WALLA WALLA — For anyone who loves a story, the closure of Walla Walla’s book bindery is not exactly an unexpected ending.
Digital publishing over the last decade and changes in how we consume information have been building toward a conflict for businesses like the Ohio-based HF Group, owners of the Avery Street bindery whose bread and butter for decades has been periodical binding for the academic market.
Nonetheless the announcement to employees and customers last week that an end is in sight was a disappointing twist. In six to eight weeks, the bindery located just off Poplar Street will close. Work produced there will move from the hands of the 20 employees who run the facility to the company’s Chesterland, Ohio, bindery.
Walla Walla’s Vice President of Operations Mark Melahn will continue with the company in West Coast customer service and logistical support, and Elleen Gascon will continue to support administratively at a yet-to-be-determined Walla Walla area office. Walla Walla will continue as a “distribution hub” and customer service site indefinitely.
For this community, the plant closure marks the end of a decades-old tradition that started in College Place. For publishing and book binding, it represents an ever-thickening plot.
Colleges and universities have sharply reduced the volume of bound journals in the evolving Digital Age, said HF Group Chief Executive Officer Jay Fairfield.
“We’ve hung on a long time,” Fairfield said. “From a business perspective we probably hung on longer than we should have.”
The needs of academia have changed, he said. Most college-level research historically has been published through journals that schools send to the Walla Walla operation to be bound. A number of the machines have been proprietarily created for the purpose of meeting the sizing needs of the books — all crafted in steps and each passing through 15 to 20 sets of hands before they’re trucked and delivered.
The University of Hawaii and Arizona State University continue to be two of the largest customers. The former sends 800 to 1,000 pieces a month for publication, while the latter submits 500 to 600 pieces every two weeks, Melahn said. About 60 percent of the workflow is periodicals — magazines turned into books — monographs and theses.
Virtually every college and university in the state of Washington plus as many in Oregon have at one time been a customer, with one exception, Fairfield said.
“One of our greatest disappointments — we’ve been here 20-plus years and never convinced the University of Washington” to become a customer, he said.
Since the beginning, colleges and universities have greatly reduced their volume of journal subscriptions. On top of that, probably half of what they do subscribe to is now available only digitally.
That’s probably the biggest of the three technological changes affecting binding, Fairfield said. The others include the proliferation of large-run digital printing, and the decline of book repairs and binding in general.
The HF Group realized it could increase efficiencies by reducing its footprint. Four months ago, the property was sold, Fairfield said, to the Walla Walla Foundry.
According to the Walla Walla County Assessor’s Office, the sale was a $1.6 million transaction. Fairfield said the foundry will begin construction for its own purposes on the 25,000-square-foot building in November.
The HF Group ultimately decided not to open another location here.
This, Fairfield said, is the last specialty library bindery facility west of the Rockies.
The industry is down to 10 such facilities in the United States, he said. Half of those are owned by HF Group. Of those, the number will drop from five to four with the closure on Avery.
“It’s indicative of how small the industry is now,” Fairfield said.
“We have absolutely loved being a part of Walla Walla. It’s been a really great community to be a part of business-wise and personally. We hate closing the bindery.”
Beyond the industry, the bindery traces its roots through the Walla Walla Valley for decades — perhaps upward of a century even.
A 1993 story from the Union-Bulletin archive noted then-Walla Walla College had operated a bindery 100 years. That bindery is what eventually became the HF Group.
Fairfield said the company purchased it in 1991. With help from the Port of Walla Walla the land on Avery Street was acquired and the current facility was constructed.
Although largely known for binding, the operation also specializes in conservation and restoration. Two to three times a week, Melahn said someone still comes through the doors with hope the business can restore a frail family Bible or treasured book.
“Bookbinding is kind of a romantic industry,” he said. “It’s a noble profession, preserving the written word.”
The business is also personal to local residents for another reason. Since 1991, more than 1,000 employees have passed through the facility. Every summer 15 to 20 college students have found seasonal employment there.
“In a small community like this I think everybody in this town probably knows somebody who worked at the bindery,” Melahn said.
It perhaps seemed a sign of the times when not long ago Melahn started receiving unusual requests from clients. Two universities have sent their theses to the facility already bound.
But lately they’ve been wanting them to be dismantled. The hard-bound covers removed, and the pages undone. They want to scan the pages to be filed digitally, and the hard copies to be done away with.
“It’s a new thing,” Melahn said. “It doesn’t happen often, but it’s starting.”