Cover to cover: adventures of a young book-binder in Kuala Lumpur


Luqman showing the process of 'threading' where pages are aligned in the sewing frame before being bound together. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

Luqman Azhar is a rare breed in the Malaysian old trades scene – a young man with a knack for breathing new life into antiquarian books.

The 36-year-old avid reader and book collector turned his passion for antiquarian books into Shady Scrivener Co, a part-time bookbinding and restoration service he started in 2020. He also prints facsimiles of vintage books.

Antique book collectors, Luqman pointed out, often need aesthetic adjustments to their damaged works. And restoring page content and stitching book covers requires a specialised skill set to preserve these treasures from another era.

“I’ve always had a passion for book-binding since I was a kid,” said Luqman, as he tidied up his home and book repair station in Kuala Lumpur.

At its simplest, book-binding is the physical assembly of a book's parts into a single volume.

‘Other than buying books for my own collection, antiquarian book fairs are also where I look for potential clients and other collectors, although many are hesitant, understandably, to let me service their books, some of which may be family heirlooms,’ says Luqman. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah‘Other than buying books for my own collection, antiquarian book fairs are also where I look for potential clients and other collectors, although many are hesitant, understandably, to let me service their books, some of which may be family heirlooms,’ says Luqman. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

“What started as a hobby, restoring my own books, then books of friends who were collectors, ended up becoming a business I could commit to given the free time I had during the pandemic,” he added.

The Miri, Sarawak-born chap’s book-binding journey began while studying in London.

“There is little to no record of any kind of book-binding history here (in Malaysia). The only one I found was from a Johor prison log, where prisoners kept their hands busy with book-binding for law firms,” said Luqman, who holds a degree in anthropology.

“When I was studying in England, there were several binderies and different guilds of bookbinders, each with their own method of restoring old books,” he shared.

During this recent chat, Luqman often mentioned his time studying in London, where he began his (hands-on) training in book-binding.

Luqman hard at work during an on-call service in a client’s home library. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahLuqman hard at work during an on-call service in a client’s home library. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

“Book-binding is a time-honoured trade much like blacksmithing or carpentry, and in many guilds, it’s a family profession that has been passed down for generations. If you want to learn a skill like this, you need to shadow a master as an apprentice,” he explained.

Luqman worked part-time sweeping floors at a bindery in London called Shepherds Bookbinders for a year, and the staff there taught him the basics (of the book-binding trade).

“It’s very repetitive,” he said, explaining the process.

“You start with leather pairing, which involves preparing materials for bookbinding. The more advanced techniques involve sewing, with around 20 different stitching patterns depending on the type of book you’re restoring.”

As he spoke, he demonstrated the work required for books of various sizes and their respective stitching methods.

A view of books with damaged spines – typically caused by aggressive folding – needing new covers and dust jackets. Luqman’s book-binding charges average between RM200 and RM360, depending on the materials. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahA view of books with damaged spines – typically caused by aggressive folding – needing new covers and dust jackets. Luqman’s book-binding charges average between RM200 and RM360, depending on the materials. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

Among the books from his personal collection, Luqman picked out Salmon Botanologia, an encyclopaedia from 1710. Though not written in modern English, it detailed plants and their uses in herbal remedies.

As Luqman flipped the cover, he revealed a fragment of what appeared to be a page from the Bible within the binding. He explained that using pages from other books as binding materials was a common practice.

The average reader isn’t typically seeking that kind of antiquarian book reading experience.

However, another facet of Luqman’s service is creating facsimiles. This involves printing public domain literature, staining the pages for a rustic effect, binding them with thread, and finishing with a smooth leather cover.

One of Luqman’s clients was full of praise after getting an old travel book binded.

A closer look at ‘threading,’ where individual book pages are sewn together using a sewing frame before the cover is added to the spine. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahA closer look at ‘threading,’ where individual book pages are sewn together using a sewing frame before the cover is added to the spine. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

“For those who wish to own rare and early texts on Malaya but can’t afford the original antiquarian books, Luqman’s beautifully hand-bound facsimiles are definitely a better compromise than those cheap paperback reprints,” says Caleb Goh, a collector of antiquities.

“The text itself is printed on elusive cream laid paper, not stark white A4, but a soft mellow beige that is pleasant to behold. He also adjusts and enhances the original texts from scans of the original, so it looks identical, carefully adjusting the margins and editing out blips digitally to ensure that it looks like the product of a traditional Letterpress printing,” said Goh.

Since launching his bookbinding services during the pandemic, Luqman has garnered a dedicated following, with clients recommending him to others in need of specialised book repairs. As he prepared his equipment – a sewing frame, threads, needles – you can’t help but appreciate the laborious nature of his craft.

As someone deeply knowledgeable about book design and binding history, Luqman understands the significance of paper quality and stitching techniques in preserving the integrity and value of printed works.

A closer look at the spine of the book 'Salmon Botanologia, 1710' while Luqman sets up the book-binding equipment. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahA closer look at the spine of the book 'Salmon Botanologia, 1710' while Luqman sets up the book-binding equipment. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

“I had to read books about book-binding, learn 'codicology', which is the study of paper or manuscripts ... basically, generations of trial and error, and how it resulted in the various designs of a book structure,” he said.

His facsimiles have also gained popularity among university students who rely on 19th-century academic books and travel journals as references. Some examples of his facsimiles include My Journal In Malayan Waters (or The Blockade Of Quedah) by Sherard Osborn (1860), The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace (1869) and Noctes Orientales (1913).

“It takes about three weeks for me to complete a particular facsimile. From doing measurements to finding the right materials, and then threading each individual page for the book,” he said.

In this digital age, Luqman remains optimistic that the art of book-binding will increasingly be regarded as the custodians of tangible treasures. They ensure that each page transcends mere words, encapsulating a fragment of history worthy of preservation.

“There is a whole history just within the covers and binding of a book, which makes you able to essentially judge a book by its cover,” he concluded with a smile.


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