In the back of Chris Sontag’s business near the Ohio River, Maria Smith feeds pre-cut paper into an ancient binding machine while her feet work the pedals. The National Book Sewing Machine—model number 469—was built in 1905. Today, 100 years later, it’s still going, punching nylon thread through hundreds of pages of a collector’s book on currency. The machine is one of several Sontag acquired when he purchased a failed bookbinding business last year. Now, the machines are scattered throughout his company, the John Galt Bindery, in Dayton, Ky., along with old gluing machines and paper cutters.
Sontag, a 1985 business school and 1991 M.B.A. graduate, was at the top of a banking career when he decided he had enough. So he walked away from a six-figure income and found a new challenge in the dying bookbinding industry. He and a partner figured they could succeed by focusing on small specialty orders.
“We opened in January 2004 and we’re ahead of where we projected,” Sontag says. Most clients, who find John Galt on the Internet, have special requests—leather bindings, copper nameplates, boxes with clamshell lids. Sontag restores family Bibles and makes diploma covers, but he doesn’t do vinyl or anything that’s mass-produced.
One of the more exotic orders was from Tiffany & Co. for 3,000 designer boxes that hold a loose-leaf catalog of diamond jewelry for an exclusive Japanese market. They’ve also made 500 calendar books for the Hyatt Regency’s new resort in Aspen, Colo., featuring copper faceplates and stitched suede covers. And they’ve made black slip cases for a Stephen King special edition collection.
Sontag is grateful for the antique machines. Despite being obsolete, he says, they’re more useful now than ever.