The Bindery, a new art and workspace in Milwaukee, got its start when Zachary Lifton forgot where he parked. He was visiting Milwaukee in 2015, considering a move from his home in Philadelphia, where he managed a co-working space. He took a walk through Bay View, only to end up lost, wandering along Kinnickinnic Avenue in search of his car. He turned down Ward Street and passed a run-down, gray, boarded-up building with bullet holes in the window. A faded sign read Wisconsin Book Bindery.
“I thought, ‘How do you save a place like this?” says Lifton, who has a master’s in historic preservation.
Lifton started searching online and found that behind that ruined façade, Wisconsin Book Bindery was still operating. But it had no website, no social media and no working phone. His sleuthing eventually led him to the owner’s son on Facebook, who introduced him to Nancy Mack, the owner.
When Lifton made his official move to Milwaukee in 2016, he told Mack that he was interested in buying her building. “I had to convince her to turn down these million-dollar offers she was getting for the property and go with this ragtag new business that wasn’t going to just tear everything down,” says Lifton, who saw the building as an opportunity to combine his interest in preservation and his experience in co-working.
The convincing took two years. In the meantime, Lifton and his friend Daniel Ehn, who trained in bookbinding in Madison, started a book repair and services business.
Eventually in December of 2019, Mack went with the guy who could bring new life to her family’s old business.
That January, Lifton walked into his new building. It was overflowing with junk. Piles of scissors, boxes full of decades-old thread, and massive, hopelessly rusted machines left barely enough room to walk. Lifton and Ehn spent weeks hunting through the place, searching for useful tools and hidden treasures.
Now, after he had the space cleaned out and floor-to-ceiling remodeled in 2020, some of the old machines are still there. When you enter the bright blue, repaired and repainted exterior, there’s a paper guillotine to the left of the front door. Next to it is a gallery space where artists can display and sell their work.
A wide-open main floor full of couches, chairs and tables is a co-working area, where Bindery members share a picturesque workplace. Private studios are available in back, along with conference rooms where workshops are held. Behind a glass-walled partition, the central area is full of printing and repairing machines. Lifton and Ehn operate their book service business from there, and anyone who signs up for a different membership level can get access to the rare machinery. A separate annex handles zine publishing, the tables lined with brightly colored homemade publications.
The building officially opened to the public in the spring. Lifton’s greatest hope for his new space is that it becomes a vibrant part of the neighborhood.
“I want the community present here every day,” he says. “We have these artistic kids at MIAD and other schools. They have knowledge and talent. I want to capture that energy and keep it in Milwaukee.”