Shelf Life

Mending books for a next chapter

Walking into the mendery on the bottom floor of King County Library System’s headquarters in Issaquah is like stepping into the past. String music from the 13th century plays softly. Stacks of various paper types, selections of glues, paintbrushes, and heavy book presses take their places on shelves and tables. Antique, fully restored board shears stand grandly near the entrance, waiting to cleanly cut through dense binder boards used for book covers.

Along the far wall is a shelf of sad, damaged books. Like a hospital is for people, the mendery is for them. It’s a place where books that have been deemed worthy of handcrafted repair get a new lease on life. A place where a special craftsman named Donald Vass painstakingly uses the book-mending skills he’s built over nearly three decades to skillfully bring them back to life.

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“It can be very gratifying to repair a book,” said the quiet, deliberate man who carefully weighs each word so that none is wasted. “You feel like you’ve picked up this lost soul who has fallen, (is) falling apart, and sometimes seems to be in great pain and to carefully pull it back together.”

Vass’ title is “conservation technician, selection and order,” for the King County Library System (KCLS), which runs 49 community libraries encompassing a vast geographic area from Richmond Beach to the north, Vashon Island to the west, Enumclaw to the south, and Skykomish to the east. He’s one of few book menders in the country employed by a public library system. Most of the others who do this work are assigned to archives or academic or research institutions.

“It’s taken me 26 years to feel comfortable with every kind of damage and every kind of book that’s sent to me. The damage to each book is so unique, individualized.”

“Often books that are repaired are out of print, and are not readily available from other libraries,” said Bruce Schauer, director of public service-library collections. “Once one considers the benefit of continued use by our patrons, the cost of repair seems well worth the effort.”

Although Vass is called a “conservation technician,” the title is way too bureaucratic for who he is and what he does. He’s more like a surgeon or a healer, who repairs books instead of people.

“It’s like being a rehabilitator who finds some poor, fallen person in society and helps that person return to a steady self-sufficiency again,” he said.

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The books that make their way to the mendery are damaged in many ways — broken spines; missing, stained or torn pages; dented or mashed cover corners; or completely falling apart. Some are newer, poorly made novels or reference materials. Others are old treasures — many that chronicle the region’s history and past. Eyeing each book individually, Vass carefully picks and cuts paper to make the repairs, chooses nontoxic glues or needle and thread to stitch them back together, then clamps them into a book press to finalize the job. It’s purely mechanical work that hasn’t changed for centuries.

“This is such a throwback environment,” Vass said. “The technology here is purely mechanical, no electronics. It moves along, not at the speed of computers; it moves at the speed of a craft … unaffected by time and change.”

“This is such a throwback environment,” Vass said. “The technology here is purely mechanical, no electronics. It moves along, not at the speed of computers; it moves at the speed of a craft … unaffected by time and change.”

After carefully repairing each book, Vass worries about each title once it leaves the mendery. The library system has invested in a powerful automated material-handling system, a fast-paced conveyor belt that flings books into sorting bins to make it easier for librarians to quickly reshelf them. The high-tech machine doesn’t treat the most delicate books nicely. “From a tech standpoint, it’s awesome,” Vass said. “From a preservation standpoint, it’s awful.”

20161118_BookMender_335Vass stumbled into this role after earning a degree in fine art, drawing, and painting from Cal State Fullerton. It suited his artistic and quiet nature. He’s slowly perfected the craft. “It’s taken me 26 years to feel comfortable with every kind of damage and every kind of book that’s sent to me. The damage to each book is so unique, individualized,” he said, noting that the best repairs are so good that no one can tell the book has been fixed.

But the 57-year-old Redmond man worries about the future. Who will do this work once he retires?

“I only have a handful of years left. I don’t like to think of myself as being the last of a golden era of book repair. This craft definitely deserves to be maintained, preserved, and handed down. I wish I had a young apprentice who was watching me every day.”

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