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Feature 22 Nov 16

Belgrade’s Bookbinders, Symbol of a Bygone Era

While there were once more than 60 journeymen bookbinders working in Belgrade, only a handful remain to cautiously guard the craft.

Ivana Nikolic
Dragic says there is no chance one can go bust in this business if one is eager to work. Photo: BIRN/Ivana Nikolic.

“We have no other job, and we have never thought of shutting it [the workshop] down,“ says Milica Grbovic, who started her bookbinding business with her husband Dragic in 1972.

“We were always fighting and giving our best to produce something new,“ Grbovic says, as she carefully assembles letters and syllabuses on a big sheet of paper.

The couple are working in their workshop, at a large table covered in books in various states of repair. Some books are waiting to be restored and re-bound, and others, with new covers, are waiting to be picked up by owners.

The tiny workshop, full of books, machines, bookbinding equipment and the lingering smell of glue, is tucked away on Maksima Gorkog St 43 in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Vracar. It has been here since 1985, when Dragic and Milica moved from the Brace Nedica St, where the shop was initially opened.

Everything the Grbovics do here, they do with their bare hands. Even the shop’s machines need a guiding human hand to work.

The two repair old and damaged books by rebinding their pages with a specific technique. Once the sheets of a book are folded together, the stack is then bound together along one edge by either sewing with thread through the folds or by a layer of flexible adhesive.

But how did they come up with the idea of starting a bookbinding business back in the seventies?  I ask the pair while both are head down, occupied with work.

For a moment, Dragic leaves the book he was working on and starts explaining. The two finished Graphic School, started working in a bookbinder shop and ultimately bought it when their boss decided to sell the business.

“We borrowed some money and that is how it all started,“ Dragic recalls.

The Grbovic couple had significantly more competition in the 1970s than today. They say there were around 60 bookbinders working in Belgrade. Today, however, only five or six are still in business. What happened to the old masters, I ask.

Milica argues that many have decided to shut down their businesses as they could not financially survive in a fading market and the cultural changes brought on by time wore most down.

Dragic however offers another reason.

“It rarely happens in Serbia that the younger take over the family business,“ the old master says.

“The children of all those bookbinders who died closed down the shops [after their parents died]. For example, as soon as one of our associates died, his kids opened a chandelier shop [in the place of his bookbinder shop],“ Dragic says.

Dragic and Milica hope their craft will not die once they decide to retire. So far, all seems well, as their daughter Danijela and her husband also work here. The two master bookbinders have two granddaughters, aged 12 and 15, but it still remains to be seen whether the girls will continue preserving the old craft.

But how come the Grbovic bookbinder shop has managed to survive the past 44 years, taking into account dozens who didn’t make it?

“We work 12 hours a day, sometimes even on weekends when there is a lot of work,“ Milica says.

“The most important thing here is persistence. How many nights and Sundays have we spent here,“ the lady adds, smiling.

Almost interrupting her, Dragic says there is no chance one can go bust in this business if one is eager to work.

Another thing that has changed with times is finding clientele. Now, unlike the old days, one needs to win a bid in order to get a job according to Milica.

Despite decades of experience bookbinding and restoring books, making carton boxes for coats, hats, swimming suits and laundry, the family faced its toughest times during the 1990s.

“Throughout 1990s, we engaged in manufacture. We were making notebooks, folders and were the first ones in Serbia to start producing data maps,” Milica argues.

Nowadays, they’ll do anything that brings in money, Dragic says, but the family mainly handicrafts carton boxes, mostly for clothes designers.

Dragic says that bookbinding costs 500-1,000 dinars [around €4-€8], depending on clients’ wishes and books’ conditions.

It takes around hour or hour and a half to finish one book, he argues, but it can last as much as one day if a book is damaged and in a bad state.

Recently, the family has been bookbinding and repairing books owned by the National Bank of Serbia. Dragic recalls the times when they were also working on books owned by the National Library of Serbia. However, he claims, the Library now usually gets rid of the old damaged books, so you can buy them at local markets.

“Now you can buy those old books, written by Dostoyevsky, for instance, for around 100 dinars [less than one euro]…that is sad,” the old master concludes, looking around his workshop.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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