Of Edgar, Oscar, and Elizabeth Little

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

For me, it wasn’t the reading, but the receiving of a book that marked a new era in my life. In the summer of 2000, a boy I had just met while studying in Paris returned from a weekend excursion to London with a gift for me. No special occasion necessitated the gift; it was just meant as a thoughtful token. What I pulled from the wrinkled paper bag that served as gift wrap was an old edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s work.

The look on my face must have been one of genuine bewilderment, because despite having known me for only ten days, he had selected the perfect gift. Antique book? Check. Favorite author? Check. French connection? Check. (The book’s foreword was written by Chateaubriand.) In one of our few conversations up to that point I must have mentioned my budding old book collection, maybe as we strolled past the bookstores in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Armed with that tidbit he had taken the time during an otherwise wild and crazy London weekend to find a book for me, and in those first few seconds as I held the book in my hands, I realized a new era in my life had begun. I’d better hang on to this boy.

Fast forward a few years. The boy from Paris and I had been married a couple of years when I returned to our home and immediately noticed that our dog hadn’t rushed to the door to welcome me back. We had recently adopted Oscar from the local animal shelter, or “juvie” as my husband calls it, and though he was full-grown at the time, he was still at the tail end of his puppyhood. In other words he was chewing everything he could get his teeth on. Do you see where I’m going with this? I knew right away that Oscar was up to no good, and I could hear his nails clicking on the wood floors in the guest bedroom.

Here’s the part where I tell you that my old book collection lived in the guest bedroom. When I finally mustered the courage to peek, what I saw can most accurately be described as a ticker tape parade. It was as though the Tasmanian Devil and Cookie Monster had spun through the room, shredding, tearing, ripping, and salivating along the way. Oscar had been merciless. Eight-dollar pillows from Target sat unscathed on the bed, while specks of antique books hauled over the ocean from Paris were floating like snowflakes. Voltaire, Proust, Racine-gone, gone, gone. Despite having equal access to newer books of less sentimental value to me, he chose to subject my most treasured books to his razor sharp canines. Out of kindness, luck, or time constraints, Oscar had not shredded my precious Poe book, though the spine had torn and come loose as he gnawed on it. Doggie discipline was the last thing on my mind as I collapsed to the confetti-covered floor in tears. Oscar slipped out of the room with visions of juvie in his head, tail between his legs.

Now fast forward a few more years. The fragile books that had escaped total annihilation at Oscar’s paws are on the back seat of my car, and we’re on our way to meet Elizabeth Little in New Iberia. Elizabeth owns Bayou Bindery, a business I became aware of during the Louisiana Book Festival back in October. With mouth agape did I view the before and after photos on display at the festival, because I honestly didn’t know my tattered books could be restored. Those dramatic photos-think Extreme Book Makeover-made a believer out of me, and a few weeks later I was on LA 31, damaged books in tow.

The Bayou Bindery resides in an adorable cottage in New Iberia’s downtown district, and when I arrived the front door was wide open to let even more natural light inside. Elizabeth makes her biblio miracles happen in a tidy and charming workspace that features photos and mementos of friends and family, a gorgeous chandelier, and avian-themed decorative touches. And though the cottage is not where Elizabeth lives, you kind of feel like you’re in her home. When you’ve finished taking in those welcoming elements, the book press in the corner, the sewing frame on the floor, and the scalpels and other hand tools on the wall remind you of the business at hand.

After a quick look at my damaged goods, Elizabeth asks, “Do you have a dog?” She must have seen these cruel bite marks before. I tell her the story of Oscar, including the Poe book and the significance it has for me and my husband. We decide that it is the first one that should go under the knife, especially when she tells me that her mentor (more on her later) had just restored the Poe family Bible for an exhibit at the Library of Virginia.

Even though at this point I feel like my Poe book was meant to be restored at the Bayou Bindery, she senses my underlying hesitations. Elizabeth gently asks me what she asks all of her nervous clients who are attached to the “original” condition of damaged books: “Do you want to just look at the book? Or do you want to be able to actually read it and pass it on to your children?” She was absolutely right, plus the restored book would make the perfect Christmas gift for my husband. (Though not a surprise one.)

And the magic of Elizabeth’s work is that the restored book is not a shiny, soulless, unrecognizable edition. It’s your old fascinating character of a book, only stronger. She can reverse the damage caused by the book’s aging innards, or she can do more cosmetic work as in the case of a dog attack. “I love to work with my hands,” she tells me, and it is completely by hand that she skillfully dismantles a damaged book to assess and repair the underlying problems.

