Without paper, it’s tough to make a book. Before Gutenberg’s press, sheepskin and calf-skin were used to make parchment and vellum on which monks painstakingly crafted manuscripts—a process that could take up to a year or more.
Which brings us to Cuba. Since the Cuban revolution (1953-1959), consumer goods, including paper, have been in short supply. Paper is a luxury item and you can’t waste paper on a book! (The Island has periodic toilet paper shortages.)
Nonetheless, in 1985, Ediciones Vigia (which means, Watchtower Editions), an independent book bindery collective, was established in Matanzas, situated on a bay of the same name, some fifty miles from Havana. The collective is housed in an old renovated colonial house on Watchtower Square which overlooks the San Juan River. A friend who recently visited Cuba brought back a book for me from the bindery.
Despite the paucity of paper, this book collective makes beautiful and artistic books using a wide variety of found and repurposed materials: craft and copier paper, crayons, yarn, leaves, cloth, wood scraps and items donated by international visitors. In the early days of the bindery, artists recycled the brown paper used in butcher shops, upon which to craft and illustrate books. The bindery uses only two mechanical devices: a borrowed mimeograph machine and a typewriter. As a result, the artists and writers use their hands and imagination to craft these beautiful books. The collective makes a limited run (a maximum of 200 copies) of each book.
Ediciones Vigía concentrates on printing poetry, short stories, literary criticism, and children’s literature. Some of the texts are original, while others are existing works by famous writers, such as the poems by Emily Dickenson or Jorge Luis Borges.
The British Museum and the Library of Congress both own books made by the Collective. You can currently only buy these sought-after books at the bindery itself. No stores sell them–not even in Havana. Nor can the books be purchased by mail or on the Internet (they have no web site).
You will have to take a journey. You must fly to Havana, and hire a car and driver and make the 50 mile trip to a colonial house perched on the bank of the San Juan River. Once there, you will enter a space with high ceilings, shelves of handmade books, and a couple of rocking chairs. And your book will be wrapped in plain paper when you leave.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “I cannot live without books.”It seems, some Cuban book artists echo his sentiments.