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Photo by Joel Paultz

A patient trade

Lifestyle | In the information age, Johanna Smick practices the centuries-old craft of bookbinding

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

Asked what it takes to be a bookbinder, Johanna Smick pauses a minute to think.

She's bent over an old book of Bible stories illustrated with original engravings by Doré, the 19th-century French artist. The pages have come loose from the cover and individual sheets (called folios) have fallen apart where they were folded and sewn. She's using strips of Japanese tissue to put together the halves-a painstaking process: "With this paper repair, I'm just going through and doing the same thing over and over again. I don't have a problem with it, but someone who doesn't normally do this might get bored very quickly."

Smick learned her trade at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, a school that teaches traditional methods of bookbinding, furniture making, carpentry, and other skills. The curriculum focuses on materials and historical methods. Students learn to dissect books to learn their structure. They learn how to make models using techniques from centuries past. When she sees the Doré, she understands how it was originally assembled and knows the techniques to restore it.

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That particular book, dating from the early 1800s, consists of sections made from two folios-big sheets of paper folded in the middle-one inside the other, eight pages in all. When she's attaching the Japanese tissue, she needs to know if the folio is an inner folio or an outer one, because an outer folio needs to be slightly larger to accommodate the inner folio so the edges line up. Millimeters matter. She is careful to glue the tissue to the side of the folio that is under greater stress when sewn.

Restoring the Doré is a "labor of love." It belonged to her grandfather, R. Laird Harris, one of the original faculty members of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. She also has many Hebrew Bibles in varying states of disrepair that belonged to Harris, who was also a New International Version translator and a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society. Looking at the Doré, Smick says, "Customarily I would wash the pages and de-acidify them"-but her fingers tell her that the pages have a coating. If she puts them in water, there's a risk the paper will fall apart: "I didn't want to take that risk." Instead she uses a special "eraser" that can remove the major fingerprints without damaging the paper.

On one side of Smick's space in the River Arts District of Asheville, N.C., is a showroom where she displays books and her husband's high-end, handcrafted furniture. The other side is her workspace. Horizontal shelves hold paper. Bolts of leather sit on top. Tables hold equipment like an enormous paper cutter: It's called a board sheer, and it cuts squarely both thick and thin materials. She has five nipping presses, which look like oversized flower presses. They exert pressure on folded papers-the larger they are, the more pressure they exert. A magnetic strip holds small tools, including knives and tiny spatulas that she made herself.

The studio is not all low tech and old school. A big Apple computer sits on her desk. Music plays while she works. She reads contemporary books on an iPad. From her perspective, the modern book is a waste of paper and a drain on resources. Their cut edges and glued spines naturally fall apart.

The books Smick makes and restores will last a long time. Touring her showroom is like having a short course in the history of bookbinding, with "models" of books constructed using different techniques on display. She points out wooden and vellum covers and those with German braided headbands, double flexible bindings, and Cambridge panels. She has books covered in pigskin, smooth calfskin, or textured goatskin. Some have marbled endpapers. Others vellum. Whether sewing, dying or tooling leather, or marbling paper, Smick is "doing it the way it was originally done."

She opened her business, Monkfish Bindery, last January. Before that she had been working at the Boston Public Library and binding books for clients in the Boston area. She's found owning a business a challenge: "There's something in owning your own business that takes years to be good at, especially with restoration."

That's because it's easy to make a mistake when estimating a job: "Sometimes I get a job in and everything goes great, and I make money. But sometimes I get a job in, and I make a price quote on it, and I did not notice that the sewing was broken at a certain place. And then you have to resew the whole book. ... Things like that can happen very easily." As an example of what can go wrong, she points to a 14-volume set of Shakespeare that sits on one shelf: "The leather I got from the distributor was not good leather, and it had to be returned and exchanged."

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