80 Years Young at Dekker Bookbinding

by: Dianna Brodine

The printed word has staying power. It can convey thoughts and action through the simple process of putting pen to paper, with ideas enduring for centuries – or as long as the paper remains undamaged. However, in the process of binding paper together, a series of thoughts and actions can be created “a story can be told” generations can be affected – and the paper upon which the story is printed is protected by a cover.

A company in Grand Rapids, Michigan has been protecting the written word for 80 years. Four generations of the Dekker family have built a bookbinding operation that now employs 75, doing its part to ensure the future of books.

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.
~ Henry David Thoreau ~

Although Dekker Bookbinding is a fourth-generation American company, the family tradition goes back even further. Johannes Dekker was a bookbinder in the Netherlands during the 1800s. His son, John H. Dekker, immigrated to the U.S. around 1900, finding employment as a bookbinder in Grand Rapids. In 1928, John H. Dekker founded his own modest business repairing library books in his garage by hand. His sons, John and Howard, took up the family business at the ages of 16 and 14 when their father passed away. When the events at Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II and took both boys overseas in service of their country, another Dekker family member became involved in the bookbinding trade. Mrs. John H. Dekker ran the garage-based bindery in their absence, providing library binding services for the libraries around town with two small presses.

Returning after the war, the brothers decided that new edition bookbinding had more business potential than hand binding library books. This was most likely influenced by the desire for machine-made products that swept the country after the war. After a long period of “doing without” or “making do” with handmade versions of everyday items, the American people were ready to buy new. This was true of books as well. By the 1950s, new publishers and printers were arriving on the scene and the Michigan market was growing. The Dekker brothers decided the time was right to move out of the family garage, so space was rented and used machinery was purchased to create the company’s first hardcover book production line. It was 1955 and on a good day, Dekker Bookbinding was producing 5,000 hardcover books.

The worst thing about new books is that they keep us from reading the old ones.
~ Joseph Joubert ~

In 2005, more than 172,000 new book titles were published in the United States. That’s approximately one new title every 30 minutes over the course of a year. While that’s bad news for even avid readers (who can’t possibly keep up with the influx of reading material), that’s good news for bookbinders like Dekker which partners with printers nationwide. Dekker Bookbinding made an early and conscious decision not to venture into printing to avoid competing with its best customers. Instead, the company has worked to build relationships with printers who needed to outsource their hardcover bookbinding.

“Our print customers typically supply us with folded signatures to be either smyth sewn or adhesive bound,” said Chris Dekker, a fifth generation member of the Dekker family. “Many of our customers ask us to get involved early in the project to answer production questions, often at the quotation stage. We can lay out a manufacturing format that involves schedule, process, and materials. The focus early on is to avoid obstacles and mistakes.”

As the relationships grew and the print market expanded, Dekker Bookbinding recognized the need to upgrade its equipment and space. The company moved into its current facility in 1965, expanding through the decades into what is now a 100,000-square-foot plant. Many of the old handwork processes have been replaced with automated equipment, including two complete Kolbus high-speed case binding lines that take materials from bookblock to book jacketing – specifically a Kolbus 270 Casemaker and a Kolbus SU 631 Jacketer that are the first installations in North America for both machines.

Installing the latest technology is key, as up-to-date automation adds the ability to keep up with another industry trend – the demand for faster production schedules. “We rely on our printers for early information on fast-track projects, setting no-surprise schedules ahead of time, and overlapping component manufacturing before assembly and shipment.” Even though Dekker Bookbinding has two complete production lines, the company gains flexibility by not connecting the production pieces in-line. Binder trimmer lines, compact casing-in lines, and jacketing and packing lines are separate. Fast tracking allows Dekker to build components and, when the signatures arrive from the printer, bookblocks are made and the final assembly can take place, often in 24 hours. This strategy works because no single component waits for another. “There are too many components to bookbinding that we can customize,” explained Chris Dekker. “In-line makes sense to a point in relation to overall cost on large runs, but you are not getting the efficiencies, especially with smaller runs. There are too many variables to control. When one piece of the line shuts down, the whole line shuts down. An idle machine adds to your cost base.”

There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.
~ Walt Disney ~

Dekker Bookbinding prides itself on the variety of jobs that come across the shop floor. As a small, independent bookbinder located in the middle of the country, Dekker quotes book projects from all over the United States. The company has experienced a surge in printers – both sheetfed and web, one color and four color, small shops, commercial printers, and digital printers – asking for quotations. Many of these titles have a local or regional interest, and sizes range from as small as 35/8″x51/4″ to oversized coffee table books. On the low end, Dekker has seen runs of 500 books and, on the high end, run sizes have reached 500,000. Typically, the binder will do 2,500 to 25,000 books per run, reflecting the industry trend toward smaller initial runs and reprints as book sales increase. In fact, according to statistics released at the Book Expo of America in 2006, only 1,000 of the quoted 172,000 new book titles sell more than 50,000 copies through traditional retail channels. Only 25,000 of the 172,000 new publications each year sell more than 5,000 copies. For a bookbinder whose strategy is to support the printing industry, small runs are definitely the path to long-term success.