Off come the covers and the spine to reveal the failing lining or adhesive, or the damaged threads which hold the pages together. Elizabeth explains that deteriorating books are often the result of lining that was too acidic, and occasionally she comes across old sheet music or newspaper as book lining. She whips up a wheat paste that not only removes the old lining, but serves as the acid-free adhesive for the new Japanese tissue lining. If sewing the pages back together is called for, Elizabeth manipulates her linen thread and needle with facility. Years of sewing clothes for her children paid off.

I was like a three-year old, asking “What’s this do?” for just about everything my eyes fell on in the bindery. Elizabeth spent the day patiently explaining how she repairs ripped pages (using varying weights and shades of oriental tissues), leather covers with dog-mouth-shaped chunks missing (a process that involves shaving and tapering a new piece of leather to fit the width of the old), or worn out hinges (wax pastels or watercolor pencils are used to match the color of the original). Her extensive knowledge and collection of tools led me to assume that she had studied the craft at the university level and had been a practicing artisan ever since, so I was amazed to discover that she had only begun book binding about ten years earlier.

On a trip to visit her sister in Virginia, a bookbinder’s roadside sign piqued her curiosity, and soon thereafter Elizabeth was working one-on-one with the binder who was to become her mentor. She calls Jill Deiss-of Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding in Winchester, Virginia-a master binder, and speaks of her with evident respect and admiration. “I feel like I’m learning the right way.” Though the formal apprenticeship is over, she continues to consult with and learn from Deiss. This year alone, she has attended two Master Series courses at the Cat Tail Run. Last spring, she learned more about paper repair, and in October she was there to learn about gold leaf tooling. (I don’t want to ruin a surprise, but someone close to Elizabeth will be unwrapping a book with exquisite gold leaf details this Christmas. She quickly puts her new skills to use!)

So she never meant to be an expert artisan; she just found a new interest and ran with it. A friend of Elizabeth’s once told her, “Some people come across new projects and just stand there at the edge, looking down in the hole. But you just walk up and jump right in.” And though she never expected to be a bookbinder, she’s not exactly shocked either. “I’m very task-oriented. I’m a project person.” Her other “projects” include a nursing career (after many years as a nurse, she is now volunteering one day per week at a clinic in Lafayette) and an educational garden at the local elementary school. She beamingly recounts a recent school visit where, because of the booming basil, she made pesto with the students, “and they loved it! It just proves that if they grow it, they will eat it. Or at least give it a chance.”

We laughed about her high school job where she worked in the basement-bound book repair department at the town library. Her instructions were, “Just slap some tape on and get it back into circulation.” Even then, she never thought she’d go on to book repair. And though an avid reader, she does not have an old book collection of her own. She told me, “Books speak to you at different times in your life. I enjoy the books that come my way, and then I pass them on.”

With a steady stream of interesting books coming through the bindery, I suppose she doesn’t really need to collect. She recently worked on Roosevelt’s The Rough Riders, in the McIlhenny family’s collection. (John Avery McIlhenny left the Tabasco company to join Roosevelt’s cavalry regiment in 1898.) A Thoreau society in California sent her A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers for restoration. She’s particularly fond of restoring family Bibles, the nineteenth-century French prayer books that locals send her, or the World War II battalion yearbooks that seem to come in waves to the bindery.

A new project came her way while we strolled through town after lunch. We had ducked into the soon-to-be-open Bayou Teche museum for a sneak preview, when the director there said to Elizabeth, “I was hoping you might stop by. I’ve got something I want you to see.” As she left the museum carrying an enormous and dusty old guest ledger from the Hotel Frederic for restoration, I thought, “Every town should have a bindery.” Excited as a child on Christmas morning, Elizabeth opened the ledger as soon as we got back to the bindery to read the names of the historic hotel’s past guests.

People are always asking her, “What’s the value of this book? How much is it worth?” But Elizabeth isn’t so much impressed with the monetary value, rarity, or first edition-ness of books. “For me, it’s more interesting to know why people are so attached to them.” Many of her clients are elderly folks who want to pass a beloved book on in good condition. “I can feel the legacy when working on those projects.”

Elizabeth Little and her Bayou Bindery will now be among the major players in the story told when we pass our Poe book on to the next generation. Garrison Keillor once said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again.” And though that wasn’t entirely true for the wonderfully fragile book I received in Paris, it is certainly the case for this restored Christmas gift.

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