On a rainy, traffic-snarled afternoon during a Giants home game, Nicholas Yeager rode his motorcycle to San Francisco from Penngrove, near Petaluma, to talk about his passion. In a backpack he carried examples of his art, from a black leather book of his alphabet watercolors to his "butt pilot" -- a tiny, well-worn, handwritten calendar bound in fish skin over oak that he keeps in his back pocket (ostensibly to balance out the wallet in his other pocket when he rides). Yeager makes a slim living creating and repairing books (and teaching others to do so). On the side, he edits Ampersand, the quarterly journal of the Pacific Center for the Book Arts.
In mid-April, when the rain was coming down in sheets and the lightning flashed even in the morning, Coriander Reisbord joined about 50 other book artists to haul her fragile work to Fort Mason for the PCBA's annual Book Arts and Printers' Fair. Like nearly everyone else's in the overheated, crowded conference room, Reisbord's materials were mostly paper-based, making the transfer (involving a lot of plastic sheeting) a bit hectic. But Reisbord was in good spirits at the event, sitting at a table surrounded by information on her own business (called Skeptical Press) and talking excitedly and devotedly about the PCBA, of which she'd been president for two years before passing the baton last September. Like Yeager, she supports herself exclusively through book-related jobs, mostly in conservation but also by selling her work.
Anthony Swanner took up Reisbord's PCBA baton. Between business trips he spoke to me reverently about his fairly recent discovery of such book arts as letterpress printing, box-making, and binding -- and about the thrill he felt the first time someone called him "artist." He doesn't make any money from his own pieces, but he doesn't really intend to (nor does he need to).
These three people come from different parts of the artistic spectrum: Yeager's been tooling leather ("the usual hippie shit") since he was a teenager; Reisbord made her first book after college, in the late '80s; and Swanner, a computer professional for 22 years, fell into the form only four or five years ago. They connect through the PCBA, a nonprofit organization that helps its 400 members move their passion from a casual hobby to a life's work as book artists.
Founded in 1979, the PCBA has been struggling over the last year or so to define itself, especially in relation to the San Francisco Center for the Book, which opened in 1996 and offers classes in all forms of book arts, from calligraphy to papermaking to pulling prints. At one time the PCBA was an "organizational member" of the center -- in fact, the center's Web site, www.sfcb.org, still lists it as such -- but as of last year it's pretty much on its own, and that seems to be working out. After all, the center exists for the public, while the PCBA exists for its members. Once someone has decided to go pro, he turns to the PCBA.
One theme that keeps coming up in conversations with book artists is the idea of finding one's place in the world. Yeager, for example, had had more than 30 jobs by the time he was 21 -- everything from a paper route to dishwashing to stocking a bookstore -- but once he discovered the book arts, he was hooked: He told the teachers of a bookbinding class, "I'll do anything to be around you guys." Similarly, Reisbord was relieved when she found the form, after studying painting: "I felt like this is my home territory. This is my domain. This is where I know what I'm doing better than anyone else knows what I'm doing." Swanner says, "I discovered a way to be myself in the world and to find my place. It's more than just a hobby, more of a calling than a job."
For those who've heard the calling, the PCBA is a sort of church -- a nondenominational church, to be exact. It's all-inclusive, not only for printers or bookbinders, but also for calligraphers and illustrators and people who create funky little letterpress zines and the guy who made the miniature book about ukuleles that I bought for my dad at the Printers' Fair. It's also immensely social: In fact, on the group's Web site (www.pcbaonline.net), the "mission statement" includes a bit about "provid[ing] social activities for the member community." Swanner insists, "I've never found a more open community. Everyone's inspiring, not competitive like in the business world."
That analysis may be a bit optimistic. In every city with a book arts population, there's something of a split between the traditionalists (the folks who think books are made using certain craft techniques) and the modernists (those who think anything can be a book as long as the artist intends it as such). Yeager, who has lived in Austin, New York, and Chicago, among other places, says, "That fight happens everywhere." Even so, there's a lot of overlap between the camps, and as Yeager insists in a follow-up e-mail, "This vital mix allows for some open-ended interchanges that I haven't seen elsewhere."
In a sense, having to redefine itself was good for the PCBA. Reisbord says, "We'd gotten lazy." The organization has been attracting younger participants, planning exhibitions in new spaces (like one in July at the Mechanics' Institute), and designing "nuts and bolts" classes for pros (such as how to pack materials for a show), and it has finally launched a Web site -- after much discussion about whom it was for, the members or the public. Yeager writes, "I think that the Center for the Book was instrumental in this change as it started at a time when there was new interest in the book arts. By taking over classes, having a physical address and creating an infrastructure [the center] allowed the PCBA to step back and reconsider what its mission was going to be." As Reisbord explains that mission, "We're where you go next -- when you've taken all the classes, and now you need to find the people who are doin' it."