Master bookbinder brings craft from Italy

By Alyssa Griffith
Carrboro Commons Editor

Master bookbinder Susan Soleil lives life according to her own philosophies. Soleil believes every choice we make is either a branch or a twig on the tree of life, and we are given these choices and opportunities to water, maintain and grow in order to strengthen our lives.

Master bookbinder Susan Soleil binds and restores books in Carrboro. The craftsman moved to the town after falling in love with the creative feel of the community. (Photo courtesy of Susan Soleil)

“Life is a long series of ‘what ifs,’ and we make thousands of choices every day that lead us in the direction we’re supposed to go,” Soleil said. “I don’t think you really even know what your biggest decisions are until after you’ve already made them.”

Soleil is a nationally respected book restorer who moved her hand bookbinding business from Rochester, N.Y., to Carrboro in the summer of 2007. Soleil has moved around a lot, but she said her lifestyle choices and philosophies convinced her to move to Carrboro, a place she thought she could call home. Soleil was also fascinated with the community’s relentless devotion to creativity and the arts.

“But Carrboro isn’t just about being creative,” Soleil said. “The people in this community want to have a positive impact on nature and on the other people around them. Someone who makes a mortgage payment, cleans up a landscape or takes care of a child should be celebrated too.”

Carrboro is a far distance from Soleil’s first bookbinding apprenticeship in Florence, Italy, in the 1970s. It was in Italy, under the guidance of a world-renowned master bookbinder, that she fell in love with her future trade.

To get by financially at the time, Soleil taught speech therapy in fluent Italian at the medical school of the University of Florence.

“Teaching provided me with a living while learning something new,” Soleil said.

For three years Soleil held onto her apprentice job by what she calls learning to be useful without being in the way in the workshop.

“I would do all the cleanup work, but as I would do that, my teacher would tell me to come watch her,” Soleil said. “She gave me simple tasks at first, but eventually I got my hands on books that had been rescued from the 1966 flood of the River Arno in Florence.”

Sewing the pages of the book is the first thing the apprentice learns in the bookbinding trade. According to Soleil, once one masters sewing, one can learn the more complicated aspects of bookbinding.

The Carrboro Century Center held a basic bookbinding question-and-answer session on March 10 featuring Soleil. Participants were invited to bring any books in need of restoration or repair for evaluation. Soleil hopes to host similar programs in the future to educate people about the intricacies of hand bookbinding.

“When many people think of art, they think of it as some kind of imaginative idea with a definite use of execution,” Soleil said. “But they may or may not be thinking of all the decisions that the craftsman makes with the material. That’s the difference between a person who does arts and crafts and a master craftsman who practices a trade.”

Soleil’s teacher taught her to question the materials; for example, why one uses a certain type of leather or thread rather than another. Her master also taught Soleil how to match the needs of the books, both aesthetically and physically.

Several categories of books come into Soleil’s shop, located at 304 W. Weaver St., to be repaired or restored. Soleil says she is an expert in the repair and restoration of Bibles and treasured family heirlooms.

“The books that people bring to me are books that mean something to them,” Soleil said. “They may be of family significance, like a Bible that has come through one or more generations with a set of memories, or maybe somebody’s father’s or grandfather’s yearbook from World War II or mom’s cookbook with splashes of molasses on its pages.”

In addition to restoring older books, Soleil creates new ones. Her specialty is a handcrafted journal, which she makes out of recycled material and leather to conserve resources.

“I use the best 17th century technology to make my books, but I market using the best 21st century technology,” Soleil said.

Soleil likes to think that her workshop resembles a Florentine book and paper store. A shelf adorned with mementos and knickknacks from around the world surrounds the entire room, and every drawer in her studio is full of papers and documents from her travels.

“I want everyone who comes into my shop to feel welcome,” Soleil said. “I want them to feel like they are a part of the creative process. I want books to go directly into people’s hands, and I believe very strongly that our lives are enhanced by the beauty and quality of the objects we use in our daily life.”

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