UTICA, Neb. — Paging through the classifieds of The World-Herald in 1977, Don Osborne noticed an advertisement for the sale of the Houchen Bindery Ltd. The Omaha dairyman didn't know the first thing about book binding but was intrigued enough to call up the owner.
Still interested, he and his wife, Connie Osborne, made the trek some 90 miles from Omaha to visit. She thought that the bindery was a neat enough operation but assumed she'd never be back. He sensed its potential to be a big opportunity, and career, for their kids.
Don Osborne, now 80, got out of the dairy business and purchased Houchen, established in 1935, with the intention of moving it closer to home. But he had one problem: “We didn't know the binding business and our eight employees did. Not a one of them would move.”
So in Utica they stayed.
Houchen has acquired 14 regional book binderies over the years, keeping a small bindery of five employees in St. Louis and bringing the rest of the work to Utica. They've expanded the Utica facility from 15,000 square feet when the Osbornes bought it to 40,000 square feet today. Their customer base has grown, too, from two states to 21, covering the middle third of the United States.
Today, they serve about 200 printing companies throughout the Midwest, ranging from small, independent self-publishers to some of the biggest names in book publishing. They also have 200 individual comic book customers.
Located on the quiet main drag of this 806-person village southwest of Omaha, the bindery has thrived for 35 years, binding an estimated 2,000 books per day — with a seasonal bump of about 100,000 textbooks each summer while school is out — positioning the company for success as one of the few surviving operations of its kind.
Houchen today is one of about 20 binderies globally and the only Nebraska binder that's part of the Hardcover Binders International and the Library Binding Institute, a trade association that sets industry standards. At its height, the association had nearly 90 members, but shrinking library budgets and the growth in digital products have posed major challenges to the industry.
In a 10-year outlook, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010 projected a 4 percent decline in print jobs, pointing to cuts in publishing, newspaper and magazine volumes for reducing demand for such workers.
Houchen has branched into different areas of the industry to make up for the downturn. In the last five years or so, the company has dipped its toes into new specialties that have become its business sweet spots.
“Our company is in a transition of sorts from our old core business to a different focus,” said John Salistean, vice president of operations. He is married to the Osbornes' daughter Kim. “(We're going) away from a sole focus on library binding because it is a shrinking market to edition binding, which is growing in the short run.”
Edition binding refers to binding a quantity of books that cater toward book printers, commercial printers, publishers and book distributors who need lots of hardcover or soft cover copies.
Edition binding wasn't always a strong area for Houchen.
In the past, edition binding requests came in the masses and publishers wanted to fill their warehouses because they knew they could sell all the copies. Then e-books came along and suddenly smaller jobs were the industry norm and publishers started looking to on-demand binderies, like Houchen.
“That's been our niche,” said president Damon Osborne, the youngest Osborne son, noting that about five years ago they hired Martin Pugh, director of development, sales and marketing, to help develop that specialty.
Comic books, photobooks and self-published works have also developed into company specialties. Custom comic book binding for collectors has been one of those growth areas for about five years, said Thomas Salis- tean, the Osbornes' grandson who joined the bindery full time after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a business degree.
“Our decades of experience in library binding makes comic book binding a great fit for us,” he said, noting that they're alike in that each book is unique and requires juggling many special requests.
Though the Osbornes are seeing the most growth in edition binding, library binding still represents the majority of Houchen's workload. It's still requested by academic libraries and libraries housed in museums, law offices and newspapers.
With 700,000 physical volumes of books at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Criss Library, library dean Steve Shorb said Houchen has been a valuable resource to UNO for 25 years.
“For years and years,” he said, “libraries have relied on a good bindery primarily for the purpose of taking loose issues of scientific journals and binding them into books to keep them on a shelf.”
The library, which houses a gallery in the Osbornes' name, also taps Houchen to buy some of their oldest books some shelf time by restoring and preserving titles that are a century or more old. The university always has a small stack of books designated for a visit to Houchen for some TLC, often returning in better shape than if the library went out and bought a brand new copy, Shorb said.
Landon Osborne, vice president of plant operations and the older Osborne son, said the company's process works well because of the skill and attentiveness of its employees, some of whom who have worked at the bindery for more than 30 years.
“Our best asset is our good people,” he said.
Utica Mayor Don Olson said the company is the town's largest employer behind Centennial Public School, and the company has been supportive of Utica. Houchen employs area youths, both high school and college students, during the summer.
During the town's Heritage Days, Houchen opens its production floor for tours. The facility, which sprawls a couple of city blocks long, is a bright spot for the town.
“It's just a really nice business to have in a small community like this,” Olson said.
While Utica has never become the Osbornes' full-time home — they've remained in their midtown Omaha neighborhood where they raised their four children, all of whom graduated from college and worked at the bindery at some point — they built a small apartment above the bindery they call the Top Shelf to reduce commuting and to feel more a part of the Utica community.
Days are so busy, Damon Osborne said, that he feels lucky to have a free moment to look around and see the fruits of their labor.
Above all, Connie Osborne said, the business has been a labor of love. Their hope is that their business will remain for another generation. They believe that the book is not dead and that with their hard-working staff, their business will continue to find ways to prosper. Don Osborne said they've invested too much into the operation for it not to continue.
“You have an obligation to the people in our company, and you have an obligation to the town,” he said.
Binding process much the same for all books
The binding process varies depending on the type of product Houchen's customers request, but it generally follows the same steps.
It starts on a preparation table, where materials are gathered and marked with the specifics of the job. The paper is then moved to a measuring station, where a cover is chosen and sized.
Next, it goes to the leaf attachment station, where one of two steps are taken. Some jobs require oversewing, or stitching loose pages together and securing them with glue to the spine of a soft or hardcover book. In other jobs, loose pages are attached together with an adhesive.
Equipment has revolutionized how the leaf attachment step works. Advances in binding equipment have taken huge leaps, evolving from heavy iron machines that required manual labor to computerized systems that require the touch of a button. The Ultra Bind Plus can finish 200 books an hour, compared with 15 per hour by hand.
“I call him a genius,” co-owner Connie Osborne said of the inventor of the Ultra Bind Plus, one of their leaf attachment machines.
In the event something goes wrong with technology, the old iron machines stand on the production floor, ready for use. Connie Osborne said that rarely happens, but they keep the backup because they're driven by deadlines.
After the pages are attached to the spine, the book goes into edge trimming, where the head, tail and sides of the book are cut off with a razor-sharp blade to clean up the book.
The book moves into rounding and backing stations, where a machine shapes the spine of the book so that it's easier to open. In the past, a worker would use a hammer to round the book, but advances in equipment make that process far less laborious.
The book then moves into a final case making and stamping stage, where the cover is secured to the pages with a machine. It goes through a special press that, with 300 to 1,200 pounds of pressure, presses all the bubbles out from under the cover in about eight seconds.
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