In an age where technology has all but kicked bound books to the curb, there are artisans fighting the resistance, celebrating the lost art of restoration, one leather spine at a time. Most conservation-trained bookbinders work in museums, large libraries and academic institutions. But scattered across the country are independent book and paper conservators, like Bakersfield’s Susan Frakes, who believes you can judge a book by its cover.
“People don’t think of getting a book fixed until they find out there is someone out there who can,” she said.
The artistic craft of bookbinding predates the Middle Ages. It is a meticulous, precise method of measuring, cutting, gluing and repeating multiple times over. Frakes became interested in rehabilitating worn books while working at the Book Den in Santa Barbara.
“I loved used books and felt bad for the people who brought in broken books that we couldn’t buy,” she said.
The daughter of a “Mr. Fix-it,” she began bookbinding in earnest 24 years ago in Clarion, Pennsylvania, where her husband chaired Clarion University’s Department of Social Sciences. She earned her Master of Library Science degree there and, on a whim, cold-called the St. Bonaventure University Preservation Department, which had an in-house conservator. She landed a two-month internship, driving a couple of hours to New York every week to work with him.
When Frakes’ husband received a research fellowship in Munich, she found a handbinder there and booked another internship – this time with the rare opportunity of binding 18th century works. The couple moved to Bakersfield in 2017 where Robert Frakes is the Dean of Cal State’s School of Arts and Humanities.
Inside the bindery at their southwest Bakersfield home, Susan – a member of the Guild of Book Workers – runs Blowfish Bookbinding, surrounded by the tools of her trade: awls, brushes, mats, hammers, knives, rulers, squares, scissors, box cutters, rolls of cloth, leather, sewing needles, iron weights and spools of thread.
She acquired an antique 26-inch guillotine and a board sheer from the 1880s, at considerable savings. There are clamps, a light table she says was another bargain and a lettering machine for imprints and gold stamping. On our visit, she applied a special adhesive to the spine of a weathered book. While the glue was still moist, she used a rounding awl, as if rolling dough.
“A lot of people think they know how to fix it and don’t and end up doing more damage in the process,” she added.
Since moving to Bakersfield, she said she has relied on word-of-mouth referrals and also binds journals, makes custom boxes and clamshell boxes for delicate heirloom books and Bibles.
“My bread and butter is in book repair, books that have sentimental value,” she said, customizing them with leather corners, cloth hinges and end sheets from Germany. “I fix it so people can use it again. It’s not a dying art really. People just don’t put an emphasis on repairing books anymore.”
While the adhesive set, she began paring a piece of leather, a technique used to flatten the material that will be used for a book’s spine. Considering the investment of time and attention to detail, her fee is reasonable: $50 to $60 on average, she said.
“My real reward is seeing the reaction from people who brought their busted up books to me and I give them back usable and like new,” Susan said.
If, as author Garrison Keillor suggested, “A book is a gift you can open again and again,” one that has been given a new lease on life, bound by love of the craft of restoration, it will be a gift that keeps on giving for generations to come.
“With older books, I try to salvage everything that means something to their owners, and that way I can keep it alive for another hundred years,” Susan said.
For more information, visit blowfishbookbinding.com. ￼
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.