kinds of leather and paper. As I read classic books on the subject of binding, I thought it would be easy enough to make some of the tools, which I did (because of course I did). One day, out of nowhere, a binder/restorationist got in touch with me via the web after I posted a short video featuring a leather paring knife I made, and gave me many useful corrections and bits of help, which only fed my intensity.
What are some of the unique rewards and challenges that come with the territory?
The biggest challenge is simply getting a book to open and close right, and that requires patience and consistency, things I had plenty of time to learn in the martial arts. Making something that another person finds attractive enough to want to own, or making a custom journal for someone is the highest form of reward, even more so [than] being satisfied with my own work (which I often am not). I have made several journals for customers, for example, who were dealing with the death or imminent death of someone in their lives and wanted to record moments spent together with someone. That’s involvement on a pretty deep level, I think.
For the casual browser, what are the differences between the journals you make? How long would you say a single journal takes you to make? Do you have a particular favorite kind?
I make several styles ranging from single-section notebooks to more elaborate leather bindings with gold decoration. They differ not only in appearance, but in the time and amount of work required. A simple notebook can take under an hour, while a more traditional bound journal can take about eight hours spread over two days. The latter is my favorite type to make, as it has a classic look, and the weight and feel of the materials is quite satisfying.
What informs your choices of materials? Is there a specific kind of journal that has proven to be more challenging [to make] over the years?
I’ve found favorite materials after working with various kinds of cloth, leather, paper, paste, glue, and the like over the last few years through workshops, instructor advice, and my own (sometimes failed) experiences. The half-bound (leather spine and corners with paper cover) imitation raised-band binding with [a] decorated spine has been a challenge to make consistently, and decorating a full-leather book is something I’m still working on. There are several difficult bindings I have yet to learn so there’s plenty more ahead, which of course is what drives a craftsperson onward.
Ever since starting this, have you found that your own relationship with physical books/reading has changed?
Since I was old enough to read, I’ve always had books. Since I started this activity, I’ve got stacks of books on all aspects of binding, a few collectible issues, and a modest collection of antiquarian books in my favorite style as influences, so if anything, I’ve got more of something I love (books) and slightly less empty space.
For others looking to start making books by hand, be they journals or traditional books, are there any resources you’d recommend?
There are actually a number of really good videos on the internet, several bindery supply houses that carry books and useful DVDs, and plenty of workshops on a variety of topics. The Guild of Bookworkers has a website that lists some of these, and a number of cities have “centers for the book” where classes are held, so it’s worth it to look around. I am occasionally asked to do a workshop, which is something I would love to do in the future.
For those located in or near Pittsburgh, Vers Libris will be vending at the Pittsburgh Freaky Fair, a spooky fleamarket, on October 6, at SouthSide Works. His journals can also be purchased from his Etsy Shop—https://www.etsy.com/shop/verslibris.