Old book binding
From Edgar, Oscar and Elizabeth Little
How many men have come out with a new era in their life from reading a book. ~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden
For me, it was not reading, but receiving a book that marked a new era in my life. In the summer of 2000, a boy I had just met while studying in Paris returned from a weekend excursion to London with a present for me. No special occasion required the gift; it was only intended as a thoughtful sample. What I took out of the crumpled paper bag that served as wrapping paper was an old edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s work.
The expression on my face must have been one of genuine bewilderment, because despite having known me for only ten days, I had chosen the perfect gift. Old book? Check. Favorite author? Check. French connection? Check. (The foreword to the book was written by Chateaubriand.) In one of our few conversations up to that point I must have mentioned my budding collection of old books, perhaps while strolling through the bookstores in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Armed with that tidbit, I had taken the time over an otherwise wild and crazy London weekend to find a book for me, and in those first few seconds as I held the book in my hands, I realized that it had begun. a new era in my life. I better stay with this boy.
Fast forward a few years. The boy from Paris and I had been married a couple of years when I returned to our house and immediately noticed that our dog had not run to the door to welcome me. We had recently adopted Oscar from the local animal shelter, or “juvenile” as my husband calls him, and although he was an adult at the time, he was still at the end of his puppyhood. In other words, he was chewing on everything he could. Do you see where I’m going with this? I knew right away that Oscar wasn’t up to anything good, and I could hear his nails clicking on the hardwood floors in the guest bedroom.
Here’s the part where I tell you that my old book collection lived in the guest bedroom. When I finally mustered the courage to watch, what I saw can be more accurately described as a parade of ticker tapes. It was as if the Tasmanian Devil and the Cookie Monster had spun across the room, crushing, tearing, ripping, and salivating along the way. Oscar had been ruthless. Target’s eight-dollar pillows were left unscathed on the bed, while specks of old books washed up on the ocean from Paris floated like snowflakes. Voltaire, Proust, Racine are gone, gone, gone. Despite having equal access to the newer books of less sentimental value to me, he chose to submit my most precious books to his sharp canines. Out of goodness, luck, or time constraints, Oscar hadn’t smashed my precious Poe book, though the spine had ripped open as he bit into it. Dog discipline was the last thing on my mind as I collapsed on the ground covered in tear confetti. Oscar left the room with youthful visions in his head, his tail between his legs.
Now fast forward a few more years. The fragile books that had escaped total annihilation in Oscar’s clutches are in the back seat of my car, and we’re on our way to meet Elizabeth Little in New Iberia. Elizabeth owns Bayou Bindery, a business I learned about during the Louisiana Book Festival in October. With my mouth open I looked at the before and after photos that were on display at the festival, because I honestly didn’t know that my tattered books could be restored. Those dramatic photos, think Extreme Book Makeover, they made me a believer, and a few weeks later I was in LA 31, with damaged books in tow.
The Bayou Bindery resides in a lovely cabin in New Iberia’s downtown district, and when I arrived, the front door was wide open to let in even more natural light. Elizabeth makes her bibliographic miracles happen in a neat and charming workspace that features photos and mementos from friends and family, a beautiful chandelier, and bird-themed accents. And even though the cabin is not where Elizabeth lives, you feel like you are at her home. When you’ve finished taking in those welcome items, the book press in the corner, the sewing frame on the floor, and the scalpels and other hand tools on the wall remind you of the business in question.
After taking a quick look at my damaged items, Elizabeth asks, “Do you have a dog?” She must have seen these cruel bite marks before. I tell him the story of Oscar, including Poe’s book and what it means to me and my husband. We decide she’s the first to go under the knife, especially when she tells me that her mentor (more on her later) had just restored the Poe family Bible for an exhibit at the Virginia Library.
Although at this point I feel like my Poe book was meant to be restored at Bayou Bindery, she feels my underlying hesitations. Elizabeth gently asks me what she asks all her nervous clients who are attached to the “original” condition of damaged books: “Do you want to just look at the book? Or do you want to be able to read it and pass it on to your children?” reason, plus the restored book would be the perfect Christmas gift for my husband. (Although it is not a surprise).
And the magic of Elizabeth’s work is that the restored book is not a glossy, soulless, and unrecognizable edition. He’s your old fascinating book character, only stronger. It can reverse the damage caused by aging of the book’s innards, or it can do more cosmetic work as in the case of a dog attack. “I love working with my hands,” he tells me, and it is completely by hand that he cleverly dismantles a damaged book to assess and repair the underlying problems.
