Lake Michigan Book Press
I first met Crystal Shaulis, the founder of Lake Michigan Book Press (LMBP), through my internship at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center (KBAC). During my time there, Crystal was my manager and instructor. She taught me a variety of new skills from Suminagashi marbling to operating the Vandercook letterpress. We also had long meandering discussions about life in Kalamazoo, social media marketing, professors we both had, as well as our differing studio practices and where they might lead us. Through these conversations, I learned that Crystal and I have a similar life philosophy: follow your interests. When I met Crystal in 2015, she had recently founded her press. Her business has grown and evolved quite a bit in the last few years so I decided to check in with Crystal for an update on all things LMBP.
About Crystal Shaulis
Crystal Shaulis graduated summa cum laude with a BFA in painting from Western Michigan University in 2014. She has been with the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center since that time as Intern Manager; there she trains interns in papermaking, bookbinding, marbling, letterpress, and much more. In 2015, she opened Lake Michigan Book Press, a small bindery that specializes in sketchbooks. Her artist books have been exhibited at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, University of Nebraska, and the Muskegon Museum of Art.
Could you share a bit about your background?
Sure. I grew up in the inner city of Detroit and always had an interest in the arts. However, these programs were always first to be cut due to lack of funding; we didn’t have art classes past elementary school. I wasn’t the best student. Actually, I wasn’t even close to average. Imagine the kid in the back of the room with their head on the desk sleeping, writing notes to friends, or sketching on a scrap sheet of paper. You know, quiet but disengaged.
From the ages of 18–24, I mostly drifted through life, worked a variety of jobs, moved to Kalamazoo, got married, and eventually got tired of just existing and letting life happen to me rather than forging my own path. At 24, living in a college town, it only seemed right to give this college thing a try. I would be the first in my family to step foot in a college and didn’t know if I’d even actually graduate. Art was a major I kind of fell into; it would be something fun to dabble in before likely dropping out due to financial reasons. Happy to say that despite some setbacks, I did graduate with a BFA from Western Michigan University.
How did you become interested in book arts, printmaking, and letterpress?
While pursuing my BFA at WMU’s Gwen Frostic School of Art, I became interested in studying abroad. It really didn’t matter where or for what, I just knew I wanted to go somewhere. After originally looking at several very expensive semester-long programs, my advisor mentioned the Book Arts in Venice program as an alternative. It was shorter term and would take us to Venice, Florence, and many small towns in between. I didn’t know a single thing about books—aside from reading them—and the fact that we were there to study the art of them was only a side matter.
Before the trip, our group met with our instructor and director of the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, Jeff Abshear, to bind our own travel journals from start to finish. I was fascinated with the whole process, taking photos of every step and every material. At the end of the workshop, I had some bad separation anxiety as our books needed to be left in their presses overnight. Once home, I went straight to YouTube and started watching bookbinding tutorials. When Monday morning came, I was there the moment KBAC opened. Holding this new handmade journal, I marveled that my hands could create such a thing.
I later became an intern at KBAC and gained more in-depth experience in bookbinding, papermaking, and letterpress. Upon graduating from college, I was offered the position as Intern Manager as well as an instructor.
What was the process of founding Lake Michigan Book Press?
I felt this big urge to keep binding, but it was hard to justify using and purchasing materials when these books would lay around collecting dust. I love to journal, but never at a pace that would keep up with production of these books.
Then, a friend approached me about binding a book for his girlfriend; I decided to give it a go. I felt guilty charging someone for a journal I would have happily made for free, but he insisted I charge him a price that would be fair for my time. Another friend purchased a book and I quickly realized people weren’t just being ‘nice,’ they really appreciated the work I was doing.
I remember throwing down the first $200 for materials; my heart was racing. Suddenly this was real. The money was spent and now it was do or die. I had to prove that this wasn’t just an extravagant purchase, but an actual investment in a business.
How many hats do you wear at LMBP? Are you running the entire operation?
I do everything, which sounds like some braggy thing but as any maker can attest, the exhaustion that comes with it is unreal. Anything and everything you see that is LMBP is done with these two hands; that includes product photography, search engine optimization, social media marketing, copywriting, branding, website design and management, customer service, tracking inventory, purchasing, and of course the actual binding of the books. Many fellow creators know the struggle of this. There’s so much that people never see, but know that the gears are always turning even when it seems things have been quiet.
What are the types of services LMBP provides?
At the beginning, LMBP was more a catch-all for journals, notebooks, guestbooks, and sketchbooks. I wanted to offer as many options as possible—cast a wider net if you will. But after a while, I started to feel like the jukebox of everyone’s bookbinding needs. In the past year and a half, I’ve had a more focused approach toward only carrying materials for high-quality sketchbooks. A big part of this is due to my continued collaboration with Kirsten Cooner, founder of Hushwing Watercolors.
