Away from the noise of Wimbledon greyhound stadium is a tiny bookbinding workshop at the back of a printer's warehouse on an industrial estate. You might think bookbinding is an antiquated pastime due to a publishing market saturated with cheap paperbacks and eReaders, but editor Michael Curran is proving otherwise.
Curran began Tangerine Press in 2006 as a way of publishing writers he felt weren't getting the exposure they deserved. But, he says: "I didn't want to be just another independent press, in the sense that Tangerine would churn out paperbacks or ebooks".
So the self-employed carpenter combined his love for reading with his passion for crafting beautiful objects — something he's been doing for 16 years. 2016 marks the 10-year anniversary of Tangerine Press, still producing handbound, signed limited editions of poetry and prose. It's mostly works by authors who have fallen out of favour, are out of print or have never been published at all.
Curran is inspired by independent presses from the 1960s, including Jon and Lou Webb’s Loujon Press, responsible for popularising American poet Charles Bukowski. "They were real pioneers," he says, "constantly challenging the increasingly draconian obscenity laws and championing free expression."
Sales come from individual collectors, university libraries and as far away as America where Curran keeps in touch with a network of rare book dealers. "Demand is there," he says. "Considering Tangerine publishes books by ‘outsider’ or ‘underground’ writers, they tend to sell out very quickly." The poetry collection In the Teeth of Deamons by English poet Billy Childish sold out in two weeks.
Recently we've heard how eReader sales have slumped, and for Curran the reason is simple: "It’s still a physical world. People have an intrinsic desire for something unique, tactile and collectable. It’s deep-rooted in our psyche and the dull grey screens of an ebook just aren’t cutting it at the moment."
Curran admits that good writing comes through, whatever the format, and is quick to add he isn't a technophobe. "Far from it. Victorian nipping presses sit alongside an iMac in my workshop quite happily." However, he adds: "a substandard, poorly bound, badly typeset, ‘print on demand’ paperback can distract greatly from a reader’s enjoyment".
That was probably the main motivation for the Tangerine/L-13 reissue of Jack London’s classic 1903 ‘documentary novel’ The People of the Abyss. A book which documents a first hand account of what a life of poverty was like in the East End.
It’s still a physical world. People have an intrinsic desire for something unique, tactile and collectable. It’s deep-rooted in our psyche and the dull grey screens of an ebook just aren’t cutting it at the moment.
What ebooks can't recreate is that "tactile element: the smell, the design, the texture of the paper," all of which Curran pays careful attention to. "Materials used are the full range of acid-free papers and boards, handmade papers, conservation glue, hemp cord, mull, linen thread, endbands, etc.
"The text paper I use is quite unusual in that it is 100% recycled and yet acid-free, the added bonus being it is produced by a paper mill in the UK."
The appeal of bookbinding stretches beyond Curran's workshop by the River Wandle, with larger publishers Foyles, Waterstones and Blackwells stocking his high quality paperbacks and increasingly producing limited editions of their own. "The future of bookbinding appears to be strong and getting stronger," he says. "Shepherd’s Bookbinding Suppliers in Victoria regularly hosts courses on bookbinding, papermaking etc."
But is bookbinding equipment really that easy to get hold of?
Curran tells us that three of the main paper suppliers are based in London. "You can get your hands on beautiful, handmade papers from around the world relatively inexpensively. My half-tonne of 1960s cast iron Marshall embosser was completely refurbished by a specialist in that field and is a joy to use.
"I’ve numerous presses and hand tools in my workshop. It’s not always as simple as a quick search online, but if you are persistent and know what you’re looking for, you will be rewarded."
While Tangerine’s main focus is the publishing of its own titles by writers such as William Wantling, Billy Childish and James Kelman, he also takes commissions. "Typically this would be for another publisher, who wants to put out a special edition of a writer they are particularly keen on.
"But I also get approached by galleries and occasionally individual writers who want to publish something more than just a standard pamphlet."
In 2016 look out for Tangerine Press's forthcoming collection of essays by Iain Sinclair which focuses on London writers.
The Tangerine Press workshop is located at Garratt Business Park in south London. You can contact Michael via his website.
ALL IMAGES © NIK STRANGELOVE