Bookbinder Paolo Olbi, and his typesetter Beppi, may be Venice’s last great artisans, making every component of their beautiful products  by hand in Paolo’s atmospheric workshop in Castello.

I first stumbled across one of Paolo’s shops on Campo Santa Maria Nova by accident and was immediately smitten by the leather-bound notebooks in the window with their fine leather ties.

This shop was closed, so I noted down his other shop on Calle della Mandola to see if I could find the source of these exquisite, traditional-inspired paper-products: note pads, address books, photo albums, stationery, and business cards.

There, Paolo was at work in the back room, embossing patterns into the leather covers of small notebooks, while his wife manned the counter out front, chatting to staff. She was busy and he was occupied, so I chose a few gifts while I waited.

A group of 20-ish Americans trooped in. One of the guys began thumbing through the notepads, apparently determined to buy one despite his friends’ bewildering attempts to put him off. “Don’t you think they’re, like, old-fashioned?” “Why don’t you get a Moleskin instead?” “They’re expensive, aren’t they? How do you know they won’t fall apart?” “How do you even know they’re made in Venice?”

Resisting the urge to thump the whiney young woman, I interrupted: “They’re cheaper than Moleskins, these won’t fall apart, their limited editions, and the man you see out back is making them by hand, so I think they might be made in Venice.”

“What do you use them for?” she asked in response. The young guy, ignoring his friend, took a few notebooks to the counter. Paolo’s wife looked appreciative.

When I showed an interest in what Paolo was doing and explained what Terence and I were doing in Venice, he invited us to visit him at his workshop the next day. There, Paolo and Beppi – with the wonderful help of his friend Paolo Lucidi, a glassmaker and artist, who translated for us – spent a couple of hours taking us through the printing and bookbinding process.

Paolo showed us how they create wood plates of the patterns for the book-covers, inspired by old Venetian designs and typesetting (Beppi’s role) by hand using old plates and type (which Terence, a book designer/publishing manager in a former life was thrilled to see), to binding the books 100% by hand.

Paolo made us a sample cover while we were there – it takes him one hour to make a small notebook when all the pieces are prepared, while it takes him about five hours to make a photo album. He also shared with us a personal project he’s been working on for some time, a splendid one-off book on Venice’s palazzi, his ‘dream job’ he says.

Over a glass of vino at a local bar around the corner Paolo tells us: “I love my job. I’m the only one around doing this. I’ll never retire.”

Paolo is happy to welcome visitors to his workshop. He wants people to appreciate the traditional artisanal process and the value of his products. He is also keen to collaborate on book projects. Just call into one of his shops when you’re in Venice and make a time. Also make sure you buy one of his notebooks. Trust me, you’ll never use another Moleskin again.

Paolo Olbi
Campo Santa Maria Nuova 6061; 041 523 7655

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