The covers and spine are removed to reveal faulty liner or adhesive, or damaged threads holding the pages together. Elizabeth explains that deteriorating books are often the result of overly acidic lining, and she occasionally comes across old sheet music or newspapers as book lining. She prepares a wheat paste that not only removes the old coating, but also serves as an acid-free adhesive for the new Japanese fabric coating. If the pages need to be re-sewn, Elizabeth handles the linen thread and needle with ease. Years of sewing clothes for her children paid off.
I was like a three year old, asking “What is this?” For almost everything my eyes fell on the binding. Elizabeth spent the day patiently explaining how she mends torn pages (using different weights and shades of oriental fabrics), leather covers that are missing dog-mouth-shaped pieces (a process that involves shaving and sharpening a new piece of leather. to fit the width of the old one), or worn hinges (wax pastels or watercolor pencils are used to match the color of the original). Her extensive knowledge and collection of tools led me to assume that she had studied the trade at the university level and had been a practicing craftswoman ever since, so I was surprised to find that she had only started binding books about ten years earlier.
On a trip to visit her sister in Virginia, a bookbinder’s sign on the road piqued her curiosity, and soon after Elizabeth was working one-on-one with the bookbinder who would become her mentor. She calls Jill Deiss – of Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding in Winchester, Virginia – a master bookbinder, and speaks of her with obvious respect and admiration. “I feel like I’m learning the right way.” Although the formal apprenticeship ended, she continues to consult and learn from Deiss. This year alone, he has attended two Master Series courses at Cat Tail Run. Last spring, he learned more about paper repair and in October he was there to learn about gold leaf tools. (I don’t want to ruin a surprise, but someone close to Elizabeth will be unwrapping a book in exquisite detail in gold leaf this Christmas. She quickly puts her new skills to use!)
So she never intended to be a skilled craftswoman; just found a new interest and followed it. A friend of Elizabeth’s once told her, “Some people come across new projects and just stand there on the edge, looking down into the hole. But they just walk up and jump right in.” And while she never expected to be a bookbinder, she’s not exactly surprised either. “I am very task oriented. I am a project person.” Her other “projects” include a nursing career (after many years as a nurse, she now volunteers one day a week at a clinic in Lafayette) and an educational garden at the local elementary school. She gleefully recounts a recent visit to the school where, because of the booming basil, she made pesto with the students, “and they loved it! It just shows that if they grow it, they’ll eat it. Or at least give it a try.” “
We laughed about his job in high school where he worked in the bound book repair department in the basement of the city library. His instructions were: “Just put on some tape and put it back in circulation.” Even then, he never thought he would go to book repair. And although she is an avid reader, she does not have a collection of vintage books of her own. She told me: “Books speak to you at different times in your life. I enjoy the books that are presented to me and then I pass them on.”
With a constant stream of interesting books in the binding, I guess you really don’t need to collect. He recently worked at Roosevelt’s The rough riders, in the McIlhenny family collection. (John Avery McIlhenny left the Tabasco company to join Roosevelt’s cavalry regiment in 1898). A Thoreau society in California sent her A week on the Concord and Merrimack rivers for restoration. He especially likes restoring family Bibles, 19th century French prayer books sent to him by the locals, or WWII battalion yearbooks that seem to arrive in waves to the binding.
He came up with a new project while we were walking around town after lunch. We had wandered into the soon-to-open Bayou Teche museum to see a sneak peek, when the director said to Elizabeth, “I was hoping you would stop by. I have something I want you to see.” As I walked out of the museum with a huge, dusty Hotel Frederic guest account book for restoration, I thought, “Every city should have a binding.” Excited as a child on Christmas morning, Elizabeth opened the ledger as soon as we returned to the binding to read the names of past guests at the historic hotel.
People always ask him, “What is the value of this book? How much is it worth?” But Elizabeth isn’t that impressed with the monetary value, rarity, or first edition of the books. “For me, it’s more interesting to know why people are so attached to them.” Many of his clients are older people who want to pass on a beloved book in good condition. “I can feel the legacy when I work on those projects.”
Elizabeth Little and her Bayou Bindery will now be among the main protagonists of the story told when we pass our Poe book on to the next generation. Garrison Keillor once said, “A book is a gift that you can open again and again.” And while that was not entirely true for the wonderfully fragile book I received in Paris, it is certainly the case for this restored Christmas present.