Mark Andersson has always loved to make and fix things, but when a church in Boston asked him to repair some books in its archives, he couldn't sleep.
Using tape to patch ripped pages and broken spines just didn't sit well with the former high school social-studies teacher.
"Aesthetically speaking, it was just awful and not respectful of the book, which was OK with them because all they were concerned about was the content of the book, not how it looked," Andersson said. "I cared how it looked.
"I couldn't live with myself, so I quit," said Andersson, 54. "I felt horrible for the books and horrible for myself."
Andersson felt so bad, in fact, he decided to enroll at the 128-year-old North Bennet Street School in Boston to study bookbinding.
Andersson spent two years there learning his new craft. He also spent a year studying in Sweden on a Fulbright grant, after which he returned to the North Bennet Street School, this time as a teacher.
Five years ago, Andersson moved to Tucson, his wife's hometown.
He spends his days 160 feet from his house in a small temperature-controlled barn, surrounded by the tools of his trade - bone folders, rulers, brushes, knives, wheat paste and Japanese paper.
Most of his time is spent fixing books that have sentimental value for people, but he also repairs books that can't be replaced or have high monetary value.
Most of his customers find him on the Internet, through word-of-mouth or at the annual Tucson Festival of Books.
Andersson can hand-stitch books that have fallen apart, doctor brittle and torn pages, wash pages and de-acidify them, and can repair or replace ripped covers.
He also can take a book with a glued spine and hand-sew it, although it's labor-intensive and expensive.
Any book can be fixed - it just depends on how much someone wants to spend on it, Andersson said.
For example, Andersson said, the Boston police accidentally blew up the captain's log from an 18th-century whaling ship, and bookbinders put it back together.
While most of his jobs come with a price tag of between $150 and $300, Andersson has charged up to $1,500. In one instance, he replaced the covers on an original set of Jane Austen books and in another he repaired a Civil War diary.
Creating books, too
Tucson resident Michael Riggs said he was surprised to find an "artisan" such as Andersson right here in Tucson after Googling "bookbinders." He hired Andersson to turn a collection of letters into an "archival-quality" book for a retiring Colorado State University veterinary science professor. He was so impressed with the quality, he hired Andersson a second time, to create a special container to preserve a children's prayer book that has been in his family for more than 100 years.
"He put together such a phenomenal project," Riggs said. "He really knows his stuff."
Andersson has collected more than 400 books on the art of bookbinding. He can talk at length about the tools involved. Bone folders are often made of cow bones and are used to crease, fold, score and pick up paper. The Japanese paper he and other bookbinders use is often made in tiny villages by people whose families have been making it for centuries.
Andersson's wife, Diane Hanover, said he has never met a tool he didn't love.
"For a while he was famous among his friends for having the most meticulously set up toolbox," Hanover said.
He also knows all about the history of bookmaking. For example, bookmakers used rag paper and cloth up until the late 19th century, which is when they began using paper made from trees.
Some $30,000 books
The stains found in old books are called "foxing" and are caused by impurities in the water used to make the paper or in the paper itself.
Andersson said the paper and threads used today are much the same as those used 200 years ago, but bookmakers began gluing spines in the 1970s to save money, abandoning the practice of sewing them, which began in the fourth century.
Because books are now put together with glue and fall apart more easily, Andersson said, "We don't have the option of giving books to our grandchildren and saying 'I loved this book.' We can't give them our favorites because of the 10 cents they saved making it."
Andersson can also tell you that books made in the early 1900s by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson are going for $30,000 nowadays. Their covers are hand-tooled leather and have had gold leaf applied with decorative finishing tools.
The oldest book Andersson has worked on since arriving in Tucson was printed in 1508. The spine of the vellum-covered book had fallen off. Vellum is made of the skin from young animals.
Work is about families
Last week Andersson was working on two projects. He was painstakingly applying extraordinarily strong Japanese paper to the ragged edges of a completely disassembled 1858 family Bible so it could be sewn back together. And he was creating a special storage container, or "drop-spine box," for a 1739 book written in Hebrew.
"Most of my work isn't about the books, but it's about families, family history and culture," Andersson said. "Almost everything I fix can be replaced for $10, but if they've been in the family for years, they tell a story."
Great-grandma's cookbook might have little notations about who favored what recipe. Grandpa may have written a special dedication to his grandson in his favorite children's book. A stain on the cover of a book might remind the reader about his loved one's penchant for coffee.
Hanover enjoys talking with her husband about his various projects. As a social studies textbook writer and budding author, she appreciates the importance of his work, Hanover said.
"He's always willing to find better ways of doing things," Hanover said.
While some might get more satisfaction from fixing historically significant books for universities, Andersson isn't among them.
"I think everyone wants to do work that matters," he said. "I can work on Abraham Lincoln's Bible, but I don't know it would mean any more than my working on grandma's Bible. It all matters to someone, just in different ways."
One of the best things about working for himself instead of an institution is that he can take time to mull over just how he wants to approach the job, Andersson said. He can also experiment more.
In other words, he doesn't have to compromise.
"A lot of times I'm thinking about the grandkids of my clients rather than my clients," Andersson said. "I think they'd be the best judges of whether I did the right thing."
You can learn how
This article also was published in Thursday's Northwest Star.