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Meet Mychal Mitchell of Iona Handcrafted Books

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mychal Mitchell.

Mychal, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
My story begins with a backpacking trip to Europe after graduating from Arizona State University’s School of Architecture and Design in 1992. My plan was to see first hand all of the ancient architecture I’d studied in school, with an eye on returning to the States to get a Masters in Architectural Preservation and Restoration. In the 5th month of my travels, I had my backpack stolen in Termini train station in Rome. Inside were not only my passport, my plane tickets, my travelers’ checks, my Pentax K1000 camera, a Sony cassette walkman (just to give you an idea of how long ago this was!), but most importantly, my journal. I was totally crushed, as you can imagine. Everything was actually replaceable, except for the 100’s of sketches, and paintings and writings that were in that journal.

The following week, I befriended a street artist in the plaza in Venice who, upon discovering my need for a new journal, led me to his friend’s bookbinding shop. I was so thrilled by the magic of his small studio, that he took a liking to me, I suppose and allowed me to spend several glorious afternoons with him in the back of the studio watching and learning his process. Though at the time I certainly didn’t expect to ever make books myself, I eagerly absorbed every detail of his craft. I bought a beautiful book from him and filled it within a few months of returning to the States. Since this was the early 90’s, and there was no internet to help me find another book like the one he’d made, I decided I’d have to make myself another. Once people saw the journal I’d made from some scrap leather from a shoemaking shop in Seattle and some handmade watercolor paper, they started requesting that I make journals for them and their families. And before I was even able to take the GRE for grad school, I had a little tiny business on my hands. And the rest is history, I guess. Thank goodness for that little gypsy kid!

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I think every small business has struggles, of course. It can be stressful being a small arts business at times… trying to be the artist, and the bookkeeper, and the marketing director, and the manager of a small team. It’s challenging, and it is also extremely rewarding. I can get overly focused on doing things the way I’ve always done them in the past because it takes less brain power (and frankly, my brain is just exhausted a lot!). Luckily, I have a studio manager that thinks outside of the box and is always pushing me to try new things…to look at new ways of marketing, and new audiences that would appreciate our work. I can’t say that I always jump on her advice, but I know the value of having someone there to push me to look at things differently.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Iona Handcrafted Books – what should we know?
Iona Handcrafted Books is a small bookbinding studio in East Austin. We specialize in heirloom-quality handcrafted leather journals and photo albums. Our style of binding originated centuries ago with monks who needed more durable books in which to copy scriptures and other works. So they are super durable, and made to be passed down to future generations or just taken on a safari, or backpacking trip, or filled with family recipes, or photos or whatever you want to keep around for a while. They’re pretty indestructible. We strive to be as environmentally conscious as possible. Our archival papers are either handmade custom for us from recycled fabrics, or are made from eco-friendly bamboo fibers. Our leathers are mostly surplus leathers from other industries, such as the cowboy boot, handbag, or belt industries.

What really sets us apart from other leather journal makers is the unique style of our signature books. About ten years ago I began to use antique architectural elements in my books for function and for decoration. Over the years I’ve refined the look, and mostly focus on Victorian-era door hinges and icebox hinges. The door hinge closures are stunning and are simple to open by just sliding the pinout of the top. I slightly alter the icebox hinges by cutting a small slot into them to repurpose it to be used as a hasp with an antique padlock. It always amazes me how incredibly ornate simple things like hinges were back in those days. They’re all unique and so incredibly gorgeous! This line of books ties together my love for bookbinding and my love of historic architecture, and I am so proud of it. I think these really speak to people.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
I believe the success of Iona is not only our commitment to excellent craftsmanship, and my friendly staff…but just the fact that we have stayed committed to books all these years. I was taught in architecture school to have a concept statement for design projects, and every single decision had to point back to that original concept. So I guess “books” is the center of my concept.

I’ve been asked more time than I can count to branch out and make Ipad covers, Kindle covers, briefcases, or other items from leather. I like to tell people I’m not a leatherworker, but I am a bookbinder that just happens to use leather. And I think the commitment to the book has been key. The more people are inundated with electronic devices, the more people gravitate to my shop, it seems. It is so lovely to see people pick up my books, bring them up to their nose to inhale that aroma, and then just exhale while they hold the book to their chest. You can see the effect books have on their stress levels. It’s really amazing. I think people relate to what I’m doing on a gut level. I really do. And I love talking to people about how they are planning to use their books. It’s so much more interesting than talking about electronic devices all day!

Pricing:

  • Traditional Leather Strapped Journals $80-$220
  • Traditional Strapped Photo Albums $120-$250
  • Journals & Photo Albums W/ Hardware Closures $180-$1200

Contact Info:

  • Address: 1023 Springdale Rd, Suite 1G
    Austin Tx 78721
  • Website: www.ionahandcraftedbooks.com
  • Phone: 512-247-4700
  • Email: mychal@ionahandcraftedbooks.com

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