Extending books’ lives
FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS: Saranac Laker has been a bookbinder for 23 years
SARANAC LAKE — Books up to hundreds of years old are rejuvenated and having their lifespans doubled in the cozy office in Anastasia Osolin’s home.
In the outskirts of the desk lamps above her bench, worn books sit in wait for Osolin — a local artist who makes “assemblages” with old tools and equipment — on a shelf just out of hand’s reach while she sits. There are Bibles, dictionaries and children’s books that people have mailed to her for rebinding and repairs. To fix each one takes about a week, and she has several months backlog. For 23 years she’s been doing this.
“I have been binding books since 1996,” Osolin said.
She went to art school and worked in a secondhand bookstore in North Carolina. She said books were always something she felt drawn toward, even before she could read. No other work has interested her.
At the bookstore, The Avid Reader, the owner wanted to do bookbinding in-house. Therefore, one of the employees had to learn the trade, and the possibility piqued her interest.
She joined an apprenticeship in Durham, North Carolina where she was taught the craft. She impressed her teacher who asked her to work weekends when she wasn’t working at the bookshop to help him. For five years she remained.
Now she works out of her home on Old Military Road. Her dog and her son wander the halls, occasionally jumping into the small office where she works on her art as well as the bookbinding.
Most of the tools she uses to repair books are small and light. Many of the products come from Brooklyn. But there are larger, iron tools like the paper cutter, the backing press and the hot-type stamper.
She has a backlog right now, so the wait will be longer than the work. One book in line is a copy of the 1856 Illustrated London News. When she begins, the process will be the same as with any other book: Assess, prep and repair.
For this book, the spine is in bad shape. She’ll have to scrape off any glue and remaining binding, find the same leather and then rebind. She doesn’t use animal-based adhesives. She makes her own, which are water-soluble.
The pages at the back of the book are loose, so she’ll have to redo the sewing before she rebinds. The covers are worn, but salvageable, she said. Dusting, polishing and cleaning can save them.
Any pieces that are missing, such as pages and spines, can be replaced. Thankfully, the internet often has archives so she can find what the spine looked like or what the pages said, and then she can replace it with the same leather, paper or colors. When the internet doesn’t have the answer, she can at least assume what the spine would look like based on the time and location the book came from.
The process often lasts less than seven days, but it can double the lifetime of a book. If in 200 years someone were to find the copy Osolin repaired, they could repair it as well, preserving the book for another 200 years.
Most of her customers are book dealers. She also works with libraries and universities like St. Lawrence University, University of Vermont and, currently, the Potsdam Public Library, which is using grant money to save some of its older books.
Often the purpose of the rebinding is to have the book be sold again. It’s debatable whether the value is increased; it depends more on the book. Old books with valued contents are sometimes more valuable left untouched. Others, like the 1856 Illustrated London News, are less important, and the goal is simply to put a beautiful book on a shelf so a collector might buy it.
But there’s another group Osolin works with: the owners of books with sentimental value. Bibles, children’s books and cookbooks are often brought to her to be repaired. These have been kept in the family. The books themselves are relics, and a copy wouldn’t suffice. The stains, notes and messages are invaluable and can’t be found elsewhere, Osolin said. They are the testaments and archives of loved ones. They can’t be lost.
“People really value the original thing,” Osolin said, “even if you can get another copy.”
The world of secondhand bookstores and the craft of bookbinding is fading. Sellers of new books remain, but the used bookstore in Lake Placid, With Pipe and Book, has been closed for years. So has the Moose Maple Books and More (previously Books and Baskets) in Saranac Lake. The used bookstore she worked at in North Carolina has since closed.
Osolin is one of only a few bookbinders in the state. A class she’s teaching on Thursday at the Old Forge Public Library will show the basics of the craft, and attendee will be able to make a book. But it’s possible that if the internet continues to grow, and if fewer and fewer people repair their antique books and sell them, the trade might die off. The lifeline of these books might end.