Hilltop’s father-son duo Beck & Orr are still binding books by hand
To walk in Beck & Orr Binding it’s almost like stepping into a time machine.
Period wrought iron machinery is set up along the perimeter. Photographs of the store’s early days and newspaper clippings line the walls, chronicling the 134-year history of the Columbus company.
The workbenches are filled with annals waiting to be bound. Libraries are overflowing with old works that have never been picked up or paid for.
When you ask Skip Bowman, 63, what the oldest item in the store is, he cheekily glances at his father, Ron, 86.
“Why are you looking at me? Ron replies.
It’s not just the shop, however, that harkens back to images of a less digital age –– it’s the art of bookbinding itself.
The father-son duo have owned and operated Beck & Orr, located on West Broad Street on the hill, since the 1950s. Although the business had its beginnings in the city centre, the boutique is an integral part of the Westgate area for nearly 40 years.
“As We Did in 1888”
Today, Beck & Orr specializes primarily in graduate student thesis binding, stamping and embossing, and antique book restoration.
Given the laborious nature of bookbinding, Beck & Orr never tried to compete with large-scale bookbinding, even in its heyday. Sure, the store has machines, Ron says, but nothing is automated.
The binding process at Beck & Orr depends on the need for the book, but each project is rooted in tradition.
“We do it like we did in 1888,” Skip said.
Most machines are operated by hand. Skip defines all fonts for manual embossing of finished products. Every process, from sewing the spines to creating the cardboard covers to foil stamping, is done – you guessed it – by hand.
The Binding Process
Binding is a nine-step process, Skip explained.
To begin with, the pages are sewn together and glued. Once dried, the pages are compressed in a support machine, which creates a small edge for the pages to rest in the cover.
A board for the front and back cover should be cut out, and then covered with fabric or leather. Then the material is glued in place and passed through a ringing machine to flatten it. Pads and foil are used to emboss the cover and spine. Finally, the pages are glued to the spine and pressed to secure them to the cover.
Binding old books is a bit more complicated as it involves cutting off the old cover, removing the glue residue and re-sewing the pages before gluing a new binding to the book.
Sometimes they are able to salvage the original cover and incorporate it with a new spine. Most customers want the antique covers even if they’re pretty worn, Ron said, especially with family Bibles and old genealogies.
Ron said Beck & Orr made between £250 and £400 a month, depending on the job, and Skip said it was rare that they didn’t have work to do.
A long wooden table at the front of the shop displays some of their older works. Among them are giant family Bibles – their ornate leather edges cracking with age, some older than the shop itself – waiting to be repaired. Ron said the oldest book they ever restored was a Bible from 1437.
Restoring the Bible can cost someone upwards of $500, but Ron said most people are willing to pay what it takes to restore their family’s Bible.
“You can’t find those kinds of Bibles today,” he said, running his hands over the cover of an aging German Bible from the 1700s.
The bread and butter of the shop these days are binding annals of magazines, board meetings, church bulletins and medical journals for corporations nationwide. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Ron assembled stacks of Highlights for Children, while Skip embossed finished bound copies of Consumer Reports.
But Beck & Orr has also done some high-level work. They glued books for the White House and stamped some certificates for the Vatican. In 1975, they bound 10,000 copies of the former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes’ book, “You Win With People!”
The beginnings of Beck & Orr
The business opened in 1888, near the corner of State Street and Third Street, where the Ohio Theater is located today. Beck & Orr moved to Oak Street and Fifth Street in 1922 –– the shop where the Bowmans would later be introduced to bookbinding.
Ron began an apprenticeship at a city print shop after graduating from Columbus West High School in 1954. He knew nothing about bookbinding, he said, but it sounded pretty interesting and it was a job union. He ran the cutting and folding machines for a few years and often ran pages for Beck & Orr.
Then, in 1959, when Ron was at summer camp with the Ohio National Guard, his wife, Loretta, called him. It was the guys from Beck & Orr, she said. Their printer was dead and they wanted him to come and work there.
Ron joined the crew and even bought half the business when one of the owners died in 1962.
“It felt like a no-brainer,” Ron said.
Beck & Orr employed about 15 unionized workers at the time. Skip spent a lot of time in this store when he was a kid. (Mostly because he was being punished, he said.)
Growing up around bookbinding left a big impression on him, Skip said. He took vocational courses in printing at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center in high school and worked as a pressman at Ohio State University for 20 years before joining his father in the business.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” Skip said.
Things were going well for Beck & Orr until the late 1970s. Ron’s associate took a dream job at the Ohio Supreme Court Printing Office. They also lost a big contract. Printing houses began to close and leave the state, reducing Beck & Orr’s clientele.
Ron laid off his staff, keeping only his nephew, and moved the shop to the south side. Then, in 1983, a freak accident threatened to close Beck & Orr for good when lightning struck the store.
The building was virtually destroyed, along with many of the books inside. Ron wanted to take the insurance money and retire, but Loretta changed her mind. He still had work to do.
Long-time residents of Hilltop began looking for a new store to settle in when a specialist furniture store in West Broad Street announced its closure. The Bowmans and Beck & Orr have been on the hill ever since.
A lot has changed in the industry –– there are fewer book printers thanks to direct printing services, and they no longer offer book folding –– but Ron and Skip are staying busy. Skip officially joined the family business in the 90s after the death of his cousin.
The Bowmans see their work not just as craftsmanship, but as a means of preserving history. And there’s nothing they’d rather do, they said.
“The only place I plan to go after this is if the Lord has me,” Skip said with a laugh.
At its core, Beck & Orr is a family affair.
There is a bulletin board near the waffle machine at the front of the store. Although the painting itself has been full for years, the memories overflow onto the walls, held back by thumbtacks and tape. Decades of family photos, ticket stubs, business cards and “In Loving Memory” booklets adorn the wall.
It’s their life, Skip said – the shop, the craftsmanship and everything they’ve done together since Beck & Orr opened its doors.
Ron says it’s just something to keep him busy these days. But Skip knows his father better than that.
“This stuff,” Skip said, “is his whole life.”
This story is part of Dispatch’s Mobile Newsroom initiative. Visit our reporters at the Hilltop Branch Library of the Columbus Metropolitan Library and read their work at dispatch.com/mobilenewsroomwhere you can also subscribe to The Mobile Newsroom Newsletter.
Sheridan Hendrix is a higher education reporter at the Columbus Dispatch. You can reach her at [email protected] You can follow her on Twitter at @sheridan120. Subscribe to its Mobile Newsroom newsletter here.