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How London’s Chelsea Bindery Makes First-Edition Books Feel Like New Again

A single tome can take up to 12 weeks to bind, with prices starting at about $1,800, depending on size and design intricacy.

Chelsea Bindery book Courtesy of The Chelsea Bindery

First printings of popular titles such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Old Man and the Sea can fetch upwards of $100,000—but not if their covers are battered, their dust jackets missing, or their delicate pages detached. Although returning damaged classics to their original condition may be impossible, having them finely bound can save cherished copies from the dustbin.

Unlike antiques such as furniture and decor, the worth of which can be greatly diminished by restoration, literary works can recoup some of their monetary value (and extend their longevity) if properly refurbished. Chelsea Bindery in Battersea, London, takes the endeavor one step further by transforming first editions into objects even more decorative than the originals. “A particularly artistic or lavish binding adds to the desirability of a book as a collectible and to the pleasure it brings,” explains manager Emma Doyle.

A single book can take up to 12 weeks to bind, with prices starting at about $1,800, depending on the size and the intricacy of the design. In some cases, the workshop will remain faithful to the spirit of the old cover; other times, it will reimagine it completely. The rejuvenated volumes’ fine leather bindings can incorporate 22-karat gold. Chelsea artisans have even encrusted a first edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s with real diamonds in the tiara.

The production process demands an exacting degree of meticulousness. “There are technical details, such as the lettering, which must be sharp and crisp, with just the right amount of pressure applied, so that the impression is not too deep,” says Doyle. “The tools must be at precisely the right temperature; otherwise, the leather can be scorched. The gilt rules and decorative rolls must meet perfectly at the corners.”

Peter Harrington, the largest vintage-books dealer in Europe, founded Chelsea Bindery in 2000. Each year, the operation creates a catalog of about 160 first, limited, and special illustrated editions for Peter Harrington’s two storefronts, located in Chelsea and Mayfair. It also accepts custom commissions and fabricates solander cases to protect the rare titles.

“Ultimately, a beautifully bound book reinforces the sense of pleasure one associates with a timeless tale or loved story,” Doyle says. “It’s a way to visually connect the physical object to the treasures contained within its pages.”

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