There is a dearth of book binders in the country, so when book collector S. Jai Shankar of Kuala Lumpur (featured in “Growing by the book”, Star2, Aug 27) offered to introduce his book binder to me, I jumped at the opportunity.
Hamsurie Haji Waslie is a professional book restorer/book binder based in Kuching, Sarawak.
The name of his 12-year-old company, The House Of Book Bindery (THOBB), has a medieval ring to it. Interestingly, the book-binding trade dates back to the fourth century AD.
Fortysomething Hamsurie, who originally hails from Miri, had actually graduated in hotel and resort management.
“I was in the hospitality industry, starting with front office, food and beverage, and then sales and marketing. At that time, I also owned an enterprise company in supplies and services,” he says.
For Hamsurie, an avid reader, ending up in the book bindery business was a natural progression of his love for reading.
“It was in 1993, and it started with a passion for reading. I read a lot, and one day it came to me when I saw how books were made, especially imported books. Being an art lover, (I observed) the meticulously handcrafted books and, apart from their contents, the physical part of the book astonished me. At that point in time, I took an interest,” Hamsurie remembers.
His curiosity piqued, he embarked on research into this field, going to the library to read up about book-binding. At this time, too, he began to tear apart books that had been thrown away or donated by friends.
“Then I started to try binding the books, by trial and error. It grew on me as it gave me satisfaction.
“I started to invest in some small tools and machinery – some of them, I created myself, and also fabricated some tools with the help of acquaintances. I was an apprentice to master bookbinder John F. Newman of Dublin, in a long-distance apprenticeship, to improve my skills,” recalls Hamsurie.
In 2006, his company was born. His motto is: Judge the book by its binding.
“After doing this on my own, I decided to join the international (book-binding) community via the Internet, and they were all very supportive. We started to share about our work and, eventually, the well-known bookbinder Gerry Kenny from Kenny Bookbinder in Galway, Ireland, offered me an apprenticeship so that I could gain a better understanding (of the trade). From then onwards, the quality of my craftsmanship improved greatly.”
Hamsurie is also a member of the Society of Bookbinders UK.
Ten years after THOBB was established, Hamsurie received the Sarawak Book Award 2016 for Best Book Binder, a testament to his fine workmanship.
Now passing on his skills to a new generation, he currently has three apprentices working under him, including two from Brunei.
Hamsurie points out that there are a few local binders, and they mostly focus on binding only whereas he specialises in repair, restoration and customised covers, in addition to binding.
“The process of binding and restoring books depends on the style and repairs needed. For restoration work, I need to order materials such as (different types of) paper and leather to match those of the original book. I order most of my materials from the UK and Germany,” he says.
“(Using) the tools and machines for book restoration and repair is all about experience and skills. My expectation of my work is very high; every book repair and restoration, new binding or re-binding, must be to my satisfaction before I hand over the book to my customer.”
This line of work requires a heavy investment. “Most of the tools and machines, I bought from the UK and Germany. I have invested RM100,000 in total over the last 13 years – not all at one go but in stages, if I had the budget for it. I sacrificed my needs; I didn’t get any financial assistance. So all of this equipment is from my own sweat and tears,” says Hamsurie.
Are there any occupational hazards in this line of work, one wonders, as machines are involved.
“Yes,” he says, “if you consider the lack of sleep as one of them. We do get injuries from the strings but they are not life-threatening,” he says, laughing.
“We do get clients, mostly VIPs or important corporate establishments, that want us to complete and deliver the book(s) within 24 hours. Maybe people think I just work eight hours a day but I have been working for 14 hours a day for the past 10 years. At times, I’ve even had to go without sleep so that I could complete the work to my satisfaction.”
Hamsurie says that common bookbinding costs around RM95 to RM140 per book – that is the standard pricing for standard production. Customisation may cost more, such as for thesis binding.
“I disagree with the current practice of some printers or binders who are willing to offer as low as RM20 but the quality is not good.
“Restoration and delicate work may cost more, depending on the extent of damage and repair. I have repaired classical books that were printed from 1739 to 1836, belonging to foreigners. These books are priceless.”
So far, the most memorable period of his working life was when he was selected by the High Court of Sarawak to restore and re-bind most of the old journals and law books, from 2008 to 2015.
“I have been all over Sarawak, from the Magistrate’s Court in Limbang, Miri High Court, High Court Bintulu, to the Magistrate’s Court Sibu and the High Court of Kuching.
“When I visited Miri High Court during a holiday in November 2017, I showed my family some of the books that had been restored and re-bound by me.”
That must have been a very proud moment for Hamsurie, that his finished work has passed the highest standards and the books, looking as good as new, are now gracing the library shelves in prominent places.