Bella Becho's bookbinding techniques help preserve a father's POW diary
The Houston Chronicle interviewed Bella Becho's founder, Deborah Karchmer to learn more about bookbinding in the modern age. The article was run on the first page of the July 7, 2015 Houston Chronicle paper. The following is a reprint of the article.
In the digital age, books still hold intimate appeal
By Karen Chen(Page 1)
Most people bring in Bibles—old family Bibles rescued from the attic or ones tattered by years of study, with highlighted passages and penciled-in notes. Once, a homeless man handed over crumpled one and five-dollar bills and some torn-out pages of Scripture. Could it be made into a book? It was how his grandmother had taught him how to read.
Deborah Karchmer is a bookbinder. Her job is to mend, restore and create: using bone folders, spatulas and scalpels to peel off broken spines, reinforcing the binding with new leather and gluing original covers back on with archival adhesive. Sometimes, the book’s guts have fallen out completely or pages have come loose, so she fits them in order and straightens them all up again. And every step is done with a ruler—measure twice; cut once.
A new Bible on Amazon.com costs about $8, plus shipping, and you can find the text online for free. Karchmer’s work is not cheap—a small job starts at close to $150.
But the Bella Becho Book and Print Bindery is a growing business. Karchmer founded it almost a decade ago in her kitchen, then eventually moved to a warehouse in the Heights.
The physical book, itself once a technological marvel, has not been replaced by its electronic iteration. In fact, hardcovers and paperbacks continue to outsell eBooks according to a Nielson Books & Consumer study in Publisher’s Weekly last year. A Pew Research study in 2013 shows that 87 percent of the readers who consumed digital books also read books in print.
Karchmer runs her fingers over the ornately carved leather on a book she's restoring. She flips it open to stroke the silk moiré end page, then turns a few sheets to the fragile yellowed paper within.
Her fingernails are kept short for her craft, and she touches everything. “Feel this,” she says, rubbing a hide of buttery lambskin. “And look how this wrinkles,” she says, creasing the paper cover of a custom-made journal that’s somehow velvety. On one shelf, she keeps books covered in fur, which beg to be petted. That’s what many of her clients are looking for. Something they can touch and hold.
Bo Brackendorff’s father was captured by the Germans in World War II. Each of the American soldiers at the POW camp received a journal, and Melvin Brackendorff filled his diligently. He outlined social activities, wrote down songs his buddies made up. He drew cartoons painted with watercolor and let a friend sketch his portrait. In the back, he taped in small plastic bags filled with things from the camp: cigarettes, coffee, tea, razor blades. Eventually, the soldiers were able to escape. He brought his journal along.
As a child, Brackendorff listened to war stories. He remembered how easily his father would be moved to tears. When he was 11, his father died.
“Had he lived longer, I’m sure he and I would have had really long conversations about his time at war,” Brackendorff says. Instead, as Brackendorff grew into a man, he paged through the journal.
A few Christmases ago, his wife, Jean, brought the torn book to Karchmer to be restored. Karchmer traced and special ordered the exact kind of red book cloth that hugs the spine. She restitched it in the original style.
Because so much of Karchmer’s work involves old or custom material, digital tools play a major role in modern bookbinding.
Google helps her track down the manufacturer of specific materials. She uses Photoshop to correct missing or torn pages, then prints new ones. Some family Bibles have lines for genealogy, and Karchmer can scan and replicate the historical style and print additional pages to keep updating.
The bookbinding business today means not only rescuing old books, but catering to the corporate world, like global natural resources company, BHP Billiton, whose petroleum business is headquartered in Houston.
With so many remote operations, the company relies on hardy print copies of many critical guidelines and manuals for field engineers and technicians. Neiman Marcus hired Karchmer to create exclusive photo albums to be sold in each of its 41 stores. The maestro at the Houston Grand Opera asks her to bind the score with waterproof, rip-resistant paper.
Karchmer also helps people create books from their imagination, like one woman’s idea to transform her mother’s old wedding dress into a wedding album. It helps that her business includes a printing operation.
Karchmer loves books. Even before she started binding, she loved them for all the craft that went into them: the look, the feel, the words. But she hadn’t planned a career around them.
After she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, she got married and had two kids. Doing crafts with her children, she started making tiny scrapbooks and selling them at markets.
Customers asked her to make photo albums and other products, so she began visiting a bookbinder and watched him work. She spent hours at the library reading about archiving techniques and museum preservation.
She practiced and practiced, eventually moving from her kitchen to her garage and hiring two employees. Now in her 40s, she been binding books for about 10 years, and her business has 5,000 square feet and five full time employees.
People often enter Karchmer’s shop at emotional moments in their lives, when a loved one dies and their children want to preserve a handwritten note in their favorite book or when a new parent wants to read from the same story her own parents did.
She knows when someone plans to propose, and what mom is getting for her birthday. One man’s anniversary present was to take emails to and from his wife and bind them by year, each with a red leather cover.
That’s what Karchmer loves most about her job, helping those sentiments endure.
She knows there’s something about books that you can hold in your hands. About the way they feel and the way they make you feel.
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