Homegrown business: Jenni Bick Custom Journals

Making it work on Martha’s Vineyard (and Washington. D.C.).

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Jenni Bick holds leather journals from the Santa Fe line in the company's West Tisbury offices. – Stacey Rupolo

“Game of Thrones” ordered 1,000 embossed notebooks as gifts for a season-premiere party. Aflac, the insurance company, bought 3,500 custom-stamped books. Nike’s trademark swoop has appeared on multiple orders of journals. Expedia notebooks are now numbering in the mega-thousands. Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, Lexus, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Google UK, Google Canada, and other Google departments have all received some of the 100,000 personalized journals, notebooks, and albums flowing annually out of the workshop of Jenni Bick Custom Journals in West Tisbury, certainly the most robust arts and crafts company on Martha’s Vineyard.

“We’re able to produce this much stuff in a Vineyard operation,” Jenni Bick told me, “because we’re either a very small factory or a very large cottage industry.”

Actually, she’s running both: a mass-production factory and a smaller, hands-on crafts shop.

At a table in the workshop, an Islander cuts holes in leather hides of various textures, sews in paper pages, and adds a turquoise stone to produce what’s called a one-of-a-kind Santa Fe Journal, to be further individualized with a person’s name or initials embossed on the cover. Meanwhile, downstairs two other Islanders operate embossing machines to stamp company names and logos on hundreds of identical, ready-made notebooks, bought in bulk.

“It’s interesting that as a business,” Jenni said, “we started out as an arts and crafts sort of thing, and then evolved, so we’re now serving individuals who want pretty art books for diaries, scrapbooks, guest books, and collages, and we’re also supplying corporations that want a hundred notebooks to give away at a conference. Any organization that wants promotional items with their logo on them is potentially one of our customers. And that’s how we can employ 15 to 16 people.”

Orders come into the shop by phone or online. “This is a workshop,” Jenni said. “Customers are allowed, but aren’t invited. If they stumble upon us, they’re welcome.”

This past January, Jenni and her husband, Robby, also opened a bricks-and-mortar retail store in Washington, D.C. “We’re not moving,” Jenny explained. “We’re just expanding. We ship out of this building 50 orders a day. And then we have an additional 100 customers down in Washington. So we have 150 happy people every day.”

Twenty-one years ago, Jenni and her husband were living in Washington, D.C. “We were desperately broke,” she said, “we had three kids under 5, my husband lost his job, and we said, ‘Well, let’s move to Martha’s Vineyard.’ Robby’s mother owned a cottage she was renting out, and she let us live there free for a couple of years until we got on our feet.”

On the Vineyard, Jenni expanded a lifelong hobby of designing and making books into a business. She came from a book-reading family, and as a little girl she liked to fold pages, staple them together, sew on covers with ribbons, write her own articles, illustrate them with photos from National Geographic, and call them magazines. In college, she studied graphic design and literature: “I’d started making artsy books one at a time for fun, but realized I could make money doing that.” On the Vineyard, she sold her books at the West Tisbury artisans fair and in a couple of local shops, including Bunch of Grapes bookstore, where her husband was the manager and found some shelf space for her.

“I was also driving up and down the East Coast,” Jenni said, “and setting up my caravan at art shows to sell my pretty, handsewn, artsy-crafty, little one-of-a-kind journals and art books.” She made them at home on the kitchen table until she put a heater in the garage and called it her studio. A critical turning point came with the Internet and the possibility of online shopping.

“We launched our website in 2000,” she said, “There was nobody on the Internet doing what we did. The website was a turning point for us.”

A bigger turn occurred five years later. Robby still managed Bunch of Grapes, and the owner, Ann Nelson, was cleaning out her basement, and asked if he was interested in an old machine she no longer wanted. He brought it home and told Jenni, “I don’t know what the hell this is.” An apparent dusty piece of junk was an embossing machine that Jenni started playing with. “It turned out to be such a generous boost from Ann,” she said. “I made a couple of books with my dad’s name on them, my mom’s name, and made-up initials. I took pictures and put them on the website, and — I’m not exaggerating — in two weeks sales shot up. It was crazy how fast things took off. It became a real business overnight.”

