Book Binding: A Closer Look At A Classic Tradition

We’re back in the Garment District, and this time, we spoke to Stephen at Brewer Cantelmo, a factory specializing the portfolio book marketplace. This is the second part of an interview series with factory owners and workers in New York’s industrial heart.

Tell us what you do!

We custom make presentation products by hand, using old world craftsmanship.  While we do sometimes do larger quantity orders, our customers want a faster turnaround.  Overseas, we typically see machine-made type binders and folders suited to large quantity, lower quality market. Here, we will make a customer 1 of our portfolio books, boxes or carrying cases or 10 menus or 5 boxes or 2 binders or 35 pad-holders or 20 oversized gift boxes.

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You describe yourself as a manufacturer of ‘tactile handmade products used by people in many industries’. Can you explain a bit more about how your products fit together?

Basically we produce a wide array of bound re-branding, marketing, and presentation tools. Our items are often tools that companies use when they interact with their customers. Our clients include national department stores, publications, cosmetic companies, auction houses, restaurants, and freelance photographers.

Our customers in the restaurant world (where we make menus, wine lists, check presenters, reservation books, etc.) can be the owner of a single location, a TV chef or the purchasing manager for a nationwide operation. In the portfolio book marketplace, our customer can be a single professional photographer, a graphic designer, a stylist or a makeup artist, or it can be a fashion company, modeling agency, or a company that represents 50 such professionals. With a custom made binder, it can be for a sales force of many, a corporate board presentation, a pitch by agents for baseball players, hotel room directories, or the holder of cooking recipes for your mother.

Past productions even include portable cases for surgical wires, whiskey cases, cookie boxes, birthday invitation cases, bound university thesis projects, black denim book covers, teaching awards, and lipstick sales drawers. If you name an idea and we have the capacity to make it, we’ll do it! Try to find what we’re doing anywhere else in New York… you can’t.

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Can you tell us about the history of the business and how it’s changed since you’ve been here?

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Brewer Cantelmo has been around for 87 years. I bought the business in 1995. When I bought it, I didn’t know anything about book binding at all. I learned the ropes under the guidance of the previous owner, Cantelmo, for 10 months, after which I was on my own.

The business has changed a lot because of the Internet and what young people want. They don’t carry around portfolios anymore. It’s like how some people want a McDonald’s burger and others want vegetarian. Some still want tactile things and others no longer see the need for them at all. There’s a whole spectrum. We try to adapt to these changes by creating new products – like iPad cases.

What significance does your location in New York City have to you?

Since 1928, Brewer-Cantelmo has been located in Manhattan, but more importantly in New York City.  We are proud to be part of the “Made in NYC” effort to promote those of us who have stayed here to manufacture products and not go out of state or overseas. We have a sales rep in Tokyo, who tells us all the time, the benefits of promoting the fact that we are in New York City.  Being here helps our identify us and links us to the center of the universe for business, fashion, media, and fine dining.

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What about your location in the Garment District?

Being in the Garment District is a big plus for us on many levels.  Most importantly, we have tremendous access to 10 different subway lines within a 10 minute walk.  This allows our employees, and customers to get to our showroom/factory from anywhere within the 5 boroughs.  Many of our local suppliers are within a 10 block area, allowing us to source something quickly.  38th street alone has many of the ribbon, trimming, and cloth suppliers that give our customers choices not available clustered together anywhere else.

What struggles do you face?

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As mentioned, in today’s environment, the Internet helps us and hurts us.  As younger people move into the workplace and become decision makers in their jobs and careers, they favor digital presentations, slide shows, employing laptop computers and iPads.  This makes the demand for some of our products lower.

It’s our job to educate them, and identify local or distant markets via the internet, to make potential customers aware of our capabilities.  Much of our younger audience does not even know to look for our type of products, but we are just scratching the surface of reaching new customers through our new website and the ability to order some of our products in our online store. Currently, we have a video in production that will be up on our site which in 3-4 minutes captures a day in the life of our factory.  The video will also appear in Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram.

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What’s your hiring process like?

People aren’t trained to do what we do, so we train them here. We try it out for a few months and see how it goes. To work here you have to be nimble, clean, and quick on your feet. It’s not hi-tech, it’s low tech. Handcrafted and old-fashioned.

What’s the weirdest product you’ve made?

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A “weird” product we made involved surgical “wires” used by a hospital supply company that required their reps chase down surgeons in elevators to catch them on the run and show them new choices.  We had to create a very thin (3/4 inch) box with canals to hold these micro thin wires that had to be removable but not floating around loose.

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Have you ever turned down a request?

A request that we turned down from a singer was to make a piece of furniture with wheels to transport sheet music for 35 members of his orchestra that travels the country doing shows year round. If they had music for 50 songs, they couldn’t figure out how to transport sheet music for 1750 songs!  While we are in the presentation business, we are not furniture or cabinet makers.

We are very flexible in the type of projects we will take on, but we like to say that we like to work on things that are possible, while providing outstanding service and high quality. It has been that way for 87 years and we look forward to a bright future.

Do you have a tagline?

Bring us your ideas. Excellence is our custom!

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