Despite the trend toward books becoming cold, hard screens, Kevin Spall and Jon Buller passionately believe that readers will always treasure real books—especially those bound lovingly and beautifully. Which is why Thomson-Shore, the big, employee-owned printing company in Dexter, just bought Buller’s tiny Bessenberg Bindery. “We have been looking to close the gap on the very low-quantity, very high-quality binding,” says Spall, the company’s president and CEO. “Bessenberg does that for us.”
Thomson-Shore got very lucky last year when it won a contract to print the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One. The book was a surprise best-seller, and what was supposed to be a short run turned into a long one, and a multimillion-dollar contract. Thomson-Shore has printed more than 435,000 copies already, says Spall, and likely will produce another 50,000. Thanks to Twain, “we’ve made back everything we lost in the recession, and then some,” he says.
Bessenberg will never produce a best-seller—it specializes in hand binding and editions as small as a single copy. But Spall sees a valuable role for Buller’s increasingly rare expertise. In January, Bessenberg was preparing a fine, leather-bound edition of the Autobiography as a gift to the publisher—a token of appreciation that should help Thomson-Shore stand out among the area’s many competing book printers.
In 1974, Buller was hired at Academy Bookbinding in Dexter, where he worked for a year and a half. When Academy closed, he purchased some of its equipment and opened his own bindery in Ann Arbor. “So this is coming home, in a sense,” he says.
While Bessenberg is deeply immersed in the tools and methods of the past, Thomson-Shore is embracing technology. “We’ve invested in this company, in the last five, six years, close to $15 million in new equipment,” Spall says. “We have a new press, which we installed about two years ago. Without that press, we would not have been able to do Mark Twain.”
New digital printing equipment also made it easier for the company to produce
smaller print runs economically. But for the very high-quality binding of books in ones and twos, Spall needed Buller. “We think, as time goes on, there will be this void of very high-quality books that you can put on your shelf and leave there for a hundred years,” Spall says. “Bessenberg is the last commercial high-quality hand bindery in Michigan and one of a handful in the whole country.”
Buller says he’s agreed to stay at Thomson-Shore for at least three years. “I will continue to book-bind, and I will help develop a product line for them, and train people” so his skills aren’t lost when he retires.
“The future is the past,” says Buller. “The kind of skills that we bring are yesterday’s skills, which have largely been displaced by other things; and, with that, the ability to take care of certain small, technological problems is lost. [Thomson-Shore] figured that a significant portion of the future is being able to deal with these very small numbers.” He pauses. “Now is an opportunity to see if that’s really true.”