The next year, 2006, the business moved to Vineyard Haven on State Road, with a storefront sign: Jenni Bick Bookbinding. “That building was so much fun,” Jenni said, “but we outgrew it.” In 2013, she and her team moved to the current two-story workshop in West Tisbury.

When I visited the shop after Memorial Day, Jenni had just arrived from Washington, D.C., where she and Robby were spearheading the new retail store with seven employees. With Jenni going back and forth, Jessica Deal manages the Island shop. Jessica worked as a radio station manager and DJ in Montana and Vermont before moving to the Vineyard three years ago with her husband, a stonemason, who’d been commuting to the Island for a couple of years. Jessica answered an MV Times employment ad, and began working for Jenni. “Everything just kind of fell into place pretty perfectly,” she said. “It’s a great job.”

“Has housing worked out for you?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

From the beginning of November through Christmas, business at the shop triples. “Instead of 50 orders,” Jessica said, “150 go out. We hire a couple of temps and set up goals and challenges, with bonuses for the team.”

Jenni added, “We work long hours and drink a lot of coffee. Two years ago we set up a million-dollar challenge. We didn’t quite make it, but we came damn close.”

Standing at a small Kwikprint embossing machine, Cynthia Pereja, who’s in her seventh year at the shop, was showing Katie Chapman, who arrived three weeks ago, how to typeset brass letters from a foundry in England in order to emboss a personal name rather than a logo on an individual journal. Katie had sailed up from Key West with her husband, a boatbuilder now at the Gannon and Benjamin boatyard in Vineyard Haven. They live on their sailboat. Katie measured and set up a sensor to emboss a woman’s name on an Italian handcut leather album, ordered as a gift. The handmade paper inside the journal, Jenni said, came from one of two paper mills on the Amalfi coast still operating since the Middle Ages.

Downstairs, Sophie Mueller sat at a big hydraulic stamping machine, custom-made for Jenni, that operates on the principle of a nail gun. Its huge air compressor made a whooshing-and-smacking sound every few seconds as it stamped the blue company name METAGENICS on books that Sophie pushed under a plunger.

“Watch your fingers,” I said.

“It’s safe,” Sophie said. Instead of a book, she pushed her fingers under the stamper. Nothing happened. “It won’t go.”

Sophie is in her fourth year at the shop, and feels lucky to have landed her job. “I love to make things,” she said. “I did printmaking at Marlboro College and then for three years in Brattleboro. I feel at home here.”

She showed me a plastic bag containing a half-dozen engraved magnesium-alloy metal blocks previously used to stamp books on various orders for Red Bull. On the covers of some other finished books being recycled were the words “Customized and created for you exclusively by Lancôme.”

Jenni said, “If I had to guess, Lancôme probably gave away these books to journalists and bloggers at a launch party.”

As I was about to leave the workshop, I noticed that Sophie and Katie had joined two others at a long table, unwrapping books from plastic to be used for an order. “Everybody does a little multitasking here,” Jenni said. Someone who handsews books might also help with graphics.

Nathan Bennett had just finished embossing a family name on an Italian leather journal, and joined the group at the table. “I’m from the Island,” he said. “I have generations of my family here.” Last October he returned from California and applied for a job online. After an interview and training, he moved into embossing for the Christmas season. “It’s second nature to me,” he said.

Although Jenni admitted that she and a 10-year employee had “a parting of the ways” the previous Monday, I didn’t bump into anyone who appeared disgruntled. Like everyone else in the shop, Nathan professed happiness with his work.

“I love the business,” he said. “I love how committed and passionate everyone is. They really care. We’re supported in our jobs with everything from health care to retirement plans. We have a progressive attitude here. We use every piece of paper we get in, every scrap of leather. I love how we’re making something so special for people.”