As a professional book conservator, Steven Loew has handled a 17th-century letter to Galileo and a 10-pound laser-engraved steel book written by a cult leader.
Now, he is showing Howard County residents how to repair their own priceless tomes at a series of book repair clinics at Ellicott Books, a used bookstore in Ellicott City.
"We discuss the problem of acidic paper, and the general care and handling of books," said Mr. Loew, who operates his own book repair service