The Scriptum Blog
We love opera. As soon as you step into Scriptum, you undergo a sensory assault of the best kind: colourful and complicated objects throng your vision, the scent of leather and paper envelops you, and a wave of soaring operatic sound washes over you. Azeem is a dedicated Rossini and Puccini fan, so on sunny Oxford afternoons we enjoy brightly cheerful melodies and gracefully tragic arias in turn, while on grey and gloomy mornings I wrest control of the music to revel in the dismal splendour of both Wagner's moments of brilliance and his terrible half hours*. Customers, catching a half-remembered strain as they browse, frequently ask us what is playing. Some music buffs don't actually ask, they announce "Lovely recording; this is Callas, of course... La Scala, 1953, wasn't it?" Yes, it was, we answer, a little awestruck.
The other thing we love, naturally, is writing. Everyone here is moderately obsessed with penmanship (how could we not be?) and I am decidedly the worst. As well as working at Scriptum, I do a lot of freelance calligraphy, and Azeem wanted to combine this with his own opera fanaticism to make some beautiful cards with our ten favourite arias. There was much lively discussion - some things were said about Wagner which I shall never forgive nor forget - but the final list was:
- E lucevan le stelle from Tosca
- Addio del passato from La Traviata
- Un bel dì vedremo from Madama Butterfly
- Che farò senza Eurydice? from Orfeo ed Eurydice
- Ombra mai fu from Serse
- O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi
- Vissi d'arte from Tosca
- Casta diva from Norma
- Sempre libera from La Traviata
- Nessun dorma from Turandot
We wanted a classic, old-manuscript look to the cards, so we decided on a gothic style for the script, and a simple colour scheme of black and red, enhanced with gold-lined envelopes. It took several days of intensive writing to complete the calligraphy. The lyrics were written out first, then I broke up the lines by adding the C clef symbol, which used to be used in musical notation for vocal music before the treble and bass clefs became standard in the 19th century.
When the main aria was done, I gave each card a bright red inset first letter illustrated with a floral background, as a nod to medieval manuscript illumination. I also bookended each aria with interesting facts about each opera's premiere and role originators (the best name to write, without a doubt, was the superbly monikered Giuditta Pasta, who was the first to sing Casta Diva). Finally, we designed the box to include my favourite musical phrase from Tosca; test out your sight-reading by having a look at the notes and seeing if you can sing it!
You can now buy the cards here on our website or in store.
* If you are wondering whether Rossini actually said this about Wagner, the answer is... probably. It's by far the most accurate description of Wagner I've ever come across, in any case.
Happy International Women's Day! It's wonderful to see so many people celebrating the achievements of amazing women, but we must also remember that despite some progress we've still a long way to go, even in the seemingly genderless world of stationery... remember this idiocy from Bic?
May our tiny lady hands wield our tiny lady pens more mightily than swords in the continuing fight for equality!
Some truly terrible poetry for your delectation this Valentine's day; on this Victorian Valentine's card, the poet presses their suit by trying to convince their beloved that they are more worthy of love than a nest of birds. Okay. Only really a legitimate comparison if the recipient is an ornithologist, but nonsensical blather seems to be a key component of most Valentine's cards even now. This prime specimen of sentimental verse, however excruciatingly twee by today's standards, is at least saved by the restrained and rather sweet illustration by Kate Greenaway (though the card itself hasn't got away without lacy edging. The Victorians really loved their lacy edging). The card was printed 1876 and can be seen in the Early and Fine Printing Collection at the Library of Birmingham. So, if you are stuck for a Valentine's day verse and happen to be dating a bird lover, try winning them over with this little gem:
Five blue eggs in a nest,
Two brown birds on a tree,
And which do you think is best,
The eggs, or the birds, or me?
The eggs may sing in time,
I sing to you to-day;
The birds are in singing prime,
But who knows what they say?
The eggs may fall and break,
The birds may fly away,
If winds the tree should shake,
But I shall always stay.
Then say you love me dear!
And whatsoever weather
May come, I shall not fear,
We'll brave the worst together!
Today is #timetotalk day; a great campaign encouraging us to talk about mental health issues without fear or stigma. My colleagues and I send our love and support to everyone who is struggling, and I'd like to share my own story. For my personal mental wellbeing, I find it really helpful to put pen to paper to remember the good things which happen every day. It doesn't have to be anything big: it could be kindness from a stranger, anything which suddenly makes me smile, even a particularly good cup of coffee. It's easy to get swamped in the negative things which happen in the world and in our own minds, so creating space in the day to write a simple, positive sentence calms and centres me, and helps me focus on good memories. This year I am going to write a line a day in a journal I have called 'The Good Place', and I hope that this idea might help other people too. So, take some time today to have a chat about the problems one in four of us face, and spread the word that it's #timetotalk!
