Bookbinder continues a rare trade

By Ann Arbor Miller

The Forum of Fargo

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Marnie Blatchford cherished the old, tattered book with its loose pages and detached cover.

"My mother had it when she was a little girl," said Blatchford, a longtime Fargo, N.D., resident. "She gave it to me and read from it when I was a little girl."

The 316-page book, a 1901 copy of "Little Folks’ Speaker: Or, Songs and Rhymes for Jolly Times," found a new home and a second life during Christmas 2007 thanks to the handiwork of bookbinder David Farkell.


"He put it all back together again and — my goodness — it looked nearly new," said Blatchford, 74, who gave the repaired book to her youngest daughter, who has two daughters in grade school.

Farkell owns and operates The Prairie Bookbinder, a one-man shop in Detroit Lakes, where books are repaired, restored and created by hand.

"My first love is old books," Farkell said. "I truly believe that each one of those old books is spiritual."

He also believes hand binders like him are becoming as rare as many of the books they tend to.

The Guild of Book Workers was founded in 1906 to foster kinship among bookbinders, typographers, printers and other craftsmen in the United States. The guild currently has 840 members. Of those, just 10 reside in Minnesota, and none live in North Dakota.

While Farkell is not a guild member, he was among the first students to attend the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis after it was established in 1983. Soon thereafter, he apprenticed one day each week at a commercial bindery, where he learned hand binding.

Farkell, 80, a former weekly newspaperman and longtime public relations professional, settled on bookbinding as a full-time occupation nearly 20 years ago.

It’s a profession that is most certainly a labor of love, not profit. Farkell relies on Social Security to help make ends meet most months.


"If I make a little, I do. If I lose a little, I do," he said. "It works out."

Often Farkell’s customers find him through ads in Yellow Pages in a handful of Minnesota and North Dakota communities. Word-of-mouth referrals also direct many customers to Farkell’s shop, located adjacent to the Soo Line railway on the west side of Detroit Lakes.

The Minnesota Center for Book Arts regularly fields inquiries from people looking for someone to repair family Bibles, said Dorothy Goldie, executive director. The center is one of a handful in the nation specifically working to preserve and promote the traditional craft of bookmaking.

Interest in the art of bookmaking remains strong, with thousands of people attending classes and participatory programs at the center each year, Goldie said. However, bookbinders who can make a living from binding alone are rare. Teaching often provides a necessary supplement.

Farkell, a self-described perfectionist and former adjunct instructor, spends a good part of his days at the bindery enveloped in classic music.

"I live alone, and this is my second home since I don’t have any family around here," Farkell said.

Yet, the bookbinder is most certainly surrounded by the families of his customers as he tends to family Bibles, treasured photo albums and well-loved volumes of history.

"All books are good," said Farkell, who has bound everything from city council minutes to books for school children. "All books are a challenge."


Irene Ekberg of Milaca, Minn., hand delivered a family Bible to Farkell for repair two summers ago. The Bible, written entirely in Swedish and measuring 5 inches thick, belonged to her grandfather.

"We have it on a shelf on our little table in the living room for all to see," Ekberg wrote to Farkell in a handwritten thank you note. "I hope our three children will appreciate this as much as we do."

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