By Michelle Schmidt for Inland 360COTTONWOOD, Idaho — Coming inside from dropping off the recycling, Sister Placida Wemhoff pats her hair back into place. She walks down the monastery hall back to her office with the steady step of someone who knows there isn’t much in life worth getting too worked up over.
It’s a necessary quality in someone who spends her days fixing things. During the cold winter months, Wemhoff, maintenance manager at St. Gertrude’s Monastery in Cottonwood, goes from repairing lawnmowers to repairing books.
Once in her office, she moves past neat stacks of specialized papers and an enormous ancient paper cutter — affectionately called “the guillotine” — to a tall work counter illuminated by a nearby window. She picks up a nearly finished project, a children’s storybook from 1952 that arrived torn and unbound.
“I try to keep it as close to the original as possible,” says Wemhoff, holding up a new, matching blue paper cloth against the spine of the book. With a needle and thread, Japanese rice paper and wheat starch glue, her careful hands have erased all but the faintest reminder of damage. After a visit to the guillotine to tidy up the edges, all that is left is covering the spine and reattaching the pages to its cover.
It’s a slow, meticulous process reserved for books whose value — either historic or sentimental — warrant the effort, and only those whose construction allows for it. When it comes to book repair, hardback books and paperbacks are not the same animal.
“Paperback books are essentially disposable,” explains Wemhoff.
Single pages are lined up and glued on an edge and when the glue gives way — as it eventually does — the pages are released. The only way to repair a paperback is to stitch the pages together from the side at the inside margin, provided it is wide enough. The book will never sit flat this way, but neither will the pages scatter like a deck of cards.
The construction of a hardback is entirely different. Wemhoff pulls out a short stack of white paper to demonstrate.
“A hardback is done in sections,” she says, folding a group of four sheets in half.
She reaches for another four sheets and folds those. Holding the folded edges together, she shows how the two sections are stitched together, making a total of 16 pages. This is how she builds the blank journals that are sold in the monastery gift shop for $10. After 15 of these sections are stitched together, they are glued and given one-of-a-kind cloth covers.
Though constructed in the same way, not all hardbacks are repairable. During that 1950s, book manufacturers began using plasticized glues. Because they are not water soluble, these glues cannot be removed from the binding. It can only be cut it off, reducing the book, in terms of construction, to a paperback.
“So it’s going to be an obsolete art,” Wemhoff says.
But with a wry smile, she adds, “Maybe I’ll stop once I get all the books from the 1800s and early 1900s done.”
Wemhoff has seen plenty of ancient tomes. She recalls a crumbling typeset copy of Lewis and Clark’s account of native medicines and a homemaker manual, customarily given to newlywed girls heading off into the wilderness with their husbands. After weeks of work, each book finds new life.
“There is such joy when I get to this stage,” she says. “There are so many things that can go wrong. When it’s turned out and it looks nice, that gives me a little rush.”
As orderly as the repair process is, the workflow is not. Wemhoff usually has four to six books in each of the various stages of repair at a time. Not only does each step take time, but as maintenance manager, leaky pipes take precedence over torn pages.
“With my other job, I get called away,” Wemhoff explains.
She works in a few moments of gluing or stitching wherever she can find it. The length of repair time can’t be guaranteed, though most projects are completed within a month. Because Wemhoff’s maintenance workload increases when the weather is warm, she only repairs books during the winter.
As a rare tradecraft, repair projects trickle in from around the country through word of mouth referrals or St. Gertrude’s website. With no pricing structure, Wemhoff quotes repair fees based on her sense of the project. Simple spine and cover repairs can be as low as $10, but severely damaged book repairs can cost $100 or more.
Between repair projects, Wemhoff assembles the hardbound journals. For her, the practice has deeper significance than its final project.
“Those books have prayers in them — not written, but prayed while they were being put together,” Wemhoff says. “It’s contemplative work and I enjoy that. I can get into a book and let my mind go to God.”
It is the sort of work that makes for wholeness and beauty, perhaps in more than one sense.
To inquire about repairing a book, call Sister Placida Wemhoff at 208-962-5015.
Schmidt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 305-4578.