Restoration: Grandmother’s Prayer Book

Today we publish a translation of a post by a Romanian bookbinder Mihai Vârtejaru about his recent book restoration project complemented by a review of the finished work by the owner of the book. Also posted in Romanian originally.

Restoration: Grandmother’s Prayer Book

More than a year ago, a client entrusted me with five books to be bound in leather, almost all of them presenting some emotional value, including the prayer book that belonged to his grandmother.

The volume I speak of was a quite ordinary prayer book from the Albina collection, but it was in extremely precarious condition: the cardboard covers were fragmented and saturated with grease and dust and bound with adhesive tape. And the interior was even more damaged.

The original thin cotton thread sewing had either worn out long ago or ruptured the pages, so some “benevolent” soul decided to stick pages together with clear tape.

And all this tape has, over time – a few dozen years, I suppose – changed its composition, gotten liquefied, and stained the pages in depth. But remained largely stuck on the pages.

I had to carefully remove the tape without pulling off the paper, from about 100 small, fragile sheets of rather low quality paper.

Then I took each of those pages in for cleaning with toluene and hot pressing to remove the oil that maculated the pages, a process without which the pages could not have been pasted back together again.

Then I mended the torn pages back in one piece and reunited them with the pages that they paired up with (that was even more complicated, since on half of them the page numbers were missing), I pressed them flat and sewn them back together in a volume that could finally be browsed again.

The book was then covered in full leather with a deep bordeaux goatskin, in a simple yet elegant style, that really honors a book so cherished and read, but is not opulent or too proud in any way.

The client was very pleased and he was not surprised to find out that I had worked harder on this little volume than on all other his books, taken together.

From the Owner: The Life of the Book

I believe books have a soul of their own. A destiny. These books, the miracle that has laid the foundation of the modern world, have a destiny in the formation of the human reader. Their destiny is to delight him, teach him and train him. To offer him salvation. We love the old icons that have stood in churches because they have been filled with grace. They are witnesses and partakers of the struggle for salvation. They are the silent witnesses of our prayers in moments of restraint. The books are alive.

A little old book with no “market” value, was very dear to me and I cherished it for everything it had to say. But time has not been gentle with the book. The road to salvation is not easy for the book that helps us, either. And such a book begins to fall apart. Yet it is still full of memories. And it is our duty to save the books. And therewith, we save our soul.

There are “bookbinders”, there are “restorers” and there is Mihai Vartejaru. For him I would create a special category. Because what he does is neither bookbinding nor restoration. It’s alchemy. He is a priest in the book’s esotericism.

That is why only he managed to bring live back into this book. Transforming Met (מת) into Emet (אמת). Death into Truth. He is the only one I could trust.

Coming to his “laboratory”, on the top floor of a standardized-communist residential building, you feel like walking into an alchemical cave. Bottles with magical chemical substances, neatly labeled, pieces of leather, wooden and iron tools. Only the glass retort is missing. However, the spirit is not missing at all. Retrieving the rebirthed book, you feel like you are reuniting with an old friend. One who was on the brink of death and whom you find alive. You take it and you want to run home with it. To “discharge” it from its ward. But you can’t, because the talks are much too savory and rarely can you find an erudite willing to waste his time with you.

You talk and you simply want to go and delight in your book.

Books are indeed alive. We all accept this when praising the book that has been read by a great author or a personality. Intrinsically, we believe that something has been imprinted within it. Something else beside the letters. Thoughts, sensations.

Books deserve to live. They are not mortal. Not necessarily. Mihai knows that.