Acme Bookbinding and Harcourt Bindery

On Friday, our class had the privilege of touring Acme Bookbinding (and the connected Harcourt Bindery). Acme is a family business based in Charlestown, MA, and it’s an impressive operation (you can read about the company’s history here). The president, Paul Parisi, took two hours out of his busy day to show us around, and it was a great experience. We started with a brief look at Harcourt Bindery (owned by Acme; history here), which produces fine bindings, and we briefly met one of the graduates from the first bookbinding class at the North Bennet Street School who was working there. For some of Harcourt’s projects, the customer provides detailed descriptions of what they would like, and for others the bindery has the freedom to do what they wish. The work I saw, on either end of this spectrum of freedom, was stunning. I didn’t take any pictures of the actual workplace (I wish now that I had), but Acme did have a few items out for display that are probably quite in line with what Harcourt still uses—bookbinding tools haven’t changed much over the years.

What looks to me like a standing press, complete with books and brass-edged boards. We've been working with nipping presses at NBSS. This was in the main entryway.

What looks to me like a standing press, complete with books and brass-edged boards. We’ve been working with nipping presses at NBSS. This was in the main entryway.

A larger standing press, I think. These things are made mostly of cast iron, which means they’re extremely heavy.

A larger standing press, I think. These things are made mostly of cast iron, which means they’re extremely heavy.

Finishing and/or laying presses (I'm not sure what the difference is) on the wall, with (partial) books inserted for effect.

Finishing and/or laying presses (I’m not sure what the difference is) on the wall, with (partial) books inserted for effect.

The last picture from the entryway. I'm guessing this is either a job backer or another finishing or laying press, only made of cast iron instead of wood. As above, I'm not yet sure what the functional difference between these three things is.

The last picture from the entryway. I’m guessing this is either a job backer or another finishing or laying press, only made of cast iron instead of wood. As above, I’m not yet sure what the functional difference between these three things is.

Various bookbinding tools, on display in Acme's conference room. This was apparently made as a gift for Paul's father from tools he actually worked with.

Various bookbinding tools, on display in Acme’s conference room. This was apparently made as a gift for Paul’s father from tools he actually worked with.

I could have spent hours watching them work, but unfortunately we headed off very quickly to Acme itself. Acme is a very different sort of operation—rather than having artisans producing hand-crafted books, Acme is, in truth, a factory, and most of what they do seems to be completely automated, allowing them to produce a huge volume of products. They do everything from start to finish—printing, binding, repair (including library binding), and boxing—both in small and large runs. I was impressed to find that Paul seemed to know the name of every employee on the floor (he goofed and corrected himself only once), no small feat for a president in a company of 150 employees. I suppose that sense of care comes with a family-run business, but it was still refreshing to see, given my own work experiences.

I didn’t take any pictures of the Acme floor either, but trust me when I say that the machines were impressive. I especially enjoyed seeing text blocks being glued and covers being made. And considering the volume of books they’re working with, the library binding operation was also quite impressive—take a moment to think about what it takes  to automate, to any serious degree, a process that involves each book being unique. How do you ensure, for instance, that the correct text block gets put in the correct cover with minimal human intervention? Acme has it down to a science, and they offer a number of different options, including something as simple as recasing (i.e., without trimming the spine) or as drastic as creating facsimiles from pages that are too brittle to be rebound themselves. It was quite impressive.

Overall, Paul was a gracious tour guide, and I enjoyed getting a glimpse into Acme and Harcourt. Given my own interests, I would have preferred to have spent more time in the latter, but the entire tour was definitely a useful experience. Having worked in publishing for a number of years and having gained experience in both editing and typesetting, it was great to see the next portion of the process in its automated form (after all, most books today are not hand-bound). These experiences, combined with what I’ve learned in my other classes at Simmons, have given me a great understanding of how these individual steps interconnect and flow together to form a sort of publication ecosystem. I’m sure this will prove useful in the future.

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