From Edgar, Oscar and Elizabeth Little
How many men have dated a new era in your 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 gift for me. No special occasion required the gift; It was just a thoughtful symbol. 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 look on my face must have been one of genuine puzzlement, because despite knowing me only ten days ago, he had chosen the perfect gift. Antique book? Checks. Favorite author? Checks. French connection? Checks. (The preface to the book was written by Chateaubriand.) In one of our few conversations so far, I must have mentioned my collection of old books, perhaps as we passed Paris bookstores. Latin Quarter. Armed with this rumor, he had taken the time during a wild and crazy weekend in London to find a book for me, and within the first few seconds of holding the book in my hands, I realized that a new era in my life had come. started. I better get attached to this boy.
Fast forward a few years. The Paris boy and I got married a few years ago when I returned to our house and immediately noticed that our dog had not rushed to the door to greet me back. We had recently adopted the local animal shelter Oscar, or "juvie," as my husband calls it, and although he was an adult at the time, he was still in his late childhood. In other words, he was chewing on everything he could bite. Do you see where I'm going with this? I knew immediately that Oscar was no good, and I could hear his nails cracking on the wooden floors of the guest room.
Here's the part where I say my old book collection lived in the guest room. When I finally mustered the courage to peek, what I saw can be more accurately described as a parade. It was as if the Tasmanian Devil and the Cookie Monster had swirled around the room, destroying, tearing, tearing and salivating along the way. Oscar had been merciless. Target's eight-dollar pillows lay unscathed on the bed, while pieces of old books carried over the Paris ocean floated like snowflakes. Voltaire, Proust, Racine is gone, gone, gone. Despite having equal access to newer books of lower sentimental value to me, he chose to subject my most valuable books to his sharp canines. Out of kindness, luck, or time constraints, Oscar did not tear my precious Poe book, though the spine was torn and loosened when he gnawed it. Dog discipline was the last thing on my mind as I fell to the floor covered in teary confetti. Oscar left the room with visions of juvie on his head, tail between his legs.
Now go a few more years. The fragile books that have escaped the total annihilation on Oscar's paws are in the backseat of my car, and we're on our way to meet Elizabeth Little in New Iberia. Elizabeth owns Bayou Bindery, a company I learned about during the Louisiana Book Festival in October. With my mouth open, I saw the before and after photos on display at the festival, because I honestly didn't know that my tattered books could be restored. Those dramatic photos, like Extreme Book Makeover, made me a believer, and a few weeks later I was at LA 31, damaged books in tow.
Bayou Bindery resides in a lovely cabin in central New Iberia, and when I arrived the front door was open to let in even more natural light. Elizabeth makes her biblio miracles happen in a neat and charming workspace featuring photos and memories of friends and family, a beautiful chandelier and bird-themed decorative touches. And although the house is not where Elizabeth lives, you seem to be in your house. When you are finished with these welcoming elements, the book printed 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 a quick look at my damaged products, Elizabeth asks, "Do you have a dog?" She must have seen these cruel bite marks before. I tell her the story of Oscar, including Poe's book and the meaning it has for me and my husband. We decided that it is the first to be taken with the knife, especially when she tells me that her mentor (more about her later) had restored the Poe family Bible for an exhibit at the Virginia Library.
Although at this point I feel that my Poe book should be restored at Bayou Bindery, she feels my underlying hesitations. Elizabeth kindly asks me what she asks of all her nervous customers who are tied to the "original" condition of damaged books: "Do you just want to look at the book? Or do you really want to read it and pass it on to your children?" She was absolutely right, and the restored book would be the perfect Christmas present for my husband. (Although not a surprise.)
And the magic of Elizabeth's work is that the restored book is not a brilliant, soulless, unrecognizable edition. It's your fascinating old book character, only stronger. It can reverse the damage caused by the book's aging bowels, or it can do a more cosmetic job, such as in the case of a dog attack. "I love working with my hands," she tells me, and it's completely handy that she deftly disassembles a damaged book to evaluate and repair the underlying problems.
