Pages for the Ages

A collector, a dealer, and two binders share a timeless pursuit



Robert Clark

Like life and love, the world of old books can be so unfair. One reader’s treasure is another’s unwanted burden. In the Midlands of South Carolina, such seeming capriciousness certainly abounds. For example, five years ago a dealer in Chattanooga, Tennessee, wanted $3,500 for a signed first edition of Scarlet Sister Mary, with dust jacket intact, by Julia Peterkin, our state’s only Pulitzer winner for literature. Not bad for her shocking third novel, which sold for only $2.50 when it was released in 1928. Even more astounding, an 1865 pamphlet by William Gilmore Simms entitled Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, SC was appraised for $7,000 in 2003. An astute book dealer rescued it from a “stack of trash” in the home of a recently deceased Columbian, recognizing the value of Simms’ collected columns from his short-lived newspaper, The Columbia Phoenix.

In contrast, poor Charles D. Kirk’s 1860 Wooing and Warring in the Wilderness: A Story of Canetuckey languishes on the Five Dollar Shelf at Ed’s Editions in West Columbia. Kirk may have worked as hard as Peterkin and Simms on his novel about Kentucky’s early settlers, but nobody seems to want to pay for it now.

“As with everything, books are capitalist. It’s supply and demand,” says Eric Albritton, the Ed’s Editions manager who researched Wooing and Warring to determine its cost. “If it was printed in 1860 and people thought it was a bad read then, if in 2018 people still think it’s a bad read, it’s hard to find somebody willing to pay something for it.”

At Ed’s, a used book store that has been in business on Meeting Street since 2001, bibliophiles can peruse through large, rambling rooms of non-stop shelves holding 35,000 to 40,000 books. For book lovers, it’s a wonderland, all the more so for its setting in an early 20th century building — originally a pharmacy and soda fountain — with tile floors, pressed tin ceilings, and old brick. The cheapest books are $2. The priciest at present is Sur La Pierre, a 1972 book of poetry and signed art by Françoise Gilot, famously the only woman to leave Pablo Picasso.

“It’s 10 grand, and I can have it here for you in short order,” Eric promises. As with other exceptionally valuable books they sell, Sur La Pierre is in safekeeping off-site.

A regular at Ed’s is David Hodges, a Columbia native and insurance agent who has amassed a collection of 4,000-some books, all tidily accounted for in his database. His affinity for books is an addiction, he says, and one he manages by limiting his purchases to books connected to South Carolina. Naturally, he would own a copy of Scarlet Sister Mary — indeed he has eight, though not the $3,500 one — but pamphlets, like Sack and Destruction, he appreciates even more. In Sack and Destruction, Simms describes how various Columbia properties were destroyed, which is interesting information for someone who grew up here. As with many collectors, David loves the hunt.

“When I find a book that I didn’t know about or that I’ve known about but never seen, it’s fun,” he says. “And usually there’s something wrong with it. It’s torn, or the cover is loose, or it doesn’t have the dust jacket, but that’s okay. I enjoy the process.”

When it comes to books, David cheerily calls himself both purist and snob. Purist because he wants books as they are: untouched and unfixed. Snob, because to him original is best.

“It’s the connection of the book to the time when it was published,” he explains. “If I have a book published in 1900, then it was sitting on a shelf in 1900. When you mess with it, improve and rebind it, to me it’s a 1980 book, not a 1900 book anymore.”

That means when David is researching a topic for a history article, such as steamboat travel from the coast to Columbia or Columbia’s trolley system, he’s pulling information from books possibly as old as the time he’s investigating. His is a research library; he has books bound in twine or rubber bands and has archival boxes for others. For him, the best way to preserve and care for old books is to leave them exactly as they are and not to allow them to deteriorate further.

Do not mention to him books recently printed, or worse, those published on demand. “I wouldn’t waste my shelf space for that,” he says, laughing. He also eschews Book of the Month Club books or reproductions, easily discerned by obvious promotion or a tiny indentation on the right back cover, as if a ball point pen had been drilled into it.

Books with important emotional attachment are different, David allows. Ragged family Bibles? “Get them rebound, for crying out loud.”

“We are throwbacks to a bygone era,” says Don Cole, who runs Miller’s Bookbinding in Lexington with Dora Miller, his mother-in-law. Dora’s late husband, Larry Miller, was one of very few craftsmen in the country still binding books by hand when he died in 2014. Dora and Don are continuing his mission. Their work is all custom, with family Bibles their chief business. But there are always books from dealers and collectors that simply amaze them.

“I did a book not too long ago that was in the library of the commander of the British forces at Bunker Hill,” says Don, a Maine native who holds a history degree from the University of South Carolina. “We’ve done books from George Washington’s library and a series of books from John Quincy Adams’ library. We’ve also done an original printing of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. There are not that many of those left around.”

The oldest book Miller’s has restored was a 13th century Bible from a monastery, “hand scribed” in Latin with wooden covers. They also restored a 19th century Bible for a man from Egypt. The customer normally would have sent it to his brother, a Museum of Cairo curator who specialized in restoring books, but Christian books were not allowed to be shipped to the country at that time.

