Getting lost in the pages of a good book is easy. Making that book is a whole other story.

Bookbinding, the act of folding, sewing and securing pages together, dates back 2,000 years to a time when palm leaves were bound together with twine. Today, trained artisans and devoted DIY-ers are keeping this labor-intensive craft alive, especially in the Bay Area, which has one of the largest and most dynamic bookbinding scenes in the world.

There’s the San Francisco Center for the Book on Potrero Hill, a hub for bookbinding classes and exhibitions of the book as an art form, and which is celebrating its 25th year. There’s the American Bookbinders Museum, which opened in San Francisco’s SoMa District in 2015 to preserve and promote the art and history of handbound books. It’s the only museum of its kind in North America.

Joining them is CODEX Foundation, which takes its name from the ancestor of the modern book. Since 2007, the organization has held one of the world’s largest biennial book fairs and symposiums, bringing together fine press printers and book artists in Richmond. And there’s Arion Press, which traces its origins back to 1919. Today, it publishes limited-edition, hand-printed books that are displayed in the British Library and the Getty Center and sought out by collectors around the world.

Chad Johnson, studio director and resident instructor of the  San Francisco Center for the Book, credits San Francisco’s rich history in printing as the foundation for today’s ever-evolving bookbinding culture.

“As we move further into the digital age, there is almost a stronger interest in the ways of analog and the phenomenon of making something with your hands,” says Johnson, as he tinkers with the crank of a heavy, cast-iron job backer, a piece of equipment used to create the shoulder on the side of a book-to-be.

Johnson, who holds a master of fine arts degree in book arts and printmaking, has taught here for the last 20 years. But over the last five or six years, he’s seen a rising interest in bookbinding, which he says grew out of the letterpress printing craze. SFCB classes began selling out, and they have become especially popular during the pandemic — both in-person and in online workshops — when people were looking for a quiet and meditative escape from their screens.

“Let’s just say, (bookbinding) is not fading the way you think it would,” he says.

Hardly. Since the center’s inception, thousands of students have passed through the 7,000 square-foot space, which has its own bindery. They come to learn a particular type of stitching or binding or for a weeklong intensive on the entire bookbinding process.

Bookbinding classes, like this one on Oct. 9 at the San Francisco Center for the Book, have surged in popularity during the pandemic. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

“Most of our students are enthusiasts who love books and just want to learn to make something,” Johnson says. “Others go on to get a formal education and become book artists, book conservators and formal bookbinders.”

They can do all of that in the Bay Area, which has several academic hubs for book art including a comprehensive program at Mills College and library and book preservation departments at UC Berkeley and Stanford University.

Bookbinding is a subset of the book arts, a category that includes letterpress printing, paper making and other elements that go into the creation of a book. Artists’ books are unique artworks that take a book’s form, but interpret it in artistic or even sculptural ways.

Julie Chen, who has been a book artist for 30 years, directs the Mills Book Art program. While the school’s undergraduate program focuses on the history, study and creation of various types of bound books — folded paper sewn together with linen thread, glued, shaped, covered and decorated — the MFA curriculum is centered around the book as a medium for artistic expression.

For an idea of the latter, look at Chen’s books, which are more like interactive structures. Her 2014 “Chrysalis,” a faceted oloid held together with magnets and housed in a box, is about the transformative nature of grief. And “Half-Century,” which Chen created in 2018 and presents in a box with a magnetic closure, fans out to a width of more than 14 feet, revealing a timeline illustrating significant life events.

“Half-Century,” an artist’s book by Julie Chen, unfurls to 14-plus feet and is about the passage of time. (Flying Fish Press)

“My focus is on how to use the material book and the structure of the book to create an immersive experience for the reader,” Chen says. “In theater, you’re watching the performance. With this, the book is a self-performative object. But you as the reader are also playing a part.”

East Bay book artist and Mill College instructor Julie Chen displays her fold-out “Chrysalis.”

E. Bond, an Alameda book artist and bookbinder who teaches classes on, makes hand-sewn, one-of-a-kind journals and sculptural books. She is also drawn to unconventional structures and how they inform sequence.

“Iteration,” her 2015 Mills College graduate thesis, is a series of seven vertical hanging scrolls about the survivalism of California’s ancient redwoods and their relationship to humans and time.

“What’s older than a redwood?” says Bond, whose work appears in “500 Handmade Books: Inspiring Interpretations of a Timeless Form” and “1,000 Artists’ Books: Exploring the Book as Art.” “I had to go back to the ancient pre-book form.”

She uses ancient binding techniques, as well. In one scroll, Bond uses dragonscale binding, a Chinese technique dating back to the Tang Dynasty. A dragon scale-bound book is still a scroll, but it contains pages that are pasted in by their edges. This effect, which allows for more stories to occur within the scroll, has a tree bark effect, Bond says. It helps the “reader” experience the trees and words in a nonlinear way and perhaps grasp just how long these beings have been around.

“Bookbinding allows me to control the entire thought,” she says. “Because of the freedom book art allows, I can take historical forms and think of ways they could evolve if we wanted them to.”

Learn more

You can find examples of bookbinding and book art at several libraries in the Bay Area, including on the sixth floor of the San Francisco Main Library at 100 Larkin St., in addition to the university libraries at UC Berkeley and Mills College. Here are more possibilities:

San Francisco Center for the Book: Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and noon to 4 p.m. on weekends at 375 Rhode Island St. in San Francisco. Anyone can take classes at SFCB, which offers 300 workshops a year on topics ranging from accordion book structures ($185) and letterpress holiday cards ($70) to Bookbinding Core 1-4 ($850);

American Bookbinders Museum: Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday at 355 Clementina St. in San Francisco. A new exhibit, “Standard | Deluxe | Design, Bindings of the Book Club of California,” runs through Feb. 26;

Arion Press, Grabhorn Institute: Public tours of the institute’s “living museum” and educational center at 1802 Hayes St. in San Francisco are still on hold, but you can learn more about the press and order books, hand-bound journals and other items at

CODEX 2022: See the work of more than 450 book artists and vendors representing 30 countries at this biennial international fair and symposium scheduled for April 10-13 at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. Tickets are $10-$40;