Outside come the covers and spine to reveal the defective coating or adhesive or the damaged wires that hold the pages together. Elizabeth explains that the deterioration of books often results from very acidic coverings, and sometimes she finds sheet music or old newspapers as book coverings. It prepares a wheat paste that not only removes the old coating, but serves as an acid-free adhesive for the new Japanese fabric coating. If it becomes necessary to sew the pages again, Elizabeth handles her linen thread and needle easily. Years of sewing clothes for your children paid off.
I was about three years old, asking "What does that do?" for almost everything my eyes fell on the binding. Elizabeth spent the day patiently explaining how she repairs torn pages (using varying weights and shades of oriental fabric), missing leather covers with dog-shaped pieces (a process that involves scraping and sharpening a new piece of leather to fit the width of the old one) or worn hinges (crayons 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 craft at the university level and been a practicing craftswoman ever since, so I was surprised to find that she had only started binding books ten years earlier.
On a trip to visit her sister in Virginia, a bookbinder's plaque aroused her curiosity, and soon after Elizabeth was working individually with the binder that would become her mentor. She calls Jill Deiss of the Cat Tail Run Handbinding in Winchester, Virginia, a bookbinder, and speaks of her with obvious respect and admiration. "I feel like I'm learning the right way." Although formal learning is over, she continues to consult and learn from Deiss. This year alone, she attended two Master Series courses at Cat Tail Run. Last spring, she learned more about paper repair and, in October, was there to learn about gold leaf tools. (I don't want to spoil a surprise, but someone close to Elizabeth will unwrap a book with exquisite gold leaf details this Christmas. She quickly uses her new skills!)
Therefore, she never wanted to be an expert craftswoman; she just found a new interest and moved on. Elizabeth's friend once said to her, "Some people come across new projects and just stand there and look at the hole. But you just go up and jump in." And while she never expected to be a bookbinder, she's not exactly shocked either. "I'm very task oriented. I'm 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 primary school. She enthusiastically recalls a recent visit to the school, where, because of the growing basil, she pesto with the students, "and they loved it! It proves that if they grow it, they will eat it. Or at least give it a try." "
We laughed at her high school work, where she worked in the book repair department at the town library. His instructions were: "Just put tape and put it back in circulation." Even so, she never thought she would repair the book. And although she's an avid reader, she doesn't have a collection of old books. She told me, "Books talk to you at different times in your life. I like the books that come my way and then pass them on."
With a steady stream of interesting books coming through the binding, I suppose she doesn't really need to collect. She recently worked at Roosevelt The Rough Riders , in the McIlhenny family collection. (John Avery McIlhenny left Tabasco to join the Roosevelt Cavalry Regiment in 1898.) A Thoreau Society in California sent it. A week on the Concord and Merrimack rivers for restoration. She particularly enjoys restoring family Bibles, 19th-century French prayer books that locals send her, or World War II battalion yearbooks that seem to come in waves for bookbinding.
A new project came up when we walked around town after lunch. We had entered the soon-to-be-opened Bayou Teche museum for a preview when the director said to Elizabeth, "I was hoping you could come by. I have something I want you to see." When she left the museum carrying a huge and the Frederic Hotel's dusty guestbook for restoration, I thought, "Every city should have a binding." Excited as a child on Christmas morning, Elizabeth opened the book as soon as we returned to the bound to read the names of previous guests at the historic hotel.
People always ask her, "What is the value of this book? How much is it worth?" But Elizabeth is not so impressed by the monetary value, the rarity or the first edition of the books. "It's more interesting to me to know why people are so attached to them." Many of your customers are older people who wish to transmit a beloved book in good condition. "I feel the legacy working on these projects."
Elizabeth Little and her Bayou Bindery will now be among the main actors in the story as we pass our Poe book to the next generation. Garrison Keillor once said, "A book is a gift you can open over and over again." And while that was not entirely true for the wonderfully fragile book I received in Paris, it is certainly the case with this restored Christmas gift.