“This practice is actually very stressful and physical,” Rötzscher admits. “People don’t realize it, but books are heavy. When you work with them for this long, you really feel it. I am tired in the evenings … It’s easier if you really love it. I’m lucky to be in a position where I like what I do.”
Shreds of yellowed paper fall to the floor as Rötzscher works. He stops briefly every few minutes to scoop the confetti into a trash bin or to gather a thought as he recounts his career as a bookbinder, a time that has defined over 40 years of his life.
Rötzscher began bookbinding in Leipzig, Germany, with an apprenticeship at Schürer Bookbindery in 1972. Asked what spurred him to pursue the vocation, he says simply, “I always liked books, and I always liked working with my hands.” After this two-year training, he followed a trail of opportunities, moving first to Frankfurt and then to Munich, Bavaria. After eight years of work and study, he graduated in 1980 with two master's degrees. Later that year he moved to San Francisco, eventually opening his own bindery in 1987.
“San Francisco was good business, but stressful. The type of work was very precise and high-end. I thought, I can’t do this anymore.”
After almost a decade, he decided to escape the bustle of the city and move with his wife at the time and their two kids across the bay, buying Pettingell in Berkeley in 1994. “Now it’s meditative and quiet, and I can be as stressed as I want.”
When asked what he might have become if he hadn’t pursued the craft of bookbinding, he ponders for a long moment. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine. Maybe a detective. Maybe it’s a romantic notion because I like mystery novels.” After another beat, he continues, “I think it’s good if you don’t know what you would have done. I have no regrets. It’s been a good life.”
The phone rings and he lets the machine take it. “My proudest moment is that I could send my kids through college without going into debt. It was not easy, but I made it.”
During my two-hour visit to the book bindery, one customer swings by with a stack of prayer books that need rebinding.
“Business is harder these days,” admits Rötzscher. “For example, years ago, around graduation time, I was busy with dissertation theses. These days that is gone. But other things opened up, like self-publishing and memoirs. You know, it’s just changing. We have to adapt.”
Rötzscher currently spends his days working on these self-published books, along with family heirlooms, dictionaries, novels and manuscripts.
Additionally, as a way to fill in spare hours and to nurture his creativity, Rötzscher has recently released a line of hand-made journals, called the Florentine Collection (inspired by his love for the ancient Italian city). Bound in different covers, including sheepskin, suede and patterned paper, and stamped with various golden emblems, they reflect his simple yet elegant aesthetic.
“These days we are so disengaged. When you buy something, you don’t know who made it. You know it’s made in China or Germany, but the human connection is gone. When you look at something like this” — Rötzscher gestures to a stack of freshly-glued Florentine books patiently serving their time in the book press — “you can say it’s made by a craftsman. You can really say it’s handmade.”
And Rötzscher believes there is life yet in the bookbinding craft.
“I definitely think there’s a future in bookbinding. I wouldn’t say it’s a lost art, it just depends on what you want to do,” says Rötzscher.
He goes on to explain how the Bay Area has actually seen an increase in bookbinding in recent years, a change from the two or three that existed when he first came to America. To his knowledge, there are now six commercial bookbinderies, and many more independent binders who operate under the radar from their homes as a part-time job or a hobby. This produces some competition for him but, because most bookbinders specialize in a particular aspect of the craft, he doesn’t mind.
“I specialize in old books,” he says, “because no one wants to do it. It’s not sexy, and there’s no money in it.” He pulls out a large family Bible that he has recently fixed, gently unwrapping it from a cocoon of gauze. The cover is made of textured maroon leather, and it’s obvious that it carries extensive history. He points out places where the leather had worn away so much that he’d had to replace it, recreating the signature patterns and creases.
Toward the end of my afternoon at Pettingell, Rötzscher turns to me and imparts a piece of wisdom: “When you start something you have no idea where you’ll end up. That’s the beauty of life.”
Pettingell Book Bindery is at 2181 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, 94704. Tel: 510-845-3653. Connect with the business on Facebook and on Pinterest.
Melati Citrawireja, a development studies undergraduate at UC Berkeley, is currently pursuing a career in visual journalism. She was a summer 2015 photo intern at Berkeleyside. More of her work can be found online at Melati Photography.