For over four decades, Joel Radcliffe has been binding books in the Pacific Northwest. Currently situated in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, his bindery, Ars Obscura, has been operating since 1991. I had the opportunity to visit with Joel in July, 2017, where I learned a bit about the history of bookbinding and printmaking in the region, and specifically about Joel’s methods of work. But it was a complicated dance to track Joel down on this trip, as his workshop is as obscured in location as it is in name.
Upon arriving in Seattle, I began to track down print shops that I could visit, but due to the July 4th holiday, most were closed for business. The one that was open and readily accessible to the tourist masses was at Pike Place Market, the Pike Street Press. It was a letterpress shop that produced close to 100% of its merchandise on two Old Heidelberg windmill presses at the base of the Market by the ocean. Upon inquiring, I discovered that no one that worked there held a degree in printmaking. So I asked, “Are there other print shops located around town?”
Sadly nothing. The best I could find was the possibility of someone knowing more than they did at a bookstore on the other side of the city, which by happenstance they didn’t know the name of. The game was afoot...
The next day, back at the Market, I ventured into a storefront that sold old magazines and movie posters: Old Seattle Paperworks. There, the owner told me that there used to be a lot of print shops in town, but over the years they had lost out to the technological advancement known as offset printing. But then he mentioned that he knew of a bookbinder that had handled manuscripts and books for the Vatican, and that he did repairs in his workshop with goatskin, rabbit glue, and real vellum. He then told me that they were going to close soon, and that he didn’t know the name of the bindery. Wishing me good luck, he pointed me in the direction of Pioneer Square on Google Maps and told me to hurry.
Pioneer Square is one of the oldest parts of the city, with beautiful late 1800’s Romanesque Revival buildings lining the streets. With minutes to go before the stores shut down, I ran around the buildings looking for anything that might intimate that I was in the right spot. Nearly giving up, upon rounding one of the buildings in Occidental Square, I noticed that there was a bookstore called Arundel Books. The proprietor of the store told me he was closing, but I let him know that I had traveled hundreds of miles by air and numerous miles by foot and I wanted to know if he knew of a rumored book binder nearby.
"Oh, you must be looking for Joel. Let me lock up and I'll take you down to him."
Like that, he proceeded to lock up shop and lead me into the depths of this elderly building. Into the basement we went, and then he told me to follow the hallway to the end and take a right and then a left turn. I asked him how I'd know I was there and he merely smiled, saying "You'll figure it out."
He was right. After a long walk in a dimly lit hall, the sudden smell of a moldy room encroached on me. There in front of me was a door with the words "ARS OBSCURA" hand lettered on its glass window. I walked in and immediately was transported into a different reality. I had travelled backwards in time.
Hanging from the ceiling there were goat skins died in a rainbow of colors, untrimmed vellum, and an odd assortment of tools, paper, furniture, and artwork. I introduced myself and explained that I was an artist interested in books and the history of printmaking.
We sat down and had a conversation about what he does, how his wife is far superior at bookbinding than him (during my visit, she was working in the back while we chatted), and a little bit about printmaking in the Pacific Northwest. I asked him where else I might find people in the same trade. Joel jokingly told me that I missed the train by a few decades. His understanding was that as consumer tastes changed in real time, artists adapted and left behind older printmaking techniques that were either too costly or time consuming to remain competitive. He, on the other hand, stuck with it, literally spending six to seven days a week in his bindery. The results are that his business is very successful, as he has a waiting list of customers stretching back months.
Joel and I parted ways with him telling me to bring my passport next time so I could visit Ouroboros Press (www.bookarts.org) across the border, and told me to visit him again the next time that I was in Seattle. He then gave me a card with his wife’s blog on it, which leads you down a wonderful rabbit hole about what it’s like to be a professional bookbinder. I recommend that you take the time to visit her blog for further reading on book arts, rare books, and the like.