"Smell this." Darren Winston at Asprey & Garrard peers at me over Edwardian rimless glasses with a sly smile, holding aloft a beautifully bound tome. The leather cover is coffee-colored and delicately crosshatched; I bend my head closer and a rush of spice hits me, almost like cloves. "It's reindeer calfskin, one of the favorite materials of eighteenth-century bookbinders," Winston says. "What you're smelling is the birch oil that was originally used to tan it. The leather was on a ship that sunk in the Barents Sea in the 1790s. A few years ago, deep-sea divers found the wreck with a full cargo of skins wrapped around huge drums. The oil had preserved the leather perfectly, so we bought some and used it to bind books from the same time period. The skins are as supple now as they were in the French Revolution."
The rest of the world may be careening headlong into the realm of electronics, but here in Manhattan the lost art and fine craft of bookbinding is still thriving. Among the best of these binders, no effort is considered too great—be it the grand gesture of going to the bottom of the ocean for the right leather, or the more quiet one of spending an hour with a magnifying glass simply smoothing and perfecting the seams of a book's corners, as craftsmen do at Weitz, Weitz & Coleman.
When you bring a book in to be rebound—a new title written by a relative, say, or an old favorite novel—the shop will remove the original cover and rebuild the book from scratch. First the craftsmen treat the pages, patching up any tears. Then they sew them back together, paste on fresh endpapers, and add a new leather cover with the design of your choice. "It's like resetting a beautiful stone," Winston explains. "It's a way of taking raw materials and elevating them to a new artistic level." If the binding has either sentimental value (your grandfather's Bible) or financial value (a rare book), consider a clamshell case. This is a custom-made leather box that interlocks when it closes, protecting the book from sunlight, smoke, and dust. Certain guidelines will ensure the highest-quality binding:
START WITH BEAUTIFUL LEATHER Straight-grain morocco goatskin is considered the premier choice for fine bindings because it is smooth, with a gentle grain of lines that don't distract from the tooling. For more durability, choose vellum.
BE ORIGINAL Find a bookbinder that can work with you to create a custom design. The best workshops, such as those of Asprey & Garrard, have thousands of antique and modern brass tools to choose from. If they don't have what you want (such as your family crest), they should be able to make it for you.
DON'T MIX PERIODS Keep all the details—from the tooling to the endpapers—historically appropriate to the book. Don't put a 20th-century design on an 18th-century book.
GO FOR THE GOLD Insist on gold leaf, not gold foil. Gold leaf is made from an ingot that has been hammered tissue-thin. When used to line the edges of a book, it forms a solid shield that protects the paper from its great enemy: dust. The real thing will be as shiny as a trophy. Because gold foil is only Mylar coated with gold dust, it won't produce the same seal and will look dull and mottled.
EXPRESS YOURSELF Like a silk suit lining, elegant endpapers are a hidden luxury—and an opportunity to revel in rich colors and dazzling design. Look for fine-quality marble papers, Japanese woodblock designs, and handmade papers.
TENDER LOVING CARE "Remember, rebinding a book is a violent act, somewhat like heart surgery," Winston says. If you want to rebind a rare book, have an expert examine it first to make sure you won't decrease its value in the process. With modern first editions, the dust jacket is the most ephemeral and valuable element. If it is in decent condition, leave the book as is and design a leather clamshell case instead. If it is nonexistent, a new binding is likely to increase the book's value.
ASK TO SEE THE BINDER'S WORK You can't fake the details. A well-made book should open cleanly and its cover should swing freely without dragging the endpaper along or making the pages fan out. The seams on the inside corners where the leather is joined should be so smooth they are nearly invisible. "Binders often cover up inferior jobs by saying, 'Well, it's made by hand,' " Weitz instructs. Each corner should be precisely square and the type should be crisp and clear.
"It's not often that you can create something that will outlive you," Winston says. "A beautifully bound book is a gift to future generations."
Manhattan's Best Bookbinders
ASPREY & GARRARD The gold standard. Impeccable service and craftsmanship. Darren Winston is charming and very sensitive to creating a design that is historically appropriate to the text. A leather binding with simple tooling takes 8-12 weeks and costs $1,200-$1,800. Leather onlay or an extravagant design adds $1,000-$2,000. 725 Fifth Avenue; 212-688-1811; www.asprey-garrard.com.
WEITZ, WEITZ & COLEMAN While the shop is chaotic and owner Herb Weitz famously eccentric, the quality and artistry of the bindings are superb. Elspeth Coleman does exquisite custom designs for leather inlay, an extremely difficult technique that few binders have the ability to do. A leather binding with gold tooling takes a month and costs $500-$2,000. Leather inlay also takes a month and costs $3,000-$4,000. 1377 Lexington Avenue; 212-831-2213; www.weitzcoleman.com.
DISTINCTIVE BOOKBINDING Beautiful marble papers and excellent service. The largest fine bindery in America, they do work for the White House and international royalty. The quality of the details is less fastidious than that of Asprey or Weitz, but the price is lower. Distinctive can also marbleize the actual leather ($500) for an interesting, unusual look. A leather binding with gold tooling takes two weeks and costs $250-$1,500. 53 East 58th Street; 212-688-8777; 800-616-9111.