Local bookbinder with over 100,000 customers

Sue Callaghan is a 60-year-old bookbinder. Her bookbinding shop has been in Sheffield for 35 years. Since 1978 she has greeted nearly 103,000 customers.

Sue’s bookbinding shop

In a tiny shop facing Devonshire Green, is Sue Callaghan’s bookbinding business.

The blue signboard saying ‘Est 1978’ and the leather books in the window signify the historic craft inside.

Sue, the owner of this tiny shop, helps people bind collected periodicals and restore damaged books.

She started her training as a bookbinder’s apprentice in southern England. After that she returned to Sheffield, got married and set up her own bookbinding shop.

Stepping into her shop is like entering a mini vintage fair. The two square metre space is crammed with rolls of leather, cloth, paper and various antique objects.

Love of books

Sue first started bookbinding as a hobby, but then made it a business. She said:

“I found I liked books very much, old books, new books, any books, I like to see them and restore them. I never get bored, ever.”

She added that she has never complained about her job, even though she has to stand all day at work.

“I enjoy my work very much because every book is different. Even if they have the same title, it’s a different job for me.”

According to Sue, it ranges from three hours to three weeks to restore a book, since it depends on how much work is needed. If it is a leather-binding book, then there are lots of different processes to go through, like the oldest one Sue has restored, which dates back to 600 years ago.

Masses of customers

In Sue’s shop, the binding tools are hung on the best half of the wall and distributed on the narrow workbench. Next to the workbench is a small wooden counter decorated with hundreds of metal stamps. Hand-made notebooks and cards, ancient ink bottles and quill-pens are in every corner.

It is in this tiny shop where Sue’s expertise has been enhanced over the past 35 years. Her everyday business and steady stream of customers prove it.

Sue binding a book.

Sue has over 50 customers every week and she has never advertised.

“Since I’ve been here for so long, people know me and come to me. They are always very surprised to see how busy I am,” she said with a big smile.

Sue has a habit of counting her customers and has kept records since she welcomed her first in 1978. She writes down the numbers on the invoices and gives them to the clients.

So every person who has a book made or restored in Sue’s shop will know what their rank is in the shop’s history.

“My next customer today will be number 102,075 since 1978,” said Sue pointing at the number on her invoice sheet.

According to the data from National Statistics published on 8th March 2012, the total resident population in Sheffield is 539.800. This means that nearly one out of five people in Sheffield has been Sue’s customer.

Sue explained that she really couldn’t know how many books she has restored so far, but the number will be much bigger than the number of customers, because usually a customer has more than one book to restore or make.

Development of bookbinding

According to Jeremy Norman’s From Cave Painting to the Internet, the craft of bookbinding originated in India, where religious passages were copied on to dried leaves and then the leaves were threaded and numbered.

The Buddhist monks then spread the process to Afghanistan, Iran and China in the first century BC.

During the next one thousand years, the craft of bookbinding experienced various changes. People abandoned traditional rolls and chose codex. After tooling on leathers, people began to make book covers with metal, which was followed by cloth edition binding.

While the material of bookbinding has transformed a lot throughout the centuries, the process hasn’t changed that much. Even now the tools used by Sue are quite similar to those of hundreds of years ago.

Nowadays, in establishments that print new books, binding work is done mechanically. It is said that with the improvement of printing equipment, few people need bookbinding.

However, Sue said:

“There are always people who need bookbinding, because there are always as many people who like books, especially old books, as people who like technology.

“I like technology, but technology can’t restore old books. Bookbinding helps conserve and restore books.”

Standing amongst rolls of leathers, Sue is gluing a damaged book.

“I’m 60 now, but it’s not the time to stop my work. Not yet!” she said.