GENEVA—In a book-lined room of a converted barn, Douglas Filler leans over a 124-year-old Bible. In his hand is a tiny paintbrush. In his heart is a passion for book conservation, an old-world craft carried out in his secluded home.
These days, many of the nation's book conservators work at institutions like museums and universities, but Filler runs a private operation from his home by the St. Johns River -- an increasingly uncommon practice. Yet, book conservators agree that as society goes more digital, relics of our paper-based past will be even more treasured -- and in need of special care.
Filler started his business, Curious Lore, full time about two years ago. Before then, Frank Grace couldn't find anyone to restore books for his Leesburg store, Grace's Books & Records.
"Most of the old-time crafts have sort of been lost to the current generation," Grace said. Now, he gives regular work to Filler, including tidying up the ragged edges of a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin worth $10,000.
Filler's favorite piece of equipment is a black iron book press from the late 19th century. His most technologically advanced device is an embossing machine manufactured in 1957.
Grace said he had trouble finding a craftsman like Filler. But Jeff Altepeter, head of the bookbinding department at North Bennet Street School in Boston, said young people are interested in the craft. His school gets about three applications for each opening, Altepeter said. The program, one of a scattered few in the country, accepts eight students per year.
Mary Bogan, a senior book conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, said there will always be demand for people who work with books.
"If you consider that for the last 1,000 years, the primary method of storing information was through books, that's 1,000 years of material," she said. "Even in this age, the electronic digital age, the book is still the most permanent and most certain way of preserving information."
Conservators say books printed in the last century often need a lot of care because of their paper quality. Recycled paper may present new challenges in the future. Even today, conservators find that books printed in the 1500s and 1600s survive better than books printed in the 19th century because of the materials.
While conservators working at museums and universities typically go through years of training and often do apprenticeships, Filler is self-taught. A former technical writer and illustrator, he used his information-gathering skills to learn the craft from those he hired to restore his own books.
Until recently he designed circuit boards for a living. But stress got the better of him, and he decided to attempt to support himself with his 15-year hobby. He took a major pay cut.
Only a handful of book restorers practice in Florida. Boca Book Binding in Ocoee also does restoration work, while mostly binding books for universities and hospitals. Ellen Hahn, who learned bookbinding from her father, the business' owner, said restoration will continue as long as people feel nostalgic about their books and interested in their history. Her business has worked on books that traveled on the Mayflower.
Hahn worries about universities cutting budgets and letting digitization replace paper and ink completely.
"When you've got 10,000 students, and your computer system is down and you can't do research, how are you supposed to study?" she said.
Filler works out of a nook in his house, a converted horse barn with marble floors and animal pelts, and sets up shop at Fleaworld in Sanford on the weekends. It's the cheapest advertising he could find.
His favorite books include a 19th century analysis of witchcraft and "popular delusions" and a first-person account of the Spanish Inquisition. He was almost finished with the job on the 15-pound Bible, replacing its hinges, dying its faded leather and giving a new shimmer to the gold embossed on the cover.
"When I bring back something from the dead and make it shine again...That's what pleases me the most," he said.
Rachael Jackson can be reached at 407-540-4358 or email@example.com.