On the job.
Owner of Willow Bindery, Shrewsbury
Current residence: Shrewsbury
Native of: Long Island, N.Y.
Family: Wife and two greyhounds
Time in current position: 10 years
Where did you learn to be a bookbinder?
"I attended the North Bennet Street School in Boston's North End. It was an intensive two-year program where I learned how to make structures, repair structures. The program is a full two school years, from September to June, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. You don't take courses; instead, you work with an instructor or a team of instructors that take you through the process. You learn things like how to make a non-adhesive binding and an adhesive binding; how to make leather books. It's a workshop and you are at it all the time."
How did you decide on this craft for a career?
"My love of books got me to learn how to repair books and it swept me up. I just love, love old books. When I was a kid, I really loved picture books. And there is a book out there today called "A Gentle Madness" about book collecting, and it is a madness.
"I was in high-tech all my life, and most of my retirement investments were in high-tech and in one fell swoop, about two-thirds of it went away. I needed to work and now I have something I can work at, and it's something that I love. I started repairing books in 2002."
What does a bookbinder do?
"In the old days, a bookbinder made books. Today, bookbinders don't make books; they make specialty books - such as journals, presentation folders, portfolios - and all are handmade. Most bookbinders I know do book repairs. And there are many pieces to bookbinding - there's leather, cloth, boards, paper - and there are books from many different generations, so you have to be versed in many areas. A lot of bookbinders out there make things to sell - photo albums, journals, scrapbooks.
How old is the craft of bookbinding?
"I am not sure of the history of it, but the first books were hand sewn, and once the printing press started, it created a whole new industry. There are many processes involved - paper making, ink making, boards, leather, how to be beautifully appropriate on the outside. You have to know so many things, not just how to hold a book together, to be a bookbinder. You have to know how to be an artist."
How do you repair a book?
"You start by fixing the paper part, then the binding, then the outside. A bookbinder's most important job is to protect what is on the inside. The decorative parts on the outside, those are the fun parts. That's what makes a book attractive. I make repairs as best and as invisibly as I can by keeping as much of the original as possible. I only use conservation-minded materials, which means non-acidic, ethical methods in repairs, which means that what I do is reversible."
What is the most interesting project you have worked on?
"I did some work at the American Antiquarian Society and with the Boston Public Library. I worked on 18th-century Haitian government documents. Locally, there was a fellow in Westboro who found an old diary in his house from the 1850s."
What is the most difficult part of your job?
"Working with leather is the most difficult. Leather can be very demanding, and everything is time consuming. "
What is the most gratifying part of your job?
"Handing someone back what they gave me to work on. I do a lot of work for booksellers, but it is not the same as a book owner who wants to invest in a book just because they love it. Books not only have an intrinsic value, but an emotional value. The last favor I did for an old college friend was repair his wife's "Betty Crocker Cookbook." I also repaired a friend's mother's children's book. Sure, they can all be replaced, but they have an emotional value. I also made a book for a man whose son died as a teenager, but he left his Facebook page up, where his friends kept posting messages to him. He printed them out and wanted to make a book of them."
With the advent of e-readers, you could argue that your craft is either dying, or your craft is more necessary than ever in order to maintain the books that do exist. What is the future of bookbinding?
"I don't see it going away. Right now, when a (John) Grisham book comes out, they are printed and nobody touches them; it's all done by a machine. But there are some books that you cannot make electronic or electronically. It just can't be done. Like books of handwritten poetry, letter press. There are things you just can't reproduce. Is it a tragedy that books aren't made like they used to be? I am kind of happy that we aren't using all that paper for literature."
You are a bookbinder full time. Does bookbinding keep you busy?
"There is no end to books that need repair; and there is no end to the things that I can do: I can repair the books I buy and resell them; I have a student that comes in once a week that I teach; I can make pretty things and sell them on Etsy; I can marble paper. It's not something where you put your name in the Yellow Pages, but it's a bit of skill making yourself known. "
Does the name Willow Bindery have any significance?
"It's my dog's name. It made me think of a Willow tree. And I didn't want it to be Gilbert Bindery."
Compiled by reporter Donna Boynton
PHOTOG: T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG
CUTLINE: Ken Gilbert's love of books since childhood helped him develop a second career as a bookbinder. He's holding before and after examples of his handiwork.