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The Binds that Tie

Book Binders
Photography by Christopher Smith
Photography by Christopher Smith

Bound by a mutual love of old books, bookbinders Pat McCarty and Leo Behnke pursue their timeless craft in a digital era

When Pat McCarty and Leo Behnke pick up a book, they see things that normal people don’t: the type of fibers used in the end papers, the way the publishers decided to finish the page edges, the choice of fabric used in the tiny, barely-perceptible strip of fabric up top called a “headband.” That’s because, to them, books are more than just a convenient way to transport the written word — the books themselves are precious objects, worthy of attention and care. Pat and Leo have been in the book repair business together for 24 years, running Ace of Books from their mad scientist-meets-bookbinder’s lab, chock full of paper, glue, leather, and thread of all colors, fibers, and textures.

Pat began repairing books while working at the UNLV library in 1985. “The person who was doing repair for the library … went on a cruise and decided not to come back,” she chuckles. Pat’s boss commissioned her instead, and she eventually developed and ran the UNLV library’s preservation lab for 13 years.

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Pairing leather for a book cover. Photography by Christopher Smith

Leo, meanwhile, is a magician by trade (he worked at Disneyland back in its early days), with a particular interest in historical magic books. In 1993, David Copperfield purchased an enormous magic library to add to his collection and hired Leo as his curator. With a new shipment of books coming in from England, Leo decided to visit the UNLV library preservation lab for some advice. He still remembers the moment he first saw Pat: “I got out of the elevator and turned left. And there was a very large window into a room with lots of tables and books piled on it. At that moment a lady walked from right to left, and I thought, ‘That’s nice.’” They got to talking about books, “and we’ve been talking ever since.” When they married, their reception was in Lance Burton’s lobby at the Monte Carlo.

Over the course of their years running Ace of Books, they’ve handled a variety of texts, from an incredibly rare 16th century Vulgate Bible to a latex-coated horror movie book prop. They’ve repaired valuable collector’s tomes, and books whose value are measured more in sentiment than eBay resale prices. A couple who’d been robbed abroad commissioned them to build a book with a secret chamber for a cell phone and cash inside the spine (the title, laughably dull: Polynomials in Composite Gradients). But the majority of their book repairs are actually Bibles: Bibles tend to be heirloom objects with irreplaceable family histories written inside.

When Pat and Leo receive a book, they’ll triage and provide an estimate: Does the text need to be reprinted? Pages replicated? Does the book need to be entirely unbound and restitched? From there, they work with the client to determine the best course of action. Pat is the primary repairer: Her work is both surgical and archaeological. “There are a thousand different ways of sewing a book,” Leo says. “For someone like Pat, who knows, she can take the spine off the book — and looking at this sewing, can tell usually what country and about what date it was sewn, because they change.” While some jobs can be handled in a day, the more painstaking restorations can take weeks.

Pat says she enjoys the challenge of putting a book back together. “The actual binding of the book itself — the principle is still the same as it was back when the monks were binding.” She shows a sample page from an old dictionary that she’d ripped to shreds and reassembled for a class she was teaching. With a little glue and some featherweight Japanese paper, the page looked remarkably intact, a tiny shift in the word alligator the only sign of its injury.

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When a book is beyond repair, or if the cost of repair outweighs its value, they’ll suggest a clamshell or a chemise (a folder-like cover). This is Leo’s domain: He designs these cases and coverings to fit and protect the books. Sometimes, in a playful turn, he’ll include secret pockets for memorabilia that came with the books: One of his clients has ancestors who were officers, one on each side of the Civil War. Their libraries are encased in their respective red and blue clamshells, with two of the clamshells featuring a recessed pocket for miniature portraits.

“We always make sure to ask what you want us to do, and what you don’t want us to do,” Pat says. Leo cites the story of a collector who brought an old magic book to a bookbinder they know. “The binder thought he was doing a really good thing, and he erased all the pencil marks that were throughout the whole book.” He laughs. “Unfortunately, those were all pencil marks written in there by Houdini.” The book’s value dropped from $5,000 to $20.

Pat and Leo's workshop. Photography by Christopher Smith

It can be awkward asking people who work with books about the digital future: Are you afraid of obsolescence? Are ebooks the enemy? The questions are too broad but feel unavoidable all the same. Thankfully, Pat brings it up herself, pointing out how digitization can help preserve old books: After being scanned, “the original gets sewn back together again, put in its original case, and is now preserved back on a shelf, but nobody’s handling it.”

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Still, despite their convenience, reading digitized books means that you miss something from the experience of those original texts, the smell and heft of old paper. “That’s why we want to look at a book from 1750 rather than a digital copy,” Leo says, “because people have written in the margin, they’ve written inside the front cover. They have a letter that’s stuck between a couple of pages. Those things tell us as much information as the book does.”

Pat sighs. “You’ve got to realize today a lot of your bigger research libraries no longer have the funding. So they have to be very selective about what they hang on to.” It’s a Catch-22, she says — do they spend money on book preservation or digital editions? “There are thousands of books being thrown away every year by libraries,” Leo adds.

But while the long-term future of book repair might be tenuous, the pair seem content and optimistic about their work. Leo describes Pat’s work by citing an old client: “He said, ‘Pat saves the memory of the world,’ and it’s true.”