Volume 19 - Spring 2005


So what is going on at J. Hewit & Sons........?

by Roger Barlee

J Hewit & Sons Ltd has had an exciting and eventful life during the last 200 years and six generations. We have suffered at least six fires and had our London office destroyed during the Second World War, however, for the current directors, the last couple of years have also been very dramatic.

For those of you who don't know, just over two years ago we closed our warehouse in Park Royal after having had a continuous presence in London for over 120 years. Indeed at our peak my Great-Great Uncles (the sons of *J*(ane)) had their head office in Fleet Street and a tannery in Bermondsey. This step was not taken lightly, as our London warehouse was there to service the London Bookbinders with leather, bookcloth and other materials. As the era of the large British craft bookbinders came to an end, the focus slowly changed to servicing the amateur and smaller binderies in the South East. We have never been backward in employing new technologies, and in 1997 David Lanning started our Web Site. Over the years this progressed far beyond our wildest dreams with its biannual newsletter "Skin Deep", and more recently our on-line catalogue. The online catalogue finally proved the to be the straw that broke the camel's back as far as the necessity to have a stocking presence in London. With the advent of the cheap 1-day couriers the need for holding goods in two places disappeared, but it was the online catalogue that allowed the amateur binders to order their goods with the knowledge, from pictures and the background information, that they were getting what they wanted at a set price. Even so the shutting of the London warehouse was a step into the unknown, but has proved to be a great success and, with hindsight, was probably carried out at precisely the right moment.

Our intention was to let the dust settle before any further changes occurred, however things never go to plan, and it was therefore a great surprise to everybody when William McLean decided to leave at Christmas. William, my cousin, had been with the firm for 29 years, and since my father's retirement in 1992, he and I carried the vast bulk of the administration of the tannery on our shoulders. With his departure changes obviously had to be made. The most obvious of these as far as our account customers are concerned, has been the introduction of Factors from our bank to run the sales ledger. It was decided almost immediately that myself and Douglas Black, the accountant, could not cram three people's jobs into two, and using the Royal Bank of Scotland's factoring services seemed to be an obvious way to ease some of the administrative workload. Overall this has worked well, but as with any new system there are bound to be teething problems, and I would like to thank everybody involved for their patience in the first few months.

David and I have still had time for some other innovations over the last six months. Firstly and most importantly we have finally sorted out our long-term calfskin problem. For the last 30+ years we have traditionally used Scandinavian calf as our source of raw skins, however the numbers of skins that have been available to us has been dropping at an alarming rate. Things reached a critical point last autumn, and something had to be done. We had been buying vegetable tanned Bangladesh Calfskins for about five years mainly as a source of large panels for embossed leather orders. Some of the skins were being creamed off for BVC fairs, however we were hesitant to use this leather widely since it would not be of a suitably archival tannage for quality bookbinding leather. I decided to try retanning this leather with aluminum, as we have been doing very successfully with our Chieftain Goats for several years and, much to everyone's surprise the resulting leather has been a great success. Indeed nearly everybody who tested out our original trials at the end of last year, reported back saying how well the leather worked. As a result we have now moved the entire repair calf range, including a new natural R9, across to this leather, and stocks of repair calf are now complete. With the pressure taken off the dwindling calf stocks, and a surprise new source of raw skins, as I write this letter we are within a few weeks of completely catching up on all the back-orders of bookcalf. It may take us a few months until we have good working stocks on the shelves in every colour, but for those of you on the wrong-end of the six month waiting lists of last year this must be welcome news. Again I must thank all of you who have had unacceptable delays in the supply of their calfskins for your patience and understanding.

Hewits have been very concerned about lack of new bookbinders coming into the trade and over the last few years have introduced our Bookbinders Starter Pack of basic materials as well as our registry of study opportunities and bookbinding courses both in the UK and overseas. We are in the process of introducing two new ranges of products for beginners. The first of these is a range of blank book blocks (photo albums, address books etc) for beginners to use when they first start bookbinding. These have just come into stock and can be found on the web site. The second item, as yet a month or so away is a range of 3-4 square foot (0.3m2) BVC aniline calf necks and pieces of other leathers as a cut-price Leather Starter Pack so that people can train on using leather without the risk of ruining an expensive whole skin. We believe that these two items will be as successful as the original Starter Packs have proven to be.

I am also delighted to announce that in April, David was elected to the post of President of the Institute of Bookbinding and Allied Trades and would like to wish him every success for his year in Office.

Finally, I would like to thank William for returning to the fold this week as I recover from a rather horrific crash on my bicycle last Friday that resulted in me being admitted to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary for six hours. I am well on the mend, but it was a great comfort that William was willing to drop what he was doing and step in to cover for me this last week.


Skin Deep - Volume 19 - Spring 2005

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