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The Fixers | New England Antique Repair Experts

Gray fell in love with old books in college. At the age of 22, she began dealing them with her husband out of their home. They now have a store in Harvard Square–James and Devon Gray Booksellers–which specializes in works at least 300 years old. This country studio in Princeton is her retreat, however, where she breathes new life into ancient texts.

“My goal is to make it look as if the book just healed,” Gray explains. She has spent years studying old bookbinding techniques, and she can analyze an antique text with CSI-like skill–deducing its origin from the binding, its age from the endpapers, and the type of animal the leather came from based on its feel and its follicles.

Gray tailors her repairs to match the style of the original binder, blurring the line between preservation and illusion. She believes books are meant to be read and wants to see the pieces she repairs back on the shelves, not in a museum. “I don’t repair things [so that] you have to be careful with them,” she says. “When I’m done, they can do all the bookie things they’re supposed to do.”

The Learning Curve
“There isn’t a lot of literature or guidance for repairing books,” Gray explains, noting that much of what she knows was taught to her by a handful of older bookbinders and refined by years of practice.

The Pressure Cooker
“Anything involving Elmer’s glue is horrible,” Gray says with a note of exasperation. She hates seeing books that have been “messed with” by amateurs who have attempted home repairs. Using the wrong material can do more harm to a book than age; having to reverse the damage done by someone else’s intervention can make an otherwise routine repair a difficult and frustrating experience.

A Word of Advice
“Books are pretty easy [to care for],” Gray says. “They like what people like.” If you’re happy with the temperature and humidity of a room, odds are your books will be, too. Never store them in the attic (too hot) or the basement (too wet). “The best thing to do is to keep your books on the shelves in the rooms where you live at the temperatures you like and not in direct sunlight,” Gray advises. Anything else? “Maybe read them occasionally.”

Who Comes to You?
Gray restores books for everyone from professional collectors to “people in my yoga class.” She also makes custom books for Hollywood films, such as The Crucible and City of Angels. It’s not the mainstay of her business, but it adds flair to an otherwise-quiet discipline. “David Mamet still has the red book I made for The Spanish Prisoner,” she says with a smile, “which is very cool.”
–Justin Shatwell

Devon Gray, Larksfoot Bindery. Princeton, MA. 617-678-0129; devongray@me.com

JACK OF ALL TRADES | NEW ENGLAND ANTIQUE REPAIR EXPERT

Seth Barrett – Brookline, Massachusetts

Seth Barrett | General Repair Expert
Photo/Art by Jarrod McCabe
Seth Barrett | General Repair Expert

It’s not just the neat rows of Victorian doorknobs and Art Deco sconces in Seth Barrett’s shop that make it feel like a lovely anachronism–like a set from the back lot of a Frank Capra movie about a neighborhood handyman. It’s more than the worn windowfront workbench where Barrett is rewiring a 1920s lamp. It’s also Barrett’s deep sense of his hometown’s rhythms. He knows half the folks who walk by his store. He knows the inner workings of the dozens of Federal homes and turn-of-the-century townhouses he’s repaired. And when a woman comes in asking for a custom screen door, Barrett says that her outward-opening back door is against code. The woman is disappointed, but also happy. Here, finally–someone to trust. Spend time in his shop and you’ll find that you’re in the real heart of a town.

The nuts and bolts of Village Green Renewal lie in fixing and making just about anything that doesn’t require a license. Barrett and his team will rethread your window sashes, unjam your locks, fix a broken sculpture, service your bikes, restore an old tub, or turn a new banister rail. In a world of easy disposability, they aim to help people hold on to and restore the past.

Doorknobs and hinges await repair.
Photo/Art by Jarrod McCabe
Doorknobs and hinges await repair in Brookline, MA.

The Learning Curve
“My mother and father were mad-scientist types and didn’t have time for the mundane stuff of parenting,” Barrett says, “but they had a lot of tools and supplies, so I had free reign. They became my toys.” A former builder, his specialty was detail and finish work, but once he reached his 40s, “I really needed something that I could age into,” he says. “I can do this when I’m 90.” He continues to round out his education, taking classes in lost arts such as chair caning at The Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts in Jamaica Plain.

The Pressure Cooker
“We recently repaired three Cromwellian chairs that were nearly 400 years old,” Barrett says. “They were held together by eight-sided tapered pegs that had to be carved by hand.” Knowing how to fix them required a crash course in Puritan-era furniture design. But his most difficult fix by far, he says, was “a rusty, bent, maladjusted kinetic sculpture” that needed nearly 40 hours to be put right again.

A Word of Advice
As much as Barrett wants the business, he also wants customers to learn simple repairs. “There’s no reason people shouldn’t have the ability to manipulate their environments,” he says. “Say, to fix the stove–it’s usually the breaker or a bad bulb.” He’s working to restore shop class and other hands-on skills training in local schools and at Brookline’s forthcoming teen center, now under construction. “I want to reinforce that it’s okay to be in the trades,” he says. “We’re training the manual fields out of our kids, and the ones with that propensity are getting the short end of the stick.”

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Updated Wednesday, February 8th, 2012
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