“The range of sizes that we can now bind, the selection of materials we can build with, the variety of binding styles, and the quality and flexibility we have in manufacturing components has kept us competitive,” explained Chris Dekker. “The partnerships we have with the printers who rely on us for their case binding makes both Dekker and the printer competitive in an evolving market.”

Although Dekker Bookbinding began as a handwork specialist, the company has recognized the efficiencies offered by today’s automation. Dekker’s capabilities include cloth, leathers, stamping, ribbons, PUR, sewn, and adhesive. But Chris Dekker acknowledges that everything the bookbinder does is custom, in terms of unique customer requests. “There are so many custom jobs that we can do. No job is the same.” The company has seen more requests for ribbons, tip-in pages, edge staining, bound in CDs, special editions, and other customizable “bells and whistles”.

Show me the books he loves and I shall know the man far better than through mortal friends.
~ Dawn Adams ~

In 1973, John Dekker, Jr., the current CEO, joined the company as the fourth generation, and now the fifth generation is on board, namely son Chris, who works in management and marketing, and son Corbin, in production. Also key in terms of personnel is Jeff Richter, who joined the company in 1991 and fills the roles of vice president, CFO, and information systems “guru”. “Jeff joined us just as we were looking to put everything on computer,” said Chris Dekker. “He came in here and brought all of our paperwork up to date, put the company online, and got everything automated. Jeff computerized the entire company.”

John Dekker, Jr. offered his own contribution to modernizing the bookbinder’s operations, acting as the driving force behind a management style reorganization that eliminated the “top down” flow of information. “During the 1990s, when reengineering was popular, one of the mega book manufacturers publicized the idea that to fully utilize their capacity, they could print in one plant and bind in another plant,” explained Chris Dekker. “We knew we were on the right track because we already did that! However, it was time to change our management style.”

John Dekker, Jr. took his employees on a trip to one of the company’s printing customers. He wanted the entire bookbinding facility to see the book production cycle from beginning to end, understanding their part in the process as one piece of a whole. “Our people bought into the idea of getting involved and taking more responsibility on the floor, discussing ideas, identifying obstacles, and focusing on customer product,” said Chris Dekker. As a result of the reorganization, managers became coaches and the rest of the team responded in kind. Today, most of the people who talk to the customers during quoting, planning, and customer service started in production. When customers visit the production floor, they are introduced to the machine operators and crew, and the horizontal organizational structure encourages questions and dialogue. “Dekker Bookbinding focused on building up people,” explained Chris Dekker, “because people build the books.”

A book is a fragile creature. It suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements, clumsy hands.
~ Umberto Eco ~

The environmental movement toward “green” is driving new processes and papers in the printing industry, but Dekker Bookbinding didn’t need a trend to start recycling. In fact, the company has been recycling waste since the early 1990s when it built an addition to its binding facility. “We hooked up a huge vacuum on top of our building,” described Chris Dekker. “It connected to all of our machines – anything where the paper comes off – and we take that scrap and put it into balers. It’s not something we started because of the ‘green’ thing. We did it because it helped keep our plant clean, but it feels good now.”

In 2007, Dekker recycled 1,828,725 pounds of material, saving 15,544 trees and 6,400,538 gallons of water, and keeping 54,862 pounds of air pollution effluents out of the air. The base materials used in book production, such as binders board and most paper-based materials, are made from recycled materials. Recycling and a company’s impact on the environment are important to the book industry, and Dekker Bookbinding has been ahead of the curve.

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
~Jorge Luis Borges~

Technology has revolutionized printing and reading. Computers can produce a manuscript on a disc and electronic prepress can produce an image, bypassing many of the traditional printing processes. Small vanity press organizations have sprung up, allowing almost anyone the opportunity to publish a book. Electronic readers such as Kindle are gaining popularity, with books downloaded to a portable handheld device in seconds and shown on screen on demand. But bookstores are still thriving and traditional paper and ink books are still selling.

“As new people enter the work force and take over the book industry, changes are inevitable,” stated Chris Dekker. “There will always be a segmented book market. Although I have yet to use either an e-book or an audio-book, I can accept them as part of the market.”

Dekker Bookbinding’s best long-term customers – the book printers who make high-quality books and have a long track record in the industry – agree that the future is bright for book manufacturing. The key is to stay flexible, understanding that changes will occur and reaction time will determine success.

The written word, despite rumors to the contrary, is not dead. For many people, books are old friends. “People don’t throw away books,” said Chris Dekker. “They collect them or pass them around. People have an appreciation for books, perhaps as an art form, but mostly I think it’s because the reader can hold and interact physically with a book.”

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.
~Charles W. Eliot~