By Edgar, Oscar, and Elizabeth Little
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from reading a book. ~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden
For me it was not the reading, but the reception of a book that marked a new era in my life. In the summer of 2000, a boy I just met when I studied in Paris from a weekend trip to London with a gift for me. No special occasion required the gift; it was just meant as a thoughtful token. What I released from the wrinkled paper bag that served as a gift box was an old edition of Edgar Allan Poe.
The look in my face must have been a real confusion, because even though I felt for ten days, he had chosen the perfect gift. Antique book? Verify. Favorite Author? Verify. French connection? Verify. (The book's preface was written by Chateaubriand.) In one of our few calls up to that time, I must have mentioned my budding old book collection, perhaps when we checked past the bookstores in Paris & # 39; Latin quarters. Armed with that despair, he had taken himself under a difficult wild and crazy London weekend to find a book for me and in the first few seconds when I kept the book in my hands I realized a new era in my life had begun. I'm better with this boy.
Fast winding for a few years. The boy from Paris and I had been married for a couple of years when I returned to our home and immediately noticed that our dog had not rushed to the door to welcome me back. We had recently adopted Oscar from the local animal shelter, or "juvie" as my husband calls it, and although he was grown up at the time, he was still in the tail tail. In other words, he chewed everything he could take his teeth on. Do you see where I go with this? I knew immediately that Oscar was okay, and I could hear his nails clicking on the wooden floor in the guest bedroom.
Here is the part where I tell you that my old book collection was gathered in the guest room. When I finally master the courage to peek, what I saw most accurately can be described as a tickertape parade. It was as if the Tasmanian Devil and Cookie Monster had spun through the room, shredded, torn, ripped and spit along the way. Oscar had been relentless. Eight dollar pillows from Target sat undamaged on the bed, while stains of ancient books taken over the sea from Paris were floating like snowflakes. Voltaire, Proust, Racine away, gone, gone. Although he had equal access to newer books of less emotional value to me, he chose to submit my most beautiful books to his razors. By kindness, happiness or time constraints, Oscar had not shredded my precious Poe book, even though the spine had broken and loosened as he rubbed it. Doggie discipline was the last thing I thought when I collapsed on the confetti-covered floor in tears. Oscar let himself out of the room with visions of the vulture in his head, the tail between his legs.
Now quick forward a few years. The delicate books that had escaped the total holocaust at Oscar's paws are at the back of my car, and we are about to meet Elizabeth Little in New Iberia. Elizabeth owns Bayou Bindery, a company I became aware of during the Louisiana Book Festival back in October. With the mouth agape I saw before and after pictures on the display at the festival, because I didn't really know what my tattered books could be restored. The dramatic pictures – Think Extreme Book Makeover – made a believer out of me, and a few weeks later I was on LA 31, damaged books in the trailer.
Bayou Bindery is located in a delightful cottage in the New Iberia neighborhood, and when I arrived, the front door was open to allow even more natural light inside. Elizabeth makes her library miracle happen in a neat and charming work area containing pictures and memorials of friends and family, a wonderful chandelier and decorative details of the avian theme. And even if the cottage is not where Elizabeth lives, you think you are at home. Once you have included the welcome elements, tap the book in the corner, the acid frame on the floor and the scalpel and other hand tools on the wall remind you of the business at hand.
After a quick look at my damaged goods, Elizabeth asks, "Do you have a dog?" She must have seen these cruel bite marks before. I tell you about the story of Oscar, including the Poe book and the meaning for me and my husband. We decide that it is the first one who should go under the knife, especially when she tells me that her mentor (more about her later) just restored the Poe family Bible for an exhibition at the Virginia Library.
Although at this time I feel that my Poe book would be restored to Bayou Bindery, she knows my underlying doubt. Elizabeth asks me carefully what she asks all her nervous clients who are tied to the "original" state of damaged books: "Do you just want to look at the book? Or do you want to read it and send it to your children?" Right, plus the restored book would make the perfect Christmas gift for my husband. (But not a surprise one.)