No, we haven't started our Christmas shopping yet, either. But it's about time to start seeking inspiration, so we have prepared a gift guide to help you find some wonderful ideas: naturally we have some excellent presents for stationery lovers, but we also have a wide range of more unusual items for those hard-to-buy-for people in everyone's life. Simply click on the image above, then pick the collection that best describes the person you are shopping for, and you'll see a selection of unforgettable presents to suit them. Easy!
For those of you raring to start, we are offering Free Standard UK Shipping or £5 Off International Shipping for the whole of the next week. Just enter the code LookHowOrganisedIAm when you checkout between now & midnight on Friday 25th November. Happy shopping!
After a sweltering summer of less-than-peaceful drilling and building work, Turl Street has gained another of those unexpected and tantalising Oxford views which lift the spirits and spur the imagination. Through a wrought iron gate in a Cotswold stone wall, past a well-tended lawn and shrubbery, the arched stonework of a 17th century chapel reflects in the huge windows of Lincoln College's sensitively designed new Garden Building, and against the summer-blue sky you catch a glimpse of the iconic curved roof of the Radcliffe camera. Stunning, and well worth a glance the next time you pass it on your way here. This month we will have been based on Turl Street for ten years (we spent the four before that in a smaller shop in the Golden Cross) and the beauty and character of our surroundings never cease to inspire us.
As is usual at this time of year, over the last few months we have met fascinating people visiting Oxford from all over the world. Our new Zakria Journal (above) has been a particular hit with travellers because of the flap and toggle which keep loose paper tucked in, as well as the stunning embossing on the front cover. They have been bought by customers from as far afield as Chile, the USA, and Australia, making it a truly international favourite! We always love seeing our products in use, so if any of you have photos of our journals which have been scribbled in and battered and used and loved, please send them in, or tag us in your pictures of them on Instagram or Facebook.
This month we've been...
... reading the new Folio Society edition of Terry Pratchett's Mort. And running our fingers over the terrifyingly tactile cover. “THAT’S MORTALS FOR YOU.... THEY’VE ONLY GOT A FEW YEARS IN THIS WORLD AND THEY SPEND THEM ALL IN MAKING THINGS COMPLICATED FOR THEMSELVES. FASCINATING.”
... listening to Verdi's Nabucco
... writing with a Conklin Duragraph Fountain Pen
Have you ever found yourself drifting in the middle of the featureless blue ocean wondering which way to sail for land? Well, no, neither have we, but the fact remains that this sailor's sextant is an entrancing little gadget, used alongside navigational charts to allow you to work out your latitude by measuring the angle between an astral body and the horizon. Usually £65, we offer you this nautical reproduction for only £50 until the end of August with this terrible pun of a discount code, SUMMERSAIL.
In a quest for some exciting new lines for this spring, we decided it was time to pay a visit to one of our suppliers to see exactly how their leather bound journals are made. We like to know precisely where our stock comes from, as we want to be able to talk with confidence about every detail of a product’s journey: its materials, its history, its creation. Provenance is important; before becoming part of your story, a journal has a tale of its own.
Amarcord is an Italian bindery based in Piacenza, a beautiful cobbled and campanile-dotted town halfway between Milan and Bologna. The company’s name is a local dialect word for “I remember” in a rather nostalgic sense - very fitting for a maker of journals, the repositories of memories and dreams. We have been working with Amarcord for a number of years, and as well as many of our best-selling journals, they also supply some of our music manuscript journals, wine records and restaurant books, so we were rather excited to meet the craftsmen who make them.
Amarcord is run by third generation leathersmith Sergio, whose grandfather set up the company, originally to make leather luggage and belts, shortly after returning from the second world war. Sergio's father eventually took over the business, and then Sergio in his turn, building on the years of family experience in leatherwork to specialise in journals and binding. He works closely with his colleague Daniela, who is Piacenza born and bred, and passionate about not only Amarcord journals but all the produce and history of their region. When not hard at work in the workshop itself, Sergio and Daniela sit in their office at patchwork leather desks (made in-house, naturally) drinking fragrant espresso and arranging the distribution of their journals all around the world.
