The last page of your favorite mystery novel probably offers this brief, final mystery: “Printed and bound in Berryville, Virginia.”
Why Berryville? And how can this little town be responsible for producing more than 100 million books a year?
Berryville, the seat of Clarke County, is a town in the Shenandoah Valley, five miles from West Virginia. If you take the Lewisville Road, you’ll pass Country Bumpkin Primitive Décor. Buildings of note include a Trappist monastery, a soldier’s home and a very old pie company. With a population of 4,185, Berryville has a healthy, ironic sense of its own obscurity.
The town has only one major printer: Berryville Graphics (BVG). In 1998, it was the nation’s No. 3 book manufacturer with a brand-new patent for its Duratech binding technology, billed as “an alternative to traditional smythe sewing that provides a ‘lay-open’ quality for easy reading.” With this revolutionary new method, BVG could produce 110 books a minute.
BVG leads the industry in robotics and computerized production. It was the first to use a new robotic technology equipped with a “physical arm,” which could do more than simply follow preprogrammed movements. This custom clamping mechanism, which took engineers 18 months to develop, has the dexterity of human fingers and a central nervous system, of sorts.
In 1986, BVG was bought by Bertelsmann, Europe’s biggest media company. In 2012, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell announced that Bertelsmann-Berryville would invest nearly $11 million in their Berryville headquarters, consolidating their regional operations. This was good news for Virginia, bad news for Kentucky, which lost the bid. Though the book industry was facing major troubles, Berryville was thriving through the joint efforts of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership; state politicians, including Del. Joe May; and the Virginia Department of Business Assistance.
But why did book publishing come to Berryville in the first place?
Sean Twomey, vice president of Bertelsmann Printing Group, says that in 1956, Doubleday — then America’s largest publisher — was looking for a new factory site. According to Twomey, two-thirds of the country lived “within a single trucking day” of Clarke County, overhead was low, and there was surplus labor. Berryville was also close to Doubleday’s distribution warehouses in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Naturally, other printers began popping up in nearby towns due to BVG’s success.
Mary Thomason-Morris, archivist at the Clarke County Historical Association, reports that in 1956, Doubleday announced the construction of a printing plant east of Berryville, on land owned by the town bank. At the decisive moment, however, the factory was built in Berryville itself. Thomason-Morris speculates that U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd, through political leverage and backroom wheeling and dealing, persuaded Doubleday to choose Berryville.
Today, BVG produces 140 million books a year. The presses run 24 hours a day, seven days a week in what Twomey calls “the literary heart of America.” They print for Dell, Bantam, Doubleday, Random House and Simon & Schuster, among others. According to Twomey, Berryville Graphics, LSC and Quad/Graphics are responsible for “virtually all the bestsellers on the weekly list.” Berryville has turned out books by Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro, Grammy winner Bruce Springsteen and President Trump, all in one facility.
It’s America’s melting pot — in print.
Andrew Madigan is a freelance writer from Springfield, Va., and the author of the novel “Khawla’s Wall.”