ACL hosts art vendor Iona Handcrafted Books

Briana Zamora

The sounds of tearing, ripping and hammering echoed throughout a small studio hidden behind an old bread factory off of Tillery Street. Surrounded by haphazardly-thrown scraps, leather bits and rusted metal door hinges, Mychal Mitchell artfully-tooled leather, wielding her X-ACTO knife in quick, decisive strokes.

Mitchell is the pioneer behind Iona Handcrafted Books, a bookbinding studio that specializes in centuries-old Italian binding techniques. She creates journals, sketchbooks and photo albums using leather and hand-ripped archival paper. Mitchell will run a booth at the Austin City Limits Music Festival both weekends.

After graduating from Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in 1992, Mitchell had every intention of pursuing architecture. Five months into her post-graduate European backpacking expedition, her sketchbook was stolen. This prompted Mitchell to buy a replacement from an Italian bookbinder, a man she said would eventually alter the course of her life. After befriending the bookbinder, Mitchell became his apprentice.

“At the time, it just seemed like an interesting experience to tell my grandchildren about someday,” Mitchell said. “I was just having fun hanging out and learning from an old
Italian dude.”

What began as a hobby twenty years ago has now flourished into Mitchell’s passion and full-time trade. 

“When I started doing it in 1994, nobody else in the States was doing it, and that’s why I was making them for myself and for my friends,” Mitchell said. “I started selling them at a little market in Seattle, and after, I just couldn’t stop.”

Mitchell now travels the country displaying and selling her books. She has spent the past three weeks preparing for the booth she will run at ACL. This is the first year Mitchell will be participating at the festival, and she said she is excited to showcase her specialized trade. 

“I am selling an heirloom you can trash,” Mitchell said. “You can beat it up and take it with you on all your misadventures, and 150 years from now, your great-great-grandchildren will be fighting over it.”

Austin resident Jamie Jones has been purchasing Mitchell’s books for years. Jones used her most recent Iona journal to chronicle her own backpacking adventure. Documenting her six-week trip to Mongolia earlier this summer, Jones filled her book with watercolor paintings, sketches and cryptic notes.

“I wrote every single day,” Jones said. “It was the most important thing in my backpack. It was my faithful companion, and I am going to cherish it forever.”

Celeste Landrum, an Iona assistant bookbinder, said running the booth at ACL will give Iona Handcrafted Books an opportunity to display their craft to a very different audience.

“We typically exhibit at fine art shows throughout the country, and ACL gives us a chance to have fun and show a hip music audience what we can do,” Landrum said.

Landrum said she loves working with her hands, but the most rewarding aspect of her job is giving others a tangible place to store the intangible.

“One of the great joys of my job is hearing the stories of what our books provide for people,” Landrum said. “We give people a way to remember great life memories and experiences.”