Every book, says Mary Carol Koester, holds two histories. The first fills the pages — the genealogy in an old family Bible, for example, or the tales in a cherished bedtime-story collection. But she’s more fascinated by the second, less obvious knowledge residing in books: the millennia-long tradition of craft that binds the pages together.
At her home studio in Asheville, Azalea Bindery, Koester applies an art with roots in ancient India. By the first century BCE, Hindu and Buddhist scholars were writing religious texts onto palm leaves, numbering the pages, and tying them with twine — the first book binding. Coptic Christians in Egypt took the same approach with papyrus or parchment and added wooden boards to protect their contents, creating the hardcover format that survives today.
Koester’s entrance into the trade of book binding has its own history. “In 1998, I took an early retirement from a 25-year career in forestry, and I knew that I wanted to involve myself in a craft,” she says. After dabbling in other media, she took a friend’s suggestion for a book-binding class at the John C. Campbell Folk School. “I just knew this was very intriguing and had an extensive past,” Koester recalls.
Her forestry experience gave Koester a leg up on learning the craft, and not only due to her familiarity with the materials of paper and wood. A hard-earned grounding in math and chemistry — she laughs as she describes flunking her first calculus class — helped her face technical challenges and arcane materials. “We use a lot of different chemicals in book binding for things like dyes and pastes, and having had a science background, I wasn’t afraid of any of that,” she explains.
Now one of only two book binders in the Southern Highland Craft Guild, Koester recently won the American Craft Week Second Act Contest for excellence in craft as an encore career. She takes pride in the many hands-on skills she’s learned over 18 years of practice: leatherworking, gold lettering, and paper marbling all add to her artistic expression. (She makes and sells journals, notepads, photo albums, keepsake boxes — even funeral urns — and takes on custom projects such as self-published books.)
Above all, Koester recognizes the role her books will play in the histories of those who buy them. “A book needs to function, be beautifully crafted — and hold together a couple of centuries.”
As part of Western North Carolina’s celebration of national American Craft Week, October 6-15, Mary Carol Koester will demonstrate her craft at her home studio Azalea Bindery (1 Brookgreen Place, Asheville) on Tuesday, October 10, 10am-4pm. For more information, call 828-545-6219 or see azaleabindery.com. For the full range of regional American Craft Week events, see americancraftweek.com/wnc.