If you go: Winchester
Several hours a week, I manage the rare-book inventory of a used-book store on Capitol Hill, and the owner suggested that I take a class in basic book repair. Every so often, he has one of our old books restored, and I’m always shocked at how long it takes and how much it costs. Other than that, I didn’t know the first thing about book restoration.
On a Thursday morning, I arrived at Cat Tail Run, on a country road just outside Winchester. I’d imagined working in a sterile, libraryesque place. What I found was a large, colorful space with several rooms dedicated to the TLC of old books. About a dozen workstations were spread atop plywood floors, and every square inch was covered with things like old clocks and rotary phones and tubes of paint. One drawer was labeled “Weird Stuff.”
The bindery owner, Jill, set out banana bread and coffee, instructing the students to find a workspace. The class was a mix: Besides me, there was a retired federal bankruptcy judge, a school librarian, a pipe organist, a retired military aircraft mechanic, a woman who collects Passover Haggadot, a guy who works in IT and a young man who already makes his own books.
I settled in by a window and took inventory of my tools: a plastic cup of paste, a bowl of glue, paintbrushes, a small electric fan, wax paper, washcloths and duct-tape-covered bricks. There was a little set of plastic drawers that contained cotton balls, Q-Tips, tweezers, scissors, needles, sandpaper, rubber gloves, a scalpel, a micro-spatula and a tongue depressor-size tool that I would later learn is a bone folder, used to make creases.
We’d been instructed to bring some old volumes to repair — books that still had covers but needed work on the corners, spines or edges.
“There are plenty of bad things that happen to good books,” Jill said. “People pull them off the shelves by the endcap, drop them on the floor, let the dog chew them and try to repair them at home.” (I glanced guiltily at a childhood book in my stack, tooth-marked and Scotch-taped.) She ran through the agenda, which included tightening loose hinges and repairing corners and spine edges.
When she isn’t teaching, Jill runs one of the busiest binderies in the region, repairing books from museums, universities and individuals — especially family Bibles. She has been refining her craft for decades, since she transformed her father’s clock repair shop into her first bindery. She now has a staff of five and walks around in an oversize torn T-shirt that she uses to wipe glue off her fingers. She tends to talk without punctuation and often uses “honking” to emphasize a point, as in, “honking rare” or “big honking piece.”