By Emma Castleberry
Mary Carol Koester, owner of Azalea Bindery, LLC, has had a long relationship with paper in many forms. Koester earned her masters degree in forest resources in 1988 after a trip to Alaska left her fascinated with large-scale land management. She had a long and prosperous career in forestry, first as a District Forester in Pennsylvania and then as a national program manager for the USDA Forest Service.
A health issue required Koester to retire in her forties and she decided to pursue a career in craft from her home. After moving from Washington, DC, to Asheville in 2000, Koester took a book arts class where she learned the art of Coptic binding. Coptic binding is a hand-sewing technique that connects the cover boards and pages with a special stitch. “I like detail and I like the biological sciences and that came together for me with bookbinding,” says Koester, who has been a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild since 2011. “I understood my materials rather quickly.”
Koester volunteered at the Folk Art Center for a few hours each week, which provided her with the opportunity to study craft and meet local artists. She spent many years honing her craft as a bookbinder before pursuing business training. She opened Azalea Bindery in 2011. “Running my own business has been a steep learning curve,” she says. “A business, and especially an art business, has a funny way of surprising you. Your skills improve and you accomplish things beyond your dreams. Now that I have the foundations in place for running an efficient business, I can focus on binding designs and marbling rather than cash flow projections.”
Many of Koester’s projects are customized, memorializing a significant life event with an album or book. She can create a wealth of products, from notebooks to photo frames to keepsake boxes. One of the most meaningful orders Koester has ever filled was for customer Patricia Baldwin. Baldwin completed a 300-page family memoir in 2015 and chose to have Koester bind the book. “I was truly amazed at the quality of her work,” Baldwin says. “One only expects to find this kind of craftsmanship in a generational family establishment situated on some dimly lit side street in Venice or Paris.”
Koester feels honored that her customers entrust her with precious items such as this. “When someone puts time into writing a manuscript or a memoir, it becomes a treasured thing,” she says. “Having the pages bound in goatskin and titled in gold reflects that commitment and accomplishment. My clients are preserving their stories for the benefit of others and I love helping them.”