And the magic of Elizabeth's work is that the restored book is not a shiny, rare, unrecognizable edition. It's your old fascinating character of a book, just stronger. She can reverse the damage caused by the book's aging inards, or she can do more cosmetic work as in a dog attack. "I love working with my hands," she says to me, and it is clear that she skillfully disassembles a damaged book to assess and repair the underlying issues.
Off the covers and the spelling will reveal the faulty lining or glue or the damaged threads that hold the sides together. Elizabeth explains that deteriorating books are often the result of it being too acidic, and often she comes across old sheet music or newspaper as book feed. She whips up a wheat paste that not only removes the old liner, but serves as the acid-free binder for the new Japanese tissue mat. If you refer to the pages required together, Elizabeth manipulates her linen thread and needle with plant. Year of sewing clothes for their children paid off.
I was like a three year old and asked "What does this do?" for almost everything my eyes fell into bindery. Elizabeth spent the day explaining how to repair ripped pages (with varying weights and shades of oriental tissues), leather cover with missing dog-mouthed bits (a process that involves shaving and tapering a new leather to fit the width of the old one) or worn hinges (wax pastel or watercolor pens are used to match the original color). Her extensive knowledge and collection of tools led me to assume that she had studied the craft at university level and had practiced craftsmen ever since, so I was surprised to discover that she had just begun to book ten years earlier.
On a journey to visit her sister in Virginia, a bookmark's road sign showed her curiosity, and soon afterwards, Elizabeth worked one-on-one with the binder that would become her mentor. She calls Jill Deiss of Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding in Winchester, Virginia – a headband and talks about her with obvious respect and admiration. "I feel I am learning correctly." Although the formal apprenticeship period is over, she continues to consult and learn from Deiss. This year alone, she has participated in two Master Series courses at Cat Tail Run. In last spring, she learned more about paper repair, and in October she was there to learn gold leaf tools. (I don't want to ruin a surprise, but someone near Elizabeth will open a book of exquisite gold leaf details this Christmas.
So she never meant to be an expert craftsman; she just found a new interest and ran with it. A friend of Elizabeth once said to her: "Some people come across new projects and just stand by the edge and look down into the hole. But you just go up and jump right in." And even though she had never expected to be a bookbinder, she didn't shock either. "I'm very task oriented. I'm a project person." Her second "project" includes a nursing career (after many years as a nurse, she is now volunteering one day a week at a clinic in Lafayette) and a training center at a local primary school. She tells about a new school visit, where, due to the booming basilica, she made pesto with the students, "and they loved it!"
We laughed about her high school where she worked in a basement-bound book repair department at the city library. Her instructions were, "Just drop some tape and get it back in circulation." Even then, she never thought she would continue to book repairs. And even though an avid reader, she doesn't have an old book collection. She told me, "Books speak to you at different times in your life.
With a steady stream of interesting books coming through bindery, I guess she doesn't really have to collect. She recently worked at Roosevelt The Rough Riders in the family McIlhenny family. (John Avery McIlhenny left the Tabasco company to join Roosevelt's cavalry regiment in 1898.) A Thoreau community in California sent her A week at Concord and Merrimack Rivers for restoration. She is particularly fond of restoring family bibles, French prayers from the 19th century as the locals send her, or books in the Second World War battalion that seem to come in waves to the binder.
A new project came its way while we walked through the city after lunch. We had carved into the soon-to-be open Bayou Teche Museum for a nice preview, when the director there told Elizabeth, "I hired you might end. When she left the museum with a terrible and dusty old guest book from the Frederic hotel for restoration I thought, "Every city should have a bindery." Excited as a child on Christmas Eve, Elizabeth opened the big book as soon as we returned to bindery to read the names of the historic hotel's former guests.
People always ask her, "What is the value of this book? How much is it worth?" But Elizabeth is not so much impressed by the monetary value, rarity or first edition of books. "For me it is more interesting to know why people are so bound to them." Many of her clients are older people who want to send a beloved book in good condition. "I can feel the legacy when I work with those projects."
Elizabeth Little and her Bayou Bindery will now be among the major actors in 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 over and over again." And even though it was not entirely true for the marvelous fragile book I received in Paris, it is indeed the case for this restored Christmas present.