Book Rescue

November 30, 2017 11:12 am

One man helps book owners save books they value highly because of the profound impact the tomes have had on their lives.

How many hobbies can help families preserve their legacy?

Louis Papoff fondly remembers an elderly woman from his hometown of Toronto who sought his help as someone with an increasingly rare and specialized skill set: repairing age-damaged books.

The homebound woman had a small book—six to eight inches tall—that had been handed down through multiple generations but that was succumbing to the ravages of time and use.

“She very much wanted to pass it along to the next generation, but it had pretty much fallen apart,” Papoff says. “Very few parts were still in the original whole condition.”

Papoff, who lives and works in Illinois and is a member of HFMA’s First Illinois Chapter, drove the long distance to pick up and drop off the book, to her deep satisfaction.

“It reminded me of why I did the work to begin with,” Papoff says. “You could take something and imagine it will be another 50 to 75 years before someone else will have to do repairs and modifications to it.”

Papoff, CFO of both Chicago Health System and Chicago Health Medical Group, both part of Tenet Healthcare Corporation, has a deep affinity for a hobby he began in high school, when a departing librarian offered to teach him book binding and repair because the successor did not want to perform it.

“There is a weight of responsibility that comes upon one working with a book that is 100 to 150 years old. You don’t want to do anything that would permanently alter the book; you want to do only the bare minimum necessary to repair it, and return it as close as possible to its original condition,” Papoff says.

Over a quarter-century, Papoff has repaired an estimated 10,000 books for a wide variety of clients. “The satisfaction you get bringing together the individual books and perhaps entire sets and taking them from a point of being hardly usable to being renewed for the family or owner is substantially gratifying,” Papoff says.

Although Papoff is hesitant to single out any personal favorite books he has restored—“I feel sort of like a parent to all the books I have worked on”—their importance to him usually mirrors the level of satisfaction the owners exhibit upon receiving the books back.

“To me that’s the most important part,” says Papoff.

Book restoration typically entails reconnecting the 15 to 50 sections that most books comprise. For higher-end books, such repair entails resewing each section back together. Lower-end books and children’s book often have a spectrum of needs, including resewing each individual section, regluing them together, and replacing as much of the original cover and spine as possible. Sometimes, a quicker and simpler approach is to use a drill—the only machine Papoff uses—with titanium drill bits to replace the seams in a bulk manner.

“Every book requires a different approach,” he says.

Although complex repairs may take hours, the average restoration takes 10 to 20 minutes for sets or books nearly identical in size and shape and wear. “You get in a rhythm, you look for the weak spots, you have a general sense that one section, two sections, and three sections in you’ll know that there’s a weak spot that you are going to have to focus on,” Papoff says.

However, even book sets require looking at each volume with fresh eyes because one may have been dropped or otherwise damaged.

Every book binder or repair person has a signature style, Papoff notes. Individual marks include the type of reinforcement used for the corners and different sewing techniques.

“It’s a combination of a practical art and a source of satisfaction to be able to use your hands to take something of minimal use or a challenge to use and make it part of somebody’s library and part of their life again,” Papoff says.

Beyond giving him a deep sense of satisfaction, the hobby helped him fund both his higher education and a down payment on a home. “It’s a hobby that has been very helpful to me over the years,” Papoff says.

He also describes the process as very relaxing. “For some it might be tedious, but if it is something you obtain great joy from, it is something can do all night long until the early hours the next morning,” Papoff says.

And it’s a skill he has shared with others over the years. Some he has taught have made a home-based business out of it. “I was taught as a gift, so I try to make sure I pass that along to those who are interested,” Papoff says.

Over the years, the work has become more challenging, in part because fewer companies sell the needed equipment, including glues, binding strings, and tapes. One improvement has been the ability to connect online with others who share the hobby and to organize group purchases when sellers of supplies limit sales to bulk buyers.

Like proud restoration hobbyists everywhere, the online community of book binders also shares before-and-after pictures of their projects. “It reminds you of the impact that you have been able to make,” Papoff says.

In the future, Papoff would like to repair another 10,000 books, and include a focus on more impactful repairs. “The underlying purpose of this is to bring usefulness back to the books,” he says.


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