The workshop is a light, airy building a few miles from the city centre, filled with the heavy scent of leather, paper, and glue, and the clatter and whir of machines ticking over, waiting to be used by the small team of leatherworkers. With this artisan style of production, each journal comes under Sergio's watchful eye and allows him to ensure the quality of every piece is up to his standards.
The journal-making process begins with the leather. The leather for our Verona journals comes from the Veneto, where the cow hides are tanned, dyed, and greased to give their distinctive soft suede-like texture. The leather for our Trieste journals and Embossed Window journals with a smoother, shinier finish, comes from nearby Tuscany. Amarcord have dozens of other styles and colours of hides stacked in rolls along one wall of the workshop - it’s difficult to pass by without stroking each one to feel the grain and finish, and nigh on impossible for us to decide which we want to use for our order. After poking, prodding and a good deal of sniffing, we finally pick out our favourites to make up the journals which will arrive in Oxford in the spring.
Once we have selected the type of leather, it is taken it to the cutting press. Sergio chooses a sharp-edged press, exactly like an industrial-strength cookie-cutter, for whichever shape of cover he needs, and positions it carefully on top of the hide. The heavy stamp is brought down hydraulically, pushing the sharp edge of the press cleanly through the tough leather to leave the basic shape of the journal, and sometimes a double hole for a tie-closure.
If it is a hardback, the leather now needs to be attached to a thick layer of mount board to give it stiffness and shape. For spines with the traditional ridges, a piece of ridged board is also added to give the leather its characteristic shape after a short stint in a curved spine press. Now comes the embossing. Metal blocking dies with a bewildering array of patterns are neatly filed in drawers, ready to stamp their pattern onto the leather. To do this, the die is positioned in a stamping machine which heats the metal to 125°C before bringing it down on the leather. The heat and the pressure stamp the pattern indelibly onto the leather’s surface.
The next step is the block; a bound collection of pages to put inside the journal. Amarcord use Italian-made book blocks with 85gsm acid-free paper as standard (120gsm for sketch books). The leaves within the block are stitched together as well as glued at the spine, leaving the pages firmly and tightly bound even if the journal is opened completely flat or folded back on itself. Laura Berretti, an expert in traditional Italian marbling techniques, also sends Amarcord blocks with hand-marbled edges from her atelier in Florence. These are the blocks used in our Trieste journals. For books with handmade paper, luxurious deckle-edged Amatruda Amalfi paper is stitched together by hand in the workshop to create the block from scratch.
If the block needs to be resized, or mount board cut, there are a pair of guillotines for the job. One is a modern machine, which you have to press two buttons about a metre apart to operate - the idea is that as you need two hands to bring the guillotine down, you can't accidentally chop off your own fingers by mistake! The other looks more like a medieval decapitation device than an innocent bindery tool; a manually operated, meter-long, razor-sharp blade which comes chopping down with a sinister swish to cleave easily though the thickest mount board.
Once the block has been selected and trimmed to size, it is time to unite it with the cut-out and embossed leather. In a few quick, deft motions, the block is run through a revolving press, a bit like a mangle. This coats it with a fine layer of glue from the roller, which is fed from a bubbling pot of the treacly liquid. The block is snatched from the roller immediately, then aligned with and pressed onto the leather cover by hand, binding the two firmly and evenly together. It is then put in another press for five minutes while the glue dries. While the team at Amarcord make all this look easy, moving with the assurance and dexterity born of long practice, we Scriptonians kept our hands safely tucked in our pockets, imagining accidentally gluing our fingers to that inexorably revolving mangle.
If the journal has any extra features, such as a tie closure, this is the time to add them. A thin leather thong, stamped out of leather by the same process as the journal covers, is looped carefully through the holes; a fiddly process. Then a beechwood bead, sourced from Bergamo (just north of Milan) is threaded on to make a toggle closure, and the ends of the thong neatly tied and snipped.
And finally, the journal is finished! Although we have been working with Amarcord for several years, it was inspiring and somehow humbling to see how much attention to detail, how many years of experience go into producing each and every journal handmade in their workshop. It all comes back to provenance: if you know where something comes from, you can be assured of not only its quality, but the tradition in which its making is rooted. It was fascinating to discover the story behind each part of our journals, and to meet the people whose passion for traditional leatherwork keep us journal-lovers supplied with the objects of our desire. We can’t wait for the new styles we have ordered to arrive!