An interview with Alfred Harris

On 28 November 2014, Rhiannon Daniels (Lecturer in Italian) visited Alfred Harris bookbinders and talked to bookbinder Nigel Tasker and his apprentice Ruth Cole. Alfred Harris has been a bookbinding company since 1860. In the 1980s Nigel was running his own commercial print company in Bristol (Electro Print) and was offered first refusal when the binders was put up for sale. Nigel bought the business, took on its staff and equipment, and moved Alfred Tasker from its premises in St Pauls to its current address, close to the University on Kingsdown Parade.

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In August 2014 Ruth Cole started working with Nigel at Alfred Harris. Ruth studied for a degree in Fine Art at what was then Cheltenham & Glos. Arts College (now University of Gloucester) and then for an MA at Birkbeck College. While in London she worked as a Registrar and later as Prints and Drawings Specialist at Tate Britain (with the Turner Bequest, Historic British Art of paper & the Contemporary Print Collection – still housed at Millbank and incidentally, available to view by appointment) for over five years before moving to Bristol in 2004. She is a member of the Jamaica Street Artists’ Collective and has a studio in Stokes Croft where she makes highly figurative still-life drawings in graphite and charcoal.

Nigel showed me around this amazing old building which is slowly being cleared of surplus equipment and decades of supplies as he prepares for retirement and the binders moves premises. If you want to get hold of any bookbinding tools, now is the time to go along and see what they have for sale!

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Alfred Harris will continue on new premises; see the website for details of location and opening hours: http://www.alfredharris.net/

The following is an interview conducted over email with both Nigel and Ruth.

What’s a typical working day for you?

Ruth: Our opening hours are more irregular now that Nigel is semi-retired. We’re open 4 days a week (closed on Mondays) from 9.00-16:00 as a rule, but it does largely depend on the amount of work we have at any one time.

Every customer that places an order is allocated a job number and a worksheet. Their contact details are noted down on the worksheet along with instructions or details of the task, i.e. repair to spine. Nigel must see the book before he can cost for it. As a general rule, customer orders are worked through as they come in but where a job is urgent (for example, dissertations with a pending hand-in date) they will be given priority.

We use the worksheets to record the time it takes us to complete a job. We will also attach samples of the materials that have been used for future reference. This information can be useful if we are asked to repeat the task, for example if we re-cover the volume again at any future stage. Worksheets are archived for up to two years.

What are the aspects that you enjoy most and least about your job?

Nigel: the most enjoyable part is taking something broken and dishevelled and restoring it to life without causing ‘pollution’. Some of the most straightforward, low-cost forms of binding like ‘wire and comb’ require little in the way of skill and it’s quite repetitive work.

How has your job changed over the time you have worked as a bookbinder?

Nigel: as the owner of Alfred Harris, a lot of my time in the past has been largely taken up with administrative tasks. It was only after my staff retired that I had the opportunity to get much more involved with the practical side of the business. More generally, commercial binding has changed enormously with the introduction of high speed, glue bound paperbacks, but small-scale and artisan binders still largely adhere to traditional methods.

What are the challenges facing your profession in 2014?

Ruth: inevitably, the rise and rise of electronic formats has impacted sales. Conversely, though, eBooks and the development of other digital interfaces reawaken an enthusiasm for hardcopy, which in turn may well bolster the niche market for fine bindings. There are signs that this is already happening.

Is there anything about the history of Bristol which makes your job particularly relevant or interesting?

Ruth: there are a number of independent publishers in this area. I hope that as a free-lance binder, I’ll be able to establish working partnerships with them going forward. The current premises of Alfred Harris in Kingsdown was purpose-built as a co-op store in 1905; Nigel is only its second owner.

What kinds of books do you enjoy reading in your personal life?

Nigel: non-fiction, particularly astronomy.

Ruth: I prefer fiction. I love the classics (Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, Woolf etc.). I also enjoy poetry.

What’s the first book you remember?

Nigel: Barbar the Elephant

Ruth: I restored one of Nigel’s ‘well-thumbed’ childhood copies recently.

Ruth: I remember an illustrated paperback of Peter Pan in the spare room at my Grandparents. It wasn’t anything special in that it would have been fairly inexpensively mass-produced but it had a gold cover & lovely colour illustrations inside.

What’s your favourite book (object, rather than the text)?

Nigel: it’s a hardback edition of Sidney Smith’s complete works, published around 1860, with its original binding – half-bound leather with cloth sides.

Do you do any of the following: write in books, turn down the pages as bookmarks, crack the spine, leave books lying face down? What your views on the care of books vs the use of books?

Ruth: Nigel takes better care of his books than I do. He doesn’t make notes in the margins (I do) and never turns down the pages or leaves them face down (I don’t either).

How do you define a book?

Ruth: Nigel & I agree that it’s the contents that really define a book: the text can be totally reformatted but its informational value remains. This is not, however, to deny that the text alone is not enhanced by the judicious choice of topography, materials, and binding design.

What are your views on ebooks?

Nigel: I occasionally use ebooks – when I’m on a coach journey, for instance, but I would never use an ebook at home.

Ruth: I don’t have an ebook but this is not because I take issue with them. I can see the advantages; electronic readers are more readily searchable and convenient. Moreover, increased access to any form of reading material has to be a good thing.

As someone who very much sees paper as a precious resource, generally speaking I favour paper-free formats but as we all know, technology generates an enormous amount of waste (plastics and heavy metals etc.) which undermines the environmental credentials of ebooks.

I tend to read in the evenings when I’m already tired. I find reading from screens quite trying on the eyes.

Most of my books are mass-produced paperbacks. Ironically, their tight spines and narrow margins conspire to make actually reading them a bit of a battle so I can’t get all misty eyed; I don’t nurse any special feelings for them and I’m not nostalgic about books generally. I simply enjoy the materiality of books and I find there’s something satisfying about the simple act of turning pages. The way that digital interfaces are designed suggests I’m not alone in this: it’s telling that, as far as possible, ebooks mimic these attributes to appeal to the marketplace.

What kind of a future do you think books have?

Ruth: I think the more niche sphere of fine binding and small print runs (perhaps in collaboration with independent, local publishers) has a very promising future.

With thanks to both Ruth and Nigel for their warm welcome and their time answering my questions.

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