Miller’s is no stranger to the entertainment business. For The Conspirator, a 2010 movie directed by Robert Redford, they recreated the ledger Mary Surratt kept when John Wilkes Booth visited her boarding house in Washington, D.C. As a gift for Carrie Underwood from the Colonial Life Arena, they made a jewelry box that looked like a book, appropriate for her “Storyteller” tour. They used foam to fashion a book for the filming of The Prince of Tides so that one actor wouldn’t hurt the other when using it to hit him over the head. That job required Dora hitting husband Larry on the head several times before Larry declared they had made the right one.

With their cast-iron equipment ranging from 60 to 100 years old, Dora and Don say their business is impractical today. “When the digital age came on really hard, many binderies closed their doors,” Dora says. “They could not make a profit.” Miller’s hangs on because of its quality workmanship. They know the right leathers to order, including which ones bruise easily and can be stomped on to create the desired worn effect. They also know just the right amount of black tea to wash over pages to make them look old.

Dora and Don worry that the growing population of hobbyist bookbinders are unintentionally making old books worse. They’ve received several to repair. “They’re pretty, but they’re frail,” Don says, which is why they’re offering classes to teach hobbyists proper methods.

Most people want their family Bibles professionally rebound. To rebind an average leather Bible, Miller’s usually charges $150 to $200. When books are too brittle for them to restore, they’ll suggest placing them in clamshell or shadow boxes.

Transforming a special book gratifies both craftsman and customer. “We’ve had people break down in tears,” Don says. Adds Dora, “They say, ‘I can’t remember it looking this way.’”

Miller’s can be described as a hospital for books. Don nods. “They call us ‘book doctors.’”

What makes a book monetarily valuable? Several variables are involved, Eric and David agree, including age, subject matter, quantity, whether it has a dust jacket, and what edition and printing it is. “You could have a first edition and it’s worth nothing because it’s the 20th printing,” David points out.

Note: A book is a first edition until something is changed and is reprinted. When a mistake is corrected, a chapter added or deleted, a photograph exchanged for another, it becomes a second edition.

Rare is the book that is reprinted at all, David says, and editions of books that are from multiple printings are never valuable.

In his library, a modern prize is Pat Conroy’s 1970 The Boo. He has one of fewer than 2,000 first editions, signed not only by Conroy but also by his subject, Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent “the Boo” Courvoisie. David had to act fast for Courvoisie’s signature, buying one already signed by Conroy and immediately mailing it to his cousin in Charleston, who rushed it to the ailing Citadel assistant commandant to sign shortly before he died. To David, the book’s value is in the lengths he took to get it, not its dollar worth.

“It’s nuts,” he muses about his hobby. “I used to play golf, but now I’ve reached the point that when I have five free hours, I have something else I’d rather do.”

So, dear readers, how can you best take care of your books? David, Don, Dora, and Eric are a Greek chorus with their list of Nevers.

 

Never:

• Leave your books in direct sunlight, which will dry and warp them. “A lot of people make the mistake of sticking their Bibles on the dashboard and just leaving them there,” Don says. “That will ruin a book over time.”

• Use clear tape to patch a book. Once on, it won’t come off without peeling the paper with it. Duct tape is also bad; so is hot-melt glue. Miller’s uses a special paper tape for torn pages; they also use a polyvinyl adhesive glue.

• Store your books in an airtight container. “That invites mold and mildew and will eat that book up,” Don says. He also preaches against Ziploc bags.

• Keep your books in a garage, shed, or crawl space where you cannot control the climate. Besides warping from heat, the glue in old books attracts bugs. “Roaches will lay their eggs on the edges of pages,” says Eric, who frequently turns such books away from Ed’s Editions. “You can take them off, but it leaves an indention from where they were. It’s not 100 percent that your books will be ruined, but you’re really taking a chance.”

• Smoke around your books.

• Push down on the spine of a book to force it flat to make copies. “That will break the spine, which will cause the book to fall apart,” Don says. “If a book is properly bound, it will lie flat anyway.”

• Put anything in the spine.

• Bend the cover behind or around itself to focus on the opposite page. “This breaks the spine and puts a curl in the entire text block,” says Don.

 

And here is their Always list.

Always:

• Keep your books in a climate-controlled, well-ventilated room.

• Keep your books straight on a shelf. Leaning them at an angle causes them to lose their straightness, which will “ruin the binding over time,” Eric warns.

• Use Lexol leather conditioner (available at Walmart and automotive stores) to maintain leather books. Don advises putting a small amount on a sponge and gently applying it to one side before waiting an hour to apply to the other side and the spine at the same time. If too much is applied, the leather becomes spongy, sticky and moist. Let the book rest for a few hours before using.

 

It doesn’t take long to realize Columbia’s great fortune: We have a sizeable used bookstore run by knowledgeable bibliophiles, an expert on South Carolina books, and a small company that restores old books on an international basis. Interestingly, the internet has made research and sales faster; it’s more tool than disruptor. “The pendulum has swung back,” affirms Eric. “EBooks are here to stay, but when someone really likes a book, they’ll try to find a hard copy. Books are timeless. They don’t need batteries.”

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