Where can our readers find your work in stores? How can they order a custom book or journal?
Books are available at the Muskegon Museum of Art gift shop or at True Nature Healing Arts in Colorado. However, the easiest way to get your own is through the site, lakemichiganbookpress.com where you can customize to your own specifications.
What’s your most popular book or journal? Conversely, what’s the most unique or special book you’ve made?
The most popular book has probably been the David Kassan. I’m naming it after him because the moment his custom sketchbook was completed everyone wanted a replica! The saddest thing was that the specialty paper his sketchbook was filled with had literally been discontinued while his book was in production. This led to many calls to suppliers across the country, hunting down the last sheets of Canford Cardstock in Gunmetal. That was the middle of last year and even now requests are still rolling in about this sketchbook.
As far as unique books go, that’s hard to say. There have been so many, but a personal favorite was for Sammy in Spokane. She wanted a hand-marbled Suminagashi sketchbook filled with alternating pages of watercolor, toned, and vellum sheets. Binding books that require a bit more thinking, rather than being on autopilot, was nice.
Are most of your sales online commissions? If so, does this production strategy work well for you?
99% of LMBP’s are indeed online. Some sketchbooks can be purchased in person at a couple shops, but these are more for exposure. Selling wholesale or receiving commission cuts into profits like nothing else, so brick-and-mortar relationships are kept to a minimum.
Another reason is that I just don’t have the patience or energy to sell sketchbooks in person. Anyone’s craft is very personal. With online sales, if someone doesn’t like what you’re offering, they don’t buy it. If it’s missing something they want, they don’t buy it. If your pictures are low quality, they don’t buy. If it’s exactly what they want, presented in a way that appeals to them, they’ll buy. The feedback system online is also incredibly helpful. Reading criticism and praise from those who have purchased a sketchbook are exponentially more useful than the craft show-goer who says in passing, “I’d buy it if it had Fabriano paper instead” before dropping the book back on the table.
Who are your customers typically?
They range wildly—everyone from hobbyist painters to those who are well established in the art world. A common thread that ties them together is that want for a human connection between their belongings and the person who created them. LMBP is the complete opposite of what Amazon and other retailers offer. There’s no two-day shipping, turnaround is usually a week, and let’s be honest, the prices aren’t exactly cheap. But follow along on Instagram and in the stories you can see your very book being bound in real time, from the cutting of materials, folding of pages, and sewing of the sketchbook. You might even get a glimpse of it in the 110-year-old cast iron book press.
When and where do you create? What does a day in your studio look like?
The LMBP studio is a tiny slice of the Park Trades Center in downtown Kalamazoo. It’s a cozy old storage space tucked away next to the freight elevator on the ground floor. No windows, but you can’t beat the rent. One day is usually dedicated to doing prep work, cutting raw materials down to size, sanding book board, folding sheets of paper, punching holes, etc. and the second is for sewing all of these elements together. In between these activities, I return customer messages, take ‘artful’ work-in-progress shots, and create social media posts that tag customers with updates on the progress of their sketchbooks.
There are often days where I spend 12+ hours in the studio. Some days can be exhausting, or I feel so frustrated that I want to cry—but LMBP is something that’s completely mine; there’s never any red tape or hoops to jump through when a change is needed. A snap judgement can be made suddenly and implemented immediately. I love that.
Do you have other work outside of LMBP? If so, how do you make time for your studio practice?
Yes! Again, many creators have other hustles to supplement their income. Very few of us can make a solid living on our craft alone. As mentioned, I’m over at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center as Intern Manager, but I also work part-time as an administrative assistant at another local nonprofit. It’s nice to have one job complement what I do here, but another that’s quite unrelated. It gives balance and keeps things fresh.
Where have you received the most support for your career?
Hands down my husband, Jesse. He’s been incredible. From being cool with taking that initial $200 investment—which was massive to us at that time—to encouraging me to quit a part-time job so more focus could be placed on expanding LMBP into something profitable.
Do you have any advice for fellow makers at a similar stage in their career or those just starting a creative venture?
I’ll have to quote my past instructor, Paul Flickinger, on this. Any project you set out to do is going to take at least twice as much time and effort as you think it will. Going into business for yourself is no different and success is never an accident, never effortless. What’s that saying? Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration? Do your research. Never start any project without having done your research.
I would like to thank Crystal for sharing her book arts journey with Form and Space, not to mention her many insights into growing Lake Michigan Book Press from the ground up. I highly recommend checking out her Instagram where she shares behind-the-scenes glimpses of her studio process, new projects, and book arts techniques. If you would like to order your own custom sketchbook or journal, everything you need to know can be found on her website.