Hands across time: Adventures with an old leather book and a glue pot

Posted 2/28/20

by Hugh Gilmore Last week I reached for the glue pot I keep on my desk and started a Time Journey.  In my business life I buy and sell old and rare books. Many of them are beat-up.  But …

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Hands across time: Adventures with an old leather book and a glue pot


by Hugh Gilmore

Last week I reached for the glue pot I keep on my desk and started a Time Journey. 

In my business life I buy and sell old and rare books. Many of them are beat-up.  But some come to me, despite their age, still gleaming and sharp on the outside. When I open them, their high-rag-content-pages remain bright and clean and easily turned without fear that their corners will snap off. However, it was no such book I had beside me that day.

My desk is an overturned door, covered in brown paper, set over two short file cabinets. At the right edge I keep a pencil caddy and three small boxes filled with the usual tools – paper clips, rubber bands, a paint brush (for dusting the top edges of books), an erase pad and other odds and ends. A fourth small box beside them holds books that need repair. I’d say “broken books that need TLC,” but I’ve learned not to be sentimental. Most of them are simply merchandise. 

In fact, if there’s one sure thing I’ve learned in this old-book business, it’s don’t buy books in bad condition. They’re hard to sell, even if repaired. (Unless they are genuinely rare. But, by definition, rare books are rarely encountered. Most old books are simply old.) 

Quite often though, it’s necessary to buy – or simply remove – a lot of books one doesn’t want, in order to get the few I do want. Thus it was, that a small (5 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches) brown leather-covered book had lain in the repair box for months, appearing and disappearing from view according to the number of invoices, bills, letters, scrap papers I’d laid over it. I had finished my quota of books to enter into inventory and happened to look over and see this book. It was about two in the afternoon, the sun was coming through the window and everything in the world seemed warm and healthy and worth doing. I thought: Let’s take a look.

Old leather books are pleasurable to touch usually, but this one was a bit stiff. The leather had dried over time. Let’s see: Ah, no wonder, it was published in 1752. That’s not very old for a French book from the golden age of French binding. Usually, if cared for, they remain quite supple. But this one had been exposed to the sun or left in a bookcase near a radiator and it was dry. Sometimes no amount of leather restorative or oil can revive such damaged books, but it didn’t seem ready to crack into pieces if I worked on it. Was it worth fixing, though?

The options in this case are: Batch it up with a lot of other beat-up leather books and sell them (cheap) to an interior decorator. Load up a similar box and send it to a suburban auction where it will sell (again, cheap). Offer a bunch like this one as an eBay lot, or try to sell it on AbeBooks as an individual book, “as is.”

This last option is almost laughable, since I had Volume II (only) of a two-volume set. What we call an “orphan” volume. And it concerned European royalty. Books about those people used to decorate nearly every Chestnut Hill mansion, but seldom any longer do. Quite an unsellable topic in the current American market. Despite its venerable age, it was worth about $6. It’s also possible in this situation to look longingly at the trash can, if one’s conscience has been lathered in absinthe, but not me, not today.

A book like this one was usually constructed by stretching a piece of pre-cut calfskin (or pig, or sheep) over a couple of pieces of thick (card)board and gluing it down. The place where the closed edge of the book is covered with leather, and on which the title and some decorations will be put, is called the spine. This book’s major injury was that the leather of the front cover had completely separated from the spine, as though one had lifted the veneer of a table’s edge to reveal the wood below. Could I fix that? It looked harder than any of the little salvaging jobs I’d done before. 

Unfixed, there was no way I could simply pass the book along to its next owner; it would break as soon as another book carelessly rubbed against it. It reminded me of what I feel like when watching a moth flutter against a window. After a while, there is no choice. I must catch it and carry it outside. The creature desperately wants to live on. So too with this book. I felt sorry for it. I gave in and reached for the glue. Not everything that’s worth saving must be beautiful … or expensive.

Soon, very soon, I became immersed in a mind-bending spirit meld with the last man who’d handled the leather on this book. I felt his presence, I felt his force, I wondered what he thought. Why not? We were separated only by 268 years. Books can do that to people. So can certain women. I’ll tell you about the woman and the experience next week.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of “Scenes from a Bookshop,” a collection of stories from his days running a second-hand bookshop at 32 East Chestnut Hill Ave. Available at Amazon.


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