I’m not shy about the fact that I’m a journal junkie. In fact I devoted my entire January column as homage to my journals (read it here). Imagine my delight, when I stumbled upon Ex Libris Anonymous, a custom book journal shop where their tagline reads, “We tear up books with our teeth.” That tagline alone had me desperate to learn more. So, on a sunny summer afternoon I packed my kiddo into the backseat and we trekked to their Southeast Portland studio for a hands-on tour of the art of book binding.
Ex Libris Anonymous is the brainchild of Jacob Deatherage, who first began book binding eleven years ago in Seattle, Washington. He would scour garage sales, used book stores and the Goodwill for vintage books. Books that were once loved to shreds by young readers and grannies with glasses. Books like Heidi, The Hardy Boys and The Little Engine that Could. Jacob would save these books (often marked in the margins or highlighted) from the incinerator and give them new life as journals.
The process is surprisingly simple and a complete sensory experience. From the moment we opened the door into the studio the scent of antiquarian books permeated my every pore. It’s like arriving at the mecca for any literary lover. Every spare inch of wall and shelf space is stuffed with classic books. I couldn’t stop myself from running my hands along their grainy spines and leafing through their yellowed pages. At Ex Libris Anonymous this kind of bookish behavior isn’t frowned upon—it’s encouraged. In fact, Jacob’s right-hand binding gal, Feather Swain greeted us and promptly convinced my eight-year-old to jump into one of the four foot high gaylords (huge boxes filled with over 3,000 books). She assured him that treasure hunting through the pile was mandatory.
It didn’t take long before he was digging his way through abandoned copies of Winnie the Pooh and Treasure Island with a wild grin on his face. He recovered a hundred-year-old copy of The Book of Ruins and Feather recruited him to help her bind it. She sliced off the cover and spine like a surgeon. From there she tore out the original book, salvaging selected pages and illustrations to include in the journal. This, she reported, is the most difficult piece of the process for her, because she often gets distracted by the content. Then, she punched holes in the cover and cut acid-free blank paper to fit. Popping in the journal paper, she created three distinct sections by spacing original content in between the pages. Finally she twisted in a spiral binding and just like that the 75-page journal was complete.
Feather and Jacob hand-bind a minimum of sixty journals per day. During the busy holiday season this number can reach over a hundred. Today, Jacob sources his books from a variety of dealers. They refill the gaylords with 500 books each week, all hand-selected by Jacob. He looks for intricate covers, captivating titles or anything eclectic. He also takes special requests. Lately there’s been interest in the classics like Jane Eyre and anything by Jane Austen. These are harder to acquire because they weren’t typically published with nice adornments, but if you ask, Ex Libris Anonymous will give it their best shot. They’ll also create a journal from a book you bring in.
But not to worry, their selection is ginormous. You’d be hard pressed not to find something that strikes your fancy. I scored a reference book titled English Grammar Correct and Effective Use, complete with practice exercises. My favorite part of my new journal is the pencil markings in the margins where whoever previously owned the book must have spent diligent hours fine-tuning their grammar. Now, I’ll use the deliciously musty journal to take notes and sketch out future columns. This is the place where history and art collide. Imagine totally used cookbooks that smell like smoke and are splatted with sauce and highlighted textbooks with drawings. Ex Libris Anonymous breathes new life into used books, literally blending weathered pages with pristine white new ones.
If you’re in the Portland area, visit them at their retail location at 4185 SE Division from 10:00am-6:00pm Tuesday through Friday. Not to worry, you can also visit them online here. They ship anywhere in the United States. All journals retail for $14, or if you bring in your own book to customize $11.