Merging Tradition with Progress at Roswell Bookbinding

by: Amy Bauer

From its founding in 1960, Roswell Bookbinding of Phoenix, AZ has remained nimble to respond to the changing demands of the marketplace. In the process, the company has established its expertise in specialty and high-end binding projects and restorations, in addition to library and trade binding work.

“We have evolved from a hand operation to a fully automated facility with state-of-the-art high-speed equipment,” said President Michael Roswell. “We still use all of the old hand binding techniques and materials in the same building as our 9,000-signature-per-hour sewing machines to create high-end bindings of all types.”

The company serves a wide variety of customers – including commercial printers, publishers, museums, art galleries, authors, artists, photographers, academic libraries and private collectors – throughout the United States and internationally. Jobs range from single books to tens of thousands through Roswell Bookbinding’s three divisions: library binding, which accounts for about 15 percent of its business; the specialty division (limited editions, portfolios and specialty packaging and boxes), which accounts for about 20 percent; and the trade division (new books, both soft- and hard-cover), which accounts for about 65 percent.

Rather than catering only to standard sizes, production for many of which continues to be outsourced overseas, Roswell Bookbinding has remained flexible in its ability to accommodate varied dimensions and all manner of special features.

The Beginnings

Roswell’s parents, Mark and Iris, brought their three children to Arizona from New York City in 1960, seeking relief for one son’s asthma. Mark, a certified public accountant, and Iris, a painter and graphic artist, unsuccessfully looked for work before meeting a woman who was selling part of a small bookbinding company. Using their remaining money, the Roswells created their start-up, the Roswell Bookbinding Company, Inc.

As Mark Roswell learned the binding business, Iris Roswell built up a customer base. “My mom called on every elementary, high school and college in the Phoenix area and was soon able to create a steady flow of work into the bindery,” Michael Roswell wrote in a recent profile of the company, which appears in a Roswell-bound book celebrating Arizona’s centennial.

From its library binding roots, the company grew into rebinding books and periodicals for schools and private collections throughout the western United States. In 1974, the Roswells purchased land on the outskirts of Phoenix and built a 50,000-square-foot complex (two 25,000-square-foot buildings), where the company remains to this day. Short runs are handled in one of the buildings and mid-range to long runs in the other. A 10,000-square-foot warehouse rounds out the plant.

Mark Roswell passed away in 2007, and Iris Roswell, while no longer involved in the day-to-day business, stays in daily contact with son Michael to keep abreast of what’s going on. While his siblings didn’t enter the family business, Michael Roswell began working at the bindery as a youngster, enjoying the hand binding so much that he found his career.

Artists’ Resource

A serendipitous collaboration with a publisher in Flagstaff, AZ in the early 1970s put Roswell Bookbinding on its path to artistic excellence. The owner of what was then Northland Press, which Michael Roswell describes as “the bellwether of the Western Art book industry,” came looking for a source to bind the art books he was printing. The popularity of Western and American Indian artists was growing at the time. The Roswells, who had so far never put together a “new” book, gathered the necessary employees and equipment, and a niche was born.

These high-end, coffee-table books were sought after by collectors. Limited editions of the books were produced, frequently accompanied by original art. The artists often came to the bindery to sign their books, deliver artwork or supervise the process, and Michael Roswell said such collaborations continue today. Roswell Bookbinding also worked with celebrated photographers, starting with Ansel Adams and some of his protégés, and has maintained its niche in art photography books.

These connections created a reputation for the company in the art market and among museums and galleries nationwide. “Painters and sculptors, graphic designers, architects, authors, photographers and commercial printers are regular visitors, coming in to see the birth of their work in print,” Roswell wrote in the centennial book.

Roswell’s interest in the art book genre goes beyond the professional. As a collector of western history and western art books himself, he brings additional insights to his clients’ goals. “The designers and artists and curators know I have an understanding of where their art is trying to go and what they’re trying to say,” he said.

Out of the Ordinary

The high-end and limited edition books typically are nonstandard, often oblong, sizes with features that require a high degree of skill and may incorporate exotic materials and both hand work and mechanical processes. They exemplify the company’s tagline of “Binding without Boundaries.”

For example, Roswell said, a book may have a regular edition run between 2,000 and 5,000 copies. And its limited edition version will run 50 to 100 copies bound in leather or other upscale material in a slipcase or clamshell box and often accompanied by a piece of original artwork.

