Unexpected Start-up Money
In 2001, Jacob Deatherage, a fledgling book binding artist, lived in a derelict neighborhood in Seattle. But billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen bought Jacob’s apartment building and told the residents he was tearing it down in six months. The upside was he’d give residents five grand if they left quietly and soon. “He could have been a dick and just thrown us all out,” Jacob said magnanimously. He and his then-partner took the money. “We moved and built a bindery, bought machines that we wouldn’t have been able to buy otherwise,” Jacob said. “We went into full production mode.” The Ex Libris Anonymous handmade journal empire was born.
An Entertaining Little Guy
The book journal baron’s early life was split between the Oregon coast, where his mom lived, and Salinas, California, with his dad. Jacob’s mother enjoyed esoteric pursuits like crystals, astrology and Eastern mysticism. Jacob’s father put a price on blue jays’ heads and encouraged Jacob to shoot them when he visited. He didn’t like the sound they made. “I remember having a lot of fun as a child,” Jacob said. “I was a great big fat kid. An entertaining little guy.” He liked to shoot guns and fish and ride his bike. A dread of his own sloppy handwriting discouraged him from pursuing such predictable arts as drawing or painting.
The Search for Books
Jacob grew up to be a book scout in Seattle. “I dealt with a really specific bottom of barrel market for books,” he said. “I sold them to used bookstores.” After seeing how artists were repurposing album covers from LPs, he developed the technology to turn hard cover books into journals. He began gathering aesthetically interesting books for his project. After eleven years of journal making, his biggest challenge is still finding enough books.
Jacob travels around the Northwest in search of suitable tomes, but is careful not to reveal his secret treasure troves. “After years of developing relationships, people save things that might be of interest,” he said. What makes a good journal? Something with a compelling cover. “People think that they want Dickens or Melville or classics, but classics are boring looking books,” Jacob said. “You don’t need to embellish the classics.”
Ex Libris spiral-bound journals contain approximately 75 sheets of good quality, acid-free paper. Most are blank, but Jacob now has a customized option on his website for those who prefer lined journals. In addition to keeping the original cover, Jacob chooses some favorite pages – such as illustrations, library cards, maps or inscriptions – and intersperses those throughout. His busy workshop in the SE Portland industrial area now employs several part time helpers.
Ex Libris in Public
Ex Libris attends Renegade craft shows in cities like Austin and L.A. These juried shows feature emerging designers and unusual crafts. Locally, Jacob began showing at the Urban Art Network Street Gallery about six years ago. He enjoys the camaraderie with the other artists and interacting with the art audience. But he’s given up on trying to guess which journals people will choose. “Even eleven years on,” he said, “it’s still impossible for me to predict what people will like.” His own tastes run to the unusual, so he’s sometimes disappointed when someone picks a Dr. Seuss journal in lieu of one made from a book about arcane medical procedures.
Jacob didn’t start his own book collection until about five years ago. “I regret it almost every week,” he said of the boxes multiplying in his basement. Already he has filled the furnace room from floor to ceiling. “I collect the ones I can’t bear to cut up,” he said. “That’s more or less my criteria.” His preferred topics include esotericism, the occult, apocalyptic, animal husbandry, “weird Christian stuff I enjoy” and anything aesthetically pleasing. One day Jacob hopes to have a small reading room where he can share his collection with interested visitors. He’d like to model it after San Francisco’s Prelinger Collection, a small, eclectic private library.
Inventory is Essential
Ex Libris keeps a big inventory of journals, and Jacob advises other artists to do the same. “I’m a member of lots of art advocacy groups. Lots of people buy expensive paintbrushes then fail to produce anything,” he said. He advises beginning artists not to get too hung up on quality. “Crappy stuff is great. Just produce stuff. Work on your craft. A lot of people have opportunities they’re unable to take advantage of because they don’t have a product.”
Come see Jacob at the UAN Street Gallery, or buy his journals online at http://www.bookjournals.com/
—by Teresa Bergen