Malene Lerager wants you to feel the weight of one of her books in your hands. Only by doing this, you’ll be able to tell the difference between an industrial book and one sewn and bound by hand. She’s convinced. “Somebody has given so much love in this book and you can sort of feel it when you have it in your hands,” she tells me with conviction. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a messy bun.
We’re standing in the front room of Co’libri Bookbindery, a modest, cavernous space at Klosterstræde 16, in Copenhagen’s city center. To enter Co’libri Bookbindery, you have to walk down a set of steps as the workshop is tucked into the basement level. The room is lit by soft fluorescent lights. The heady, musky scent of paper wraps around us. Leather, paper, books, machinery, and tools are strewn everywhere. Malene floats through the clutter, as if she knows exactly where everything is. After sixteen years in this space, you would expect her to. She finds a temporary home for a book she’s been working on to make room for our conversation at her desk.
Throughout our interview, passersby stop to peep through the windows, confused and curious about what’s happening down here in this workshop. Co’libri feels like an artifact. Along this same street are a string of stores, 7115CPH included. Down the block are the big box shops that you find in every major city. Stumbling upon Co’libri Bookbindery feels like stumbling upon a treasure. In a sense, it is. There are only a few book binderies left in Denmark that make books the way Malene does. You could count them all on one hand. Co’libri Bookbindery began in the 1970s, opened by Ole Olsens, a Danish bookbinder who dedicated his life to this craft. Under his tutelage, Malene inherited the same fervent love for bookbinding, and eventually the business itself. We spoke with Malene about the unexpected sharp turn that led her here.
Malene is wearing her favorite pieces from our Signature Collection.
“I had to go more inwards and find out what would be good for me.”
7115: Have you always been interested in becoming a book binder?
Malene: I discovered it by coincidence. I thought I was going to be a physiotherapist. I was only there studying for the first semester and it was not that I didn't like the education or the people there. But I just found out that it was not a good thing for me. I had to go more inwards and find out what would be good for me.
So it took me many years to come around to this hand craft that I didn’t even know existed. I was taking different courses in the old school way of printing and graphic design and also bookbinding courses, and this bookbinding course was immediately something that spoke to me. The tactile feeling, the way you learn from handling materials, taught me somehow and made me want to explore “what can I do with these materials and with my hands”. The course was in the same school where you could get educated [on] printers, media graphics, industrial bookbinding and hand bookbinding. I was the only one though—with 7 industrial bookbinders. When they went to visit big printers in Germany, I was at the Royal Libraries Conservation Department learning from some of our very best bookbinders. But then the hard part was to find an apprenticeship place and I had to go do some courses in Switzerland in a little bookbinding school as well, before somebody here could see that I was really dedicated.
7115: How many years of study did you do in total for book binding?
Malene: It took 3 and a half years to become a hand bookbinder and I was one of the last ones educated here in Denmark. There’s no actual education called hand book binder anymore. You can still be a hand book binder if you find a place to be an apprentice and you make an agreement with the owner. But the actual education with the name hand book binder doesn’t really exist.
7115: So for you, how important is it to have this profession and this craft preserved and continued?
Malene: Continued...that’s actually the question. You keep getting better in your craft and doing it and of course you have to challenge yourself to be better in new ways in the craft. But to continue it, it depends on a lot of things because nowadays you don’t really get so much help from the state, to have an apprenticeship. And for me being in a small workshop, alone, not earning very much, it would be too expensive actually, to have an apprentice. I wouldn’t be able to afford to educate somebody, but of course I feel obligated to hand on what I’ve known and what I’ve learnt so far, to someone someday. But I keep telling myself that Ole, my teacher, was 73 when he taught me. So I have some years.
7115: If we can go back a few steps, I’d love to hear about your apprenticeship. I know you said you sort of fell into this because of your curiosity. Do you remember that particular period of time in your life and how you were feeling?
