Walk along Queen Street in Dumfries and behind the unassuming frontage of the old Georgian houses and former warehouses you will begin to discover some wondrous surprises. The most recent is The Book Minder at number 22. In the window is an artful display of beautifully bound books, a black crow sitting atop them dangling an LED light bulb from his beak. The gold tooled spine of a volume of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady sits alongside a string-bound package of uncut paper; an old-fashioned bottle of ink stands on top. Peer beyond these into the darkness behind and you then begin to focus on a wonderland of paper and leather and cast iron clamps, albums, cuttings and books, books, books. It is the studio of Mia Heath, The Book Minder. It is irresistible.

Great British Life: Mia pressing a book to get any air bubbles out of itMia pressing a book to get any air bubbles out of it (Image: Allan Devlin)

Go in and opposite the door, in a little frame, the first words that greet you, in Mia’s turquoise flourished italics are: “The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books.” It is just what her studio-shop is about. The sweet serenity engulfs one as soon as you step in. Right under your nose are lovely albums with cloth spines and bound in a kaleidoscope of different papers – floral, marbled, mottled, plain. Little marbled paper and cloth bound notebooks open up to reveal a neatly framed small mirror inside. “I hate to look vain,” says Mia a bit shyly, “so it’s much easier to take out of your bag what looks like a little notebook that you’re checking than showing that it’s actually your mascara you’re worrying about.” Her big smile spreads across her fine face, and she moves on, lightly and slimly, from this little corner of delights.

Great British Life: Mia tooling the spine of a bookMia tooling the spine of a book (Image: Allan Devlin)

A fine antique bookcase fills one wall. Handsome old volumes, with leather spines grandly tooled in gold, pay homage to the visitor. These are mostly ones she has painstakingly restored, binding spines back to their bodies literally seamlessly. There are others rescued from charity shops which she has stripped of their old tatty covers and given new life to: The Picture of Dorian Gray in soft grey-blue leather, with gold tooling (“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold” and “The curves of your lips rewrite history”); Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle with loden green gold tooled spine and gold Art Deco cobweb patterned green leather front and back; The Lady of the Lake, classic and stately in midnight blue with gold embossing. One wants to steal each of them. Bits of ephemera dotted amongst the books and along the shelves add question marks and quirkiness – a tiny wooden doll, a note saying Don’t Postpone Joy, a lacey beige moth spreadeagled for posterity, smooth old ink bottles, a jar of wooden letters, a Japanese fan, a sketch of a stag.

Great British Life: Some of Mia's workSome of Mia's work (Image: Allan Devlin)

Across the room, centre stage, is an old cast iron fire grate, black and redolent of bygone times. Above it, where an old painting might have hung, is a caramel coloured camel skin, as soft as silk velvet, stretched out and pinned to the wall. She says she got it in the souk in Marrakech when she visited the tannery there. It’s unlikely to be taken down for use on one of her precious books! But other skins lie dotted about. “I’m used to having bits of dead animals around for the hide,” she says grinning. There’s a piece of hairy brown cow which she has used on a soft journal; python, she explains, pulling out a bit, is popular for occult books. There is a largeish piece of plaice, almost like pale beige suede but with scaley markings. She is saving this to cover a copy of Jaws with. There is a stunning piece of gleaming gold python – “a bit too bling for me” she says quickly – and she pulls out a little navy notebook which she has covered in sting ray, the effect being of little glass beads. “I don’t usually use these fish skins,” she explains, “the problem being that they are farmed. But they are great for specific projects.”


Mia moved to Dumfries in February 2023. She had grown up in Haddington and moved to Glasgow when she was 18 to study illustration at the City of Glasgow College. While there she did a six-week night course in bookbinding which she loved. And so she went to Allison Downie in Partick to ask how to get a job as a bookbinder and came out with the job as, unbeknownst to her, a girl there had just given in her notice that day! John Allison trained her in the repair side of bookbinding – his specialist knowledge, she says, is extraordinary – and they worked on extraordinary volumes from the nation’s main libraries – The British Library, the London Library, the Advocates Library in Edinburgh and so on. The most outstanding books she has handled was one from 1557, vellum bound, but too fragile to work on. So she made a box out of cloth which she padded inside with foam covered with suede. The other was repair work on a score of Die Meistersinger which had belonged to Elgar. “It was really sweet,” she says, “because it came from his library and gets passed from conductor to apprentice to this day.”

Great British Life: Book Minder, Mia HeathBook Minder, Mia Heath (Image: Allan Devlin)

After this Mia moved to a bookbinder in Ludlow (“because that’s where the work was”) and though they didn’t do repairs there was a lot of work for car publishers, the occult and bibles as well as hunting and fishing. She decided after three years that she wanted to move on and grow so co-founded The Index Bindery, an online album shop, producing beautiful things but also taking Mia back to her old love of repairing. Having created it and after a couple of years on minimal wages she jumped ship, realising there would never be equilibrium with her partner. She decided to set up on her own, and moved to Dumfries both because it was affordable but also because she had been coming to the area for some 10 years and had a great affection for it. With her came her collection of her “tools of the trade”, which she had been quietly building up over the years. They are the bones of her studio and create fascinating examination. Her cast iron book press, which must weigh a ton, a Hampson Bettridge, she found on Ebay for £90 – it had been in pieces on the floor of someone’s garage. Her other book press, mid-19th century, was given to her by a woman in her 90s who had given up bookbinding. “Most of the equipment,” she says, “hasn’t changed over the years.” But she has two very large contemporary guillotines, and her little tooling stove for heating up her myriad decorative irons for gold tooling is very neat and contemporary. But maybe the most intriguing piece of equipment is a bronze hand-embossing book tool from between 1832 and 1846, a later model of which was used in the murder of one Mr Pass, a manufacturer of brass instruments for the book trade, in May 1832, by one of his creditors, Mr James Cook of Leicester. Mia has the whole report in a history of British executions and it’s worth popping into her shop just to see that. But more than that, if you mind about your books, then just go to The Book Minder and meet Mia. She is open Friday and Saturday, 10.30am-6.30pm and Tuesday to Thursday by appointment. Or you can go online and find her and her beautiful creations at The Book Minder.

Great British Life: Some of Mia's workSome of Mia's work (Image: Allan Devlin)