This box of sharp metal tools belongs to Joel Radcliffe, a master bookbinder who recently made a new cover and spine for an old book out of genuine python hide. His shop, Ars Obscura, shoved into the basement corner of the Grand Central Arcade in Pioneer Square, is dimly lit and lightly covered in wooden shavings, paper scraps, and bits of ancient leather.
Ars Obscura offers a wide range of services: creating blank journals from scratch, crafting props for movie and theater sets, building archival boxes for old texts. But the staff prefers restoration; they're currently repairing rare books from 1704 and 1716. They're the last remaining bookbinders in Seattle to create, preserve, and restore books by hand. But Radcliffe, who's been doing this for 37 years, says, "We don't try to be everything to everyone anymore. We can't solve everyone's cockamamie designs." He recently turned down a project involving wood and metal: Those materials just aren't his thing. The main focus—and challenge—for Ars Obscura's restorations is to match the tone and color of a book's existing ancient covering. "We try to work invisibly," Radcliffe says. "It's 95 percent preserving the original flavor."