Malene: I think it was working with it, the sense, the feeling of creating something three dimensional that gave me some sort of joy that I hadn’t experienced. I hadn’t really worked with anything that I could see myself do for more than a year. And suddenly I was doing something and working with something that I could imagine me doing as an old woman as well. This was just such a strong feeling that it just spoke to me. It wasn’t anything that I had to think too much about. It was there suddenly and I just had to pursue it. And I would do anything to get that apprenticeship. So I went to the bank to borrow a lot of money to go to the school in Switzerland because I really really wanted to do this. And I really really wanted to do an apprenticeship here [at Colibri]. I wanted to go through all of the subjects of hand bookbinding. I wanted to work with leather. I wanted to do gold embossment. I wanted to work with gold etching, and marbling papers, and all the things that you could think of. All the aspects of the hand craft. I knew that this was something Ole was capable of teaching.
7115: How was it learning under Ole?
Malene: The special thing was that Ole and I, we just had the greatest chemistry. Whenever I came by and showed him what I’ve done at school, we just had a lovely chemistry and the same humour, even though there was a big age difference. So I think he could also see me here at the workshop with him because of my personality. I think he could see that I did have hands well put on and it looked okay, but I know now—with what I know about hand bookbinding—that I had a long way to go.
7115: When did you take over the bindery from Ole?
Malene: It was only half a year after I finished learning as a hand book binder because he had gotten very ill. He had cancer and was sick for a couple of years in the last period of my apprenticeship. After I was here for a week, he was already talking about the big party we were gonna throw when I would take over one day. And I was like, “Okay! Let me just learn the craft first.” But then what happened was that he got very ill and the last half year I was working here more or less alone. He was at the hospital most of the time. And then at the end his daughters said, “If you’re gonna take over...you gotta do it now”. So I had maybe ten minutes of thinking it over and then I thought, if I want to work with my craft, I should do it. It was tragic and sad because he was an institution in the street. He knew everybody and he was always standing on the stairs with his cigarette talking with everybody. And his knowledge of the craft for so many years was like a gold mine that just died with him, except for the things he had time to teach me. But what was the positive thing was it was his dream or his vision that I should take over. For some reason he saw something in me. That I was able to take his workshop on in the same spirit as himself.
7115: How did you initially feel when you took over it?
Malene: I felt at home here because I had been here for so many years already. It was natural. I was excited to see if people would continue coming here and have their book bound. And luckily they did.
“it’s not a loss for me because I feel that I go to work everyday as a happy person doing my craft.”
7115: Were there any clear challenges you found when you first started doing this?
Malene: You know, I don’t really remember, but I can tell you being a business woman and doing all the administration and all the money things around the workshop doesn’t interest me at all and I don’t have any flair for it. So I'm just hoping that doing what I love keeps bringing people by. I don’t have a drive for earning money. I need it to survive but it’s not something that drives me forward.
7115: Do you enjoy the pace of your day to day work?
Malene: Yeah. I definitely do. But it’s ambivalent because you can’t just earn some quick money and sometimes you need to. Every task here, almost every task, is a slow process.
7115: What inspires you to keep doing this?
Malene: It’s the work. It’s the process of bringing the book alive that I enjoy so much. The way that I handle the material and make them into something beautiful and functional at the same time that just gives me so much joy. I’ve heard people telling me to maybe buy the notebook insides or something sewn or made already and then put my stamp on. Sell it. Something quicker and cheaper and faster. But I really enjoy folding the papers for the inside of the book. I enjoy cutting the cloth and the material myself. Taking the book apart before sewing them and redoing them. Every process of doing the book is a joy. Just hiring somebody or having somebody doing it cheaper to spare me the time, it wouldn’t be satisfying for me. I wouldn't really enjoy selling this notebook, knowing that somebody just on a machine had glued and folded the inside of the book. I’m too proud of my craft to have somebody doing it, half...sort of. I would feel like I was doing my job, half.
That makes complete sense.
I don’t find any of the tasks of binding a book boring. I really enjoy the diversity. It’s one day taking apart, another day sewing, another day gluing. It’s not only the gold embossing or paring leathers or choosing marble papers and design. It’s the whole process of doing it. It’s as simple as that. I really really enjoy the craft. And of course, I feel at home here. This feels like the right place for me and I think I've always felt that way from the beginning. Though it won’t bring me to Bali on holiday or around the corner in one of the expensive shops to buy clothes, it’s not a loss for me because I feel that I go to work everyday as a happy person doing my craft. A lot of people I know are not very content with their jobs but they do it to earn the money, to pay for their expensive flat and car, and travelling and looking forward to going on holidays or weekends. I really enjoy Monday just as much as Saturday. So that’s important for me.