AFTER A 30-YEAR CAREER WITH the Foreign Service, August Villetri returned from his last overseas assignment to find that his collection of books, stored in wooden crates in Pakistan, had been soaked in a monsoon. Determined to save his damaged treasures, Villetri enrolled in a bookbinding class at the Smithsonian and apprenticed himself to the chief rare book conservator at the Folger Library. He was 59.

Villetri says he initially "wanted to learn what the terms were" and then do the work himself. But he had problems getting materials: There was only one place in New York, and its service was very slow. So Villetri went to Italy and England seeking leathers, papers, glues, presses, etc.

That was 14 years ago, and it was the start of Bookmakers, his small business "peddling supplies" for bookbinding. Villetri runs it out of a cluttered I Street NW office that smells vaguely of leather and glue, and although he has only one part-time helper, his "peddling" has grown into quite a business. "Big enough," he reluctantly admits, "that I pay 60 cents out of every dollar to taxes."

The only marketing Villetri has done is to produce a supply catalogue, playfully illustrated by his daughter. Still, as one of the only bookbinding suppliers in the country, he has a mailing list that extends into most states and Canada. The Smithsonian, the Folger and the Library of Congress do business with him.

And lately, his best customers -- universities and museums -- have been joined by an increasing number of amateurs learning to bind their own books. Books are in these days, Villetri says, especially handcrafted ones. Besides, it's expensive to send books to a professional binder.

Now 73, Villetri considers retiring, if he can find someone to take over the business who cares about books the way he does. He already has a project in mind for his free time: to finish binding and repairing the books ruined by the monsoon in Pakistan.

"It happened like the old saying," he says. "The shoemaker always needs soles, but he never repairs his own shoes."