Hand work makes up a significant portion of Roswell Bookbinding’s business: 30 percent to 40 percent. This crosses from the company’s specialty division into the library and trade divisions as well, and while some employees are specifically devoted to hand work, they are cross-trained in the mechanical processes and vice versa.

Roswell offered some examples of recent specialty jobs. One, for the International Olympic Committee, comprised 3,000 regular edition volumes plus 400 special editions each encased in a clamshell box stamped with an individual’s name. For St. John’s University, in Minneapolis, the company is producing a seven-volume set of leatherbound books, each measuring 16 inches by 28 inches, with 250 copies of each volume and each book encased in a clamshell box.

The Binding Industries Association (BIA) recognized Roswell Bookbinding with a 2009 Product of Excellence Award for Innovative Use of Materials for “Dancessence,” a book of photos of dancers. The Smyth-sewn soft-cover book was incorporated into a chemise of handmade paper with a custom bone closure, so it included both mechanical and hand worked aspects, Michael Roswell said. The company also was honored with two other BIA awards in 2009.

Diversification is Key

Roswell noted that several longtime binderies in the western United States have shuttered their doors, and he believes that Roswell’s diversification is what has kept it strong. “We’ve always been able to do the different, the obscure, the crazy concept,” he said, “and that’s what has allowed us to survive and flourish, frankly.”

Additionally, while specialized jobs are often more time-consuming, the company continues to find ways to speed the process. “We have gradually improved our capabilities to automate them more, and thus bring down the cost so that we are able to be more competitive,” Roswell said. “This has enabled us to keep work in the United States that previously had gone offshore.” To that end, the company recently installed a Smyth high-speed sewing machine that will handle a 14 1/8-inch-wide signature.

Additionally, Roswell said, the company makes the best use of its equipment. “We’ve got three full-time maintenance people who are very creative in adapting and modifying our equipment to handle unique sizes,” he said. “And we’ve always cross-trained our people,” he continued. “We’ve been cross-training since day one, so we have a lot of people who can do a lot of different things, and we have a lot of creative people who think outside the box.”

Secrets to Success

The bindery runs a single shift and employs about 100 full-time workers, all of whom are selected for their commitment to quality. Roswell said that while the company’s jobs are among some of the most difficult in the industry, the pay scale reflects that standard. “We demand more of our employees, because our customers are demanding more of us,” he explained. “We need the best in the industry, and we have the best, and we compensate them accordingly.”

New employees go through a 90-day trial period, and those who are average operators or helpers typically don’t stay, he said. Existing employees, many of whom have spent years with the company, help to maintain this culture, expecting top performance from those with whom they work.

Another business practice that Roswell’s parents instilled and which has served the business well is a commitment to reinvesting profits into the company. That focus allowed the building of the current bindery in 1974 and has helped the company to keep up with new binding technology. Michael Roswell said his father recognized as early as the 1970s that the company’s original focus – library binding – would not be sustainable for the long-term as its sole niche, so he purposefully went into trade binding as well. “I remember my dad saying that library binding was not going to last 30 years,” Michael Roswell recalled. “And he was pretty much right. That industry has shrunk.”

Today, as digital readers cut into the volume of trade binding across the industry, Roswell Bookbinding’s specialty work serves a crucial role, providing services still sought after by book connoisseurs.

Restoration Services

Though a small percentage of the overall business – about two percent, Roswell estimated – restoration work continues to fill a need for Roswell Bookbinding’s clients. Two employees are dedicated to this work, which Iris Roswell first trained herself in as she began getting requests from the company’s university clients. According to its website, www.roswellbookbinding.com, the company has served collections including those of the Phoenix Art Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Texas A&M University, University of Arizona, University of Texas at El Paso and UNLV Special Collection Libraries, as well as private collectors.

“People have always brought in old books and especially Bibles to be restored,” Roswell explained. The company advertises its family Bible restoration services on its website, and Roswell said a few Bibles come in for repair each week. Roswell Bookbinding also makes custom boxes and portfolios to house rare books and documents.

Looking to the Future

The company has proven itself savvy in the face of a rapidly changing print marketplace. Founder Mark Roswell foresaw some of the challenges evident today – from a move toward more complex and difficult bindings to the trend of shorter run lengths – and this has allowed Roswell Bookbinding to position itself for long-term success.

“The way the market has changed over the years has hastened the demise of binderies that were only capable of standard sizes,” Michael Roswell said. “We have seen an increase in the specialty books and publications that we are known for in the industry, even in a down economy. I believe that there will always be a market for top-of-the-line products.”