WEEKLY BRIEFING - Brothers Find Lost Art Of Mending Old Books

While serving in the Air Force in the early 1960s, Benjamin Weinstein ran the Armstrong Air Force Base library. When he left the service, he decided to set up shop as a used bookseller and got his brother, Louis, to join him as a partner. Their Heritage Book Shop and Bindery in West Hollywood has grown to employ 22 and now has an office in London. The bindery was added in 1981, after a nephew joined them.

"The bindery is a very practical thing for us, because in the book shop we specialize in first editions that clients buy and then give as gifts with a special binding. A first edition of 'Walden,' or 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' is the kind of book people get for someone they know has everything.

"We also do a lot of business with producers who want their script to have a quality binding, like with leather and a gilt design. It isn't utilitarian. Today it would be very hard to make a living just off bookbinding. Our bookshop supports the bindery, and it is really a convenience.

"We do a lot of restoring family bibles, and they can cost a much as $500 to $1,000, even though the book itself is worth $20. But if it has sentimental value, the customer will do it anyway.

"Our prices for binding are strictly by the hour, $45 to $90, depending on the difficulty of the work. If the paper needs to be restored, that's more expensive, but polishing and refurbishing is cheaper. We charge $125 an hour to restore materials like dust jackets.

"Bookbinding is a skill very few people have today. For hand tooling and gilt-finishing you need a steady hand and sense of design to make the wavy lines and curlicues. You've got to be careful not to burn the gold foil too long so it doesn't burn the leather.

"Sometimes customers buy decorative sets and editions but they aren't concerned with the content. I'd rather push books as important books and not just beautiful bindings. The art of the decoration is in blending it with the content. A 16th century book with a modern decoration is just an eyesore.

"It is surprising how many processes a book has to go through from beginning to end. Lots of things have to be done. We take a few shortcuts that they wouldn't have taken historically; for example we don't tan our own leather. But we do dye our own leather. The craft has essentially stayed the same for the last 500 years."

Rachel Rosmarin

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.