Charlotte Metcalf heads to Canvey Island in Essex to meet Simon Burstein, the man behind the revival of Charfleet Bindery, which specialises in top-quality bespoke diaries and journals.
Meet Simon Burstein, the Man Saving Bookbinding in Britain
Simon Burstein is the unlikely saviour of a small bookbinding factory on Canvey Island in Essex. Married for many years to Nathalie, the daughter of Sonia Rykiel, Simon is well known for his work in fashion and for selling Browns, the globally renowned fashion boutique on South Molton Street, to Farfetch in 2015.
Alongside a distinguished career in fashion, Simon is a self-confessed stationery fanatic. For years, he had exclusive rights to distribute Filofaxes in France, selling them from his stationery store in Saint-Germain-des-Près. Today, he has turned that passion into transforming Leathersmith of London into a thriving stationery and lifestyle brand – and saving a century-old book bindery in the process.
I join a coachload of journalists, photographers and influencers – among them the legendary fashion critic Suzy Menkes and celebrity interviewer Chrissy Iley – who’ve been shipped in to Canvey Island to witness the grand opening of Charfleet Bindery, which makes Leathersmith of London notebooks. It also creates many other well-known brands of notebook, photo album, guestbook, diary and lusciously bound bibles for the American market.
Canvey is a reclaimed island in the Thames Estuary and seems a gentler, slower world, with its 1950s-style amusement arcades, funfair and cafés. It’s an unlikely destination for a visit by a royal family member, but Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, is on her way to declare the bindery officially open.
It’s a momentous day on this unremarkable industrial estate and a celebration because a few years ago the bindery faced bankruptcy – until Simon came along.
Even though selling Filofaxes had become a side business in the late Eighties and Nineties, Simon felt so sentimental about them that he kept the Paris shop going. It was only after he split from Nathalie in 2006 and returned to London that he gave it up. But always tempted by good stationery, he then bought Leathersmith, which was making notebooks and diaries very similar to Smythson but at half the price. Having done that, it made sense to buy into the bindery making its products.
The bindery had been family-run for 50 years, but had gone to the wall and been snatched up by American David Neale. When he died, Simon invested so the original family could buy it back. But the company was going in the wrong direction and within a year Simon had lost his investment. Simon explains what a seasonal business selling diaries is, terrible for cashflow and profits. They are produced in April for September delivery, with payment in December. By the end of January the overstock is dead.
A company invested in Charfleet, but turned out to be ‘no more than an asset stripper which began siphoning off money and dismantling the factory,’ says Simon, who still had 20 percent shares in the company so was approached by the liquidators. There and then he decided to buy the bindery outright with the cash he had from the Browns sale. ‘I hadn’t planned it – it was a totally emotional, irrational response,’ he smiles. ‘The liquidators were furious as they were selling off all the equipment, but I now had 100 percent of the company so I set about buying it out of receivership and keeping everyone on.’ Most of the staff, about 25 in number, lived locally and some had worked at the bindery for 30 years, so Simon’s delight was in saving every member of staff’s job.
The bindery began producing more non-date-specific notebooks, so the company earns all the year round, and Simon has invested in new premises with state-of-the-art machinery. Following the bindery’s official opening by the Duchess of Edinburgh, it is a success story for Canvey Island and Simon travels there once a week. ‘There’s a lovely mezzanine, a canteen, open-plan offices and staff are happy,’ says Simon. His shops are positioning exquisitely hand-crafted leather goods at the heart of the Leathersmith lifestyle brand and Simon is confident that Charfleet has a secure future. The best part is he’s able to indulge in his passion for stationery and produce good-looking notebooks at different price points for like-minded aficionados.