Visiting the American Bookbinders Museum

On my last visit to San Francisco I had a few hours to kill between my tour of SFMOMA and my flight home. Now, I’ve been to the city several times and have visited most of the “must see” sights. Wanting to do something a bit off the beaten path I looked up places on yelp and came across the American Bookbinders Museum which happened to be just a few blocks from SFMOMA. The 2pm tour was just about to start so I hustled over to check it out.

The museum is located on teeny tiny Clementina Street (between Folsom and Howard) in a beautifully refurbished building. I arrived a few minutes early and browsed the bookstore while waiting for the tour to begin. Since it was a weekday afternoon it was just me and two others which I didn’t mind at all. “The smaller the group the better the tour,” I always say.

The museum is home to several historic instruments and while demonstrating them our guide, Anna, taught us the art of bookbinding. Prior to my visit I’d never really thought about how books were made. Growing up in the age of paperbacks there didn’t seem to be much to the production of mass market books. In the tour I learned it took many, many years to reach this point and the history of bookbinding is filled with tales of skill and innovation.

Before the modern era books were truly works of art from their gilded edges to their embossed covers.To create them required much skill and every aspect of bookbinding was a separate trade. Just think about it…someone makes the pages, someone prints the pages, someone gilds the pages, someone binds them, covers them and so on and so on.

For each of these steps is a new machine, new equipment and an all new set of skills needed. As someone constantly interested in the way things work I found the tour endlessly interesting. My only disappointment was that I had to leave early to catch my plane.

The American Bookbinders Museum is the only one of its kind in North America and a true San Francisco treasure. From its friendly, knowledgeable staff to its impressive collection it’s an out of the ordinary spot that’s definitely worth seeking out.

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