Bespoke bookshops | Wyvern Bindery
Bookbinding might appear to belong to another era, but the Wyvern Bindery has been keeping the tradition alive in EC1 for almost 25 years – with a little help from Daniel Radcliffe. Andre Paine gets a glimpse behind that striking graffitied metal shutter on Clerkenwell Road …
From the dragon that guards the shop to the books of spells crafted by its team of bookbinders, the Wyvern Bindery is a place where magic happens. Even if you haven’t peered through the window and been entranced by these artisans hammering, folding and cutting in the shop, you’ll almost certainly have seen their magical books, which featured as props in the Harry Potter films.
Their dragon, inspired by the Wyvern name, is also impossible to miss when the shop closes as it’s emblazoned on the shutters. “All the taxi drivers know where we are and it’s a wonderful-looking attraction,” says owner Mark Winstanley, 62, who commissioned the dragon from a Parisian graffiti artist whose partner worked in the bindery.
Bookbinding might otherwise seem like a quaint tradition at a time when touch screens are in everyday use. Yet Wyvern’s team is in demand from Hollywood art directors, trendy restaurants and fashion designers because of their uncommon craftsmanship. It certainly feels like entering another era. Vintage tools for embossing leather hang on the walls above cabinets containing an assortment of sizes and styles of block type for lettering; rolls of leather and cloth are piled on the shelves; and there’s the noisy work of several bookbinders.
They’re mostly young men and women (“my kids as I call them,” says the owner) as well one of Winstanley’s contemporaries, who’s putting the finishing touches to a plush leather volume for an Aston Martin owner. Nicolas Gardner (pictured, second on left) has been working here for 15 years and binding since 1978. Many of his tools pre-date that by decades – the cast iron book press in the front goes back to the 19th century.
“If a Victorian walked into the shop, the only thing that would have changed enormously would be my computer,” says Winstanley. “The presses, the leather, the materials – not much has changed really.”
Of course, his bespoke bindery is now “much more expensive and much more exclusive” compared to 19th century Clerkenwell, where bookbinders and the Farringdon Road booksellers (see The Post, issue 16) were as familiar as coffee shops today. By 1935, when Penguin introduced the mass-produced paperback, handmade book production was destined to become a specialist repair service for bibliophiles and anyone who wanted to commission a beautiful book. Today that includes publishers who work with Wyvern on deluxe presentation copies for their authors. Winstanley becomes modest when it comes to these jobs, but he lets slip that he worked on a unique leather-bound edition of the blockbuster autobiography by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Winstanley, who opened in Clerkenwell Close Workshops in 1990 and moved to the current location in 1996, is used to high-profile clients. As well as producing the volume from which J.K. Rowling read at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, he worked on the Harry Potter films including the opening movie’s Screaming Book. The Daniel Radcliffe connection has been maintained with props for next year’s Frankenstein movie, which was partly filmed in the Farmiloe building in St John Street. The Invisible Woman (out 7 February), starring Ralph Fiennes as Dickens, required Winstanley to produce volumes as they appeared in the mid-19th century.
“For once they wanted ‘new’ books,” he says. “Most of the time when they’re shooting they want something [that appears] old and tatty.” Wyvern’s also produced elegant leather menu covers and wine lists for The Zetter, portfolios for Louboutin shoes and custom-made leather boxes with compartments for architects to show off designs for luxury flats. Bibliophiles are still a key part of the business, though, and Winstanley mentions one 92-year-old collector with obvious affection. “He’s the only client I’ve had who’s taken us out to lunch,” he laughs. ‘If a Victorian walked into the shop, the only thing that would have changed enormously would be my computer’
Winstanley is obviously bookish himself: a framed inscription on the wall reads, “We do not inherit our books from our fathers, we borrow them from our children.” After a spell in the army and travelling in South America, he worked in a second-hand bookshop and then trained in bookbinding at college in Back Hill just minutes from where he ended up in business.
Wyvern’s services range from personalised stationery, student theses and photography portfolios to cloth-bound autobiographies by amateur authors and projects for major clients using the finest Morocco goatskin, gilding and handsewn silk headbands on the spine of the book. A simple thesis might cost £25 while ambitious projects on a quick turnaround can creep into four figures.
Even if you stand outside you’ll get a sense of the bustle, skills and noise of a busy bindery. “There are a lot of people who say, ‘I just don’t want to sit in front of a computer,’” he says of staff who choose this career. There’s also the Clerkenwell Road location as a bonus, and Winstanley points out the view of St Paul’s from St John Street as he heads off to lunch. “I don’t need to retire,” he says of his artisan life. “It’s great fun.”