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The Fixers

The Fixers
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DEVON GRAY Princeton, Massachusetts

Devon Gray’s sunlit studio resides in the principal’s office of an old converted schoolhouse. Clamps and presses litter the room, holding antique books in varying stages of undress. A lone, neglected chair collects dust in the corner. “Bookbinders don’t sit down,” she says simply.

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

Seth Barrett Brookline, Massachusetts

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