Books don’t last forever and nor, it seems, do bookbinders. But Peter DiBenedetto hasn’t given up the craft.
Parts of his American Press Printing facility on South Choctaw Drive could be confused for a museum instead of a workplace. But a lot happens there — all of it the old-fashioned way. The 77-year-old DiBenedetto wouldn’t have it any other way.
In addition to the printing and banner- and sign-making that make up the bulk of his business for the past 40-plus years, DiBenedetto restores books. It sets him apart in an era in which both digital reading trends and a culture of disposability has made preserving old books passé.
“The bookbinding trade is just about a dead trade,” he said. “I’m the last one in Baton Rouge.
“The older generation that’s been doing bookbinding, as they’re dying off, they’re not being replaced. The son or the daughter doesn’t want to take it over. It’s too slow. I’m not going to say it’s complicated. If you can drill a hole and sew with a needle, I can teach you how to sew a book in an hour. But it’s all the other things that go along with it. There’s probably 15 steps that go into binding a book properly.”
And pretty much all of them are done by hand.
Old binding is removed, the inside edge of the pages are shaved, a new spine is applied and a new cover is created. Once the edges are trimmed, stacks of papers are put on the edge of a table, held fast by a heavy bar of lead, and glue applied with a brush. Sometimes, the pages need to be ironed, and the inside edges need to be extended so that the text doesn’t disappear into binding.
It’s not fast, and because of that, it’s not cheap.
“I don’t have a menu of pricing,” DiBenedetto said. “Everything is done by the time it takes us to do it. I don’t take any shortcuts. I do a good job and guarantee it for as long as they’re living, they can bring it back to me.
“Especially if they’re just bringing a regular Bible, the first thing I’ll tell them is, ‘You do know that you can go buy the … Bible for between $75 and $100. It’s going to cost you between $150 and $200 for me to do it if you want me to do it right.’ But 90% of them say 'Do it.'”
Bibles are frequently brought in for repair, sometimes to preserve the verses that have been highlighted and notes that have been written in the margins. He’s repaired old Bibles from European countries that, in addition to scripture, included artwork, family trees, recipes and advice about treating common ailments.
“The artwork that was on the cover from some of these from Spain, Italy, all over, was just unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve done Bibles and charged as much as $1,500, $1,800 because of the time.”
DiBenedetto also gets high school yearbooks, books with sentimental value and some family heirlooms.
The 2016 flood brought in a lot of books, some of which couldn’t be salvaged, others that required extensive work.
“One lady said, ‘I’ll just give you a blank check, and I just need you to take care of this. It’s a family heirloom,’” DiBenedetto said. “I said, ‘I don’t need a blank check.’ I had to take the book and iron the pages out with a special iron we have and then completely rebind it.”
Much of the rebinding work is for clerks of court and other government offices that are required to keep bound copies of official documents, which get damaged over time. The methods and some of the equipment are older than the books themselves.
DiBenedetto said the machine that prepares the card stock used as book spines is more than a century old. He bought it and other equipment years ago from a Mississippi company that closed.
Because the work is so laborious, DiBenedetto said he turns down a lot of business, which also includes making new books of doctoral dissertations and master's theses for students.
His wife, Nita, and son, Brett, and two employees work in binding end of the business, which suggests that bookbinding may continue in Baton Rouge even after DiBenedetto has stepped down — something he shows no signs of doing.
“I have no interest in even listening to the word retirement,” he said.