JRR Bookworks is a small (tiny) book bindery located in Washington State. The letters stand for my name, Joseph R.Rose. I tried to find business name with some other idea and finally gave up to use just my initials. I bind books by hand. That means I take a piece of leather, cut it, pare it down, glue it to hand cut boards and attach this to the pages. It is an old world kind of endeavor. If you want to know a little bit about what got me into this game you can read below. If you would rather skip the “blah blah” about me, just send me an email at email@example.com and we can discuss you project.
An Esoteric Life Bound With Binding
I have been binding books for about a decade but my interest and skill-building, especially in my particular niche, began long before that. My experiences and interest, going back to when I was in my early teens all seem to add up to my job in one way or another. As I wrote above, they are “bound” together. (Hardy-har-har aren’t I clever?) Still, this all really did start a long time ago.
Growing up in the “wilds” of Northern Wisconsin I was surrounded by people who lived much closer to nature than I have found in other places. We hunted, trapped, fished, made maple syrup and took firewood from our land. With that lifestyle came a “do it yourself” attitude when it came to making what one needed. Key figures in my upbringing shared their knowledge of leather working, knife and weapon making, and other craft skills. Not only were certain family members important in this development but friends like “Redbone Buffalo” Chuck Rogers (pictured on pp. 152-153 of “Weird Wisconsin” Godfrey & Hendricks 2005) showed me how to hand-dye leather and not be afraid to simply create or live on your own terms. It took me more time than I had with these people to understand the value of their examples but I count it as incredibly important in my attitude toward what I do now.
In high school I dabbled in jewelry making, leather working, made my own ouija board and other occult paraphernalia, as well as developed an insatiable desire to collect books. On a school trip from my home town in Wisconsin to New Orleans I entered a French Quarter bookstore and found the one book that truly started my esoteric collection, “Liber Al Vel Legis”. I chose that book out of the floor to ceiling over stocked shelves for no reason other than it seems to stick out to me. I had no idea who Aleister Crowley was or what that book meant to him or the modern occult world. Perhaps in this I see a hidden hand directing my steps. There is an undeciphered coded page in that book. After returning home I recall scrawling the coded page on a chalk board in our basement in an attempt to decode Crowley’s received message. That books was a gateway into the wide world of modern esoterica. I was fascinated by secret societies enough to start my own sometime in 1990. We researched local superstitions and even worked with a local historian to publish a short article, investigated hauntings (long before anything like that had been on television) and held to a code and symbolic structure agreed upon by the members. Although it was a short lived, and certainly a juvenile vision of what it could have been, that society made me feel as if I were attempting to continue what I had left-off on in a previous incarnation.
I attended the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire where I took a degree in Comparative Studies in Religion with a minor in History. At that time (the early 1990’s) one could not have a degree in “Occult Studies” so I used Religious Studies and History to cover my interest in studying the occult, metaphysical and paranormal world. I turned every assignment I could into something dealing with Kabbalah, mysticism, and any other theme I was researching in private. At one point in order to make money I worked for the University Library. I recall meeting the Archivist and discussing rare books which made me entertain taking a degree in Archival studies but like so many college students I was not sure what I wanted to do. That interest in archival work stayed with me and I began finding and adding books on that topic to my own collection. I also considered becoming a professor then but graduated and went into the world “undecided”.
While in college I was the youngest person to be made a Mason in the history of my Masonic lodge and completed the second degree there… youth however has its pitfalls and I was pulled away only to complete my Blue Lodge Degrees in another state.
After moving around quite a bit I was fortunate to follow my spouse to Maine. Again fate seems to have been a factor in my life because, although her career was the impetus for our relocation, the publisher of practically every book on my shelf was located just 30 minutes south of where we were living. Either out of foolish innocence or some deeper draw I approached and was hired at America’s oldest occult bookstore, Weiser Antiquarian Books. It was there that I first became interested in binding books. When the Director needed an excessively rare $40,000.00 set of the works of Jacob Boehme rebound due to the condition of the bindings she sent them off to a local binder. They came back expertly bound in a chocolate brown and royal blue hand-marbled paper. Although we didn’t like the color combination and had to have them sent out again the experience was an odd bit of synchronicity. So much of what I had been, done and was learning at that time all came to a unified focus in the realization that one could bind a book in leather by hand. It stuck with me and brought a lifetime of interests and skills together.
Not only did this one seemingly insignificant experience initiate my current vocation but working there was a crash course in the esoteric world. I say “crash course”, because I was only working for Weiser Antiquarian books for about a year when fate drew us away again and I moved. Even so, I devoured every experience in that year with delight. In that time I met many eminent researches and authors in occult fields. I doubt those people recall me now but I certainly retain the imprint of that time like a stamped coin.
Once I left Weiser A. B. I sold books on my own in Chicago, Indiana, and Minnesota and added to my own collection…all the while building my skill in binding. I was asked by amateur filmmakers in my family to create a prop, a grimoire, for a film they were working on. I did so and was again enflamed to work to make binding my profession. Finally while living in Minnesota I officially began binding books for other people. I began with an 1861 Lord Wheaton Bible. For that project I created my own acid etch brass stamping plates, recreated the brass clasps , restored the paper, and rebuilt the binding. That one project involved more than almost every other one that has come after it. It was truly an trial by fire and I succeeded in properly bringing that book back to what it looked like when it had been originally bound.
I attending the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite Valley of Minneapolis and received my 32* in 2010. I worked with the Scottish Rite Valley to bind their minutes and several important Masonic Documents from various Masonic Lodges. While at the Scottish Rite building I was introduced tho their book collection. That collection literally brought me to the point of tears. I was in my mid thirties and had been looking for books like that for over 20 years. There they were, thousands of them like a Sultan’s treasure. That was one of the most spectacular collection of esoterica I had ever seen and my time with those books was deeply personal and moving.
I worked hard to connect with renowned binders, paper marbles, and other artisans during this time. I learned all I could from them. The most revelatory lesson however was that; regardless of their background and knowledge of binding practically all of the people I spoke with were, like me, to a large degree self-taught. Because there are so few actual Maters left binding books, and even less willing or able to teach, binding is primarily a self-taught hobby or profession in the U.S.. I feared my lack of formal training was limiting until one of the most highly lauded binders of the day told me he was self taught as well. I realized then that we were not living in the 1800’s and that many of the rules of what was “acceptable” no longer applied. One could experiment with materials, techniques, and styles endlessly in order to find the “look” that was appropriate. As long as the groundwork of techniques were in place the rest was nuance on the way toward perfection.
While living in Minnesota I contacted Hollywood directors and props people, authors, clients from every walk of life, crafts people, artisans, binders, and so many more all in a seemingly mad dash to fill my head with as much knowledge and experience as I could. One local author, Scott Wolter, became quite involved in my life after I called him to offer my services. He in turn shared his interests and this began a several year friendship resulting with me accompanying him on two episodes of his show America Unearthed. In this I was able to use my college education in Religious Studies and the occult areas of History that I had delved into. I was able to momentary investigate my desire to be a teacher. I truly believed my 15 seconds of fame might intrigue a person, like I had been, and get them to investigate the unexplored reaches of history. Perhaps I did…. but I doubt it. My response to the final product was not a positive one however, things change between what is actually said and what gets shown on t.v.. Those few seconds cannot show context or the 45 minutes of conversation that was also originally there. This greatly damaged my friendship with Scott. I had to face up to the fact that my opportunity to be a teacher had either passed or needed much more actual work and that no television show could replace a PH.D. program. I also had to realize that mixing business and friendship was a slipper slope. It was all intensely humbling. That experience taught me an immense amount what people believe, how they change facts either wittingly or not to make their belief’s cohesive, and our current growing weakness to believe what we see on a screen as truth. Perhaps that was the “lesson” I had to learn there and that is why fate called again and we decided to move. Fate brought my small family to Washington State.
Now, working in a small room with antique maps and Masonic prints covering the walls, equipment stacked practically floor to ceiling, and shelves overflowing with mixed dyes, artist tools, and text blocks waiting to be bound I while away the hours. I do not seek the advice of too many unless I truly need it and embrace the cloak of anonymity with relish. I do not want to be “known”. I am not an expert or master. I am a seeker and perpetual student. Funny, (me not wanting to be “known”) considering I am writing this….but putting down a simple set of truths for the benefit of a client is what this is all about. Its like getting to know a private instructor before leaving your kids with them. I want my clients to feel they have some sense of who I am so they can converse with me “on the level”. I do not however desire the attention of would be t.v. producers or truth makers. I accept knowing people, and being known by them. I do not want to be “known” beyond that however. I don’t need a reputation as the ____…other than the guy who does a really good job.
I look out on a profile of snow capped Mt. Baker and play old movies or radio shows to fill the silence as I work. Like my friend Redbone Buffalo, who is beyond the grip of this world now, I have weird objects like a hand carved Peruvian statues and a Buddhist shrine carving poking out from behind some of the equipment. Like Weiser Antiquarian Books I have a barrister bookcase filled with occult tomes and my alchemical work sitting in the corner always available for a good rifling as a way to gain inspiration. I have a Knights Templar map purchased by me at Reims cathedral below my 1860’s Masonic print prominently displayed. These remind me of Scott Wolter and the sting of humility of having been on television and what happens when you sign away your likeness and words to someone else. All these people, and many more that have gone unmentioned, have brought me to my current station. I cannot separate them and my interests from what makes me a binder. A thread from Fate’s loom can be lifted from the ground at my feet and followed backward in time. Its luminous gossamer strands lay over so many events and people in my past that when viewed in the continuity of narrative they tell the story of who I am as a person and a binder. For me the esoteric is directly bound to this narrative and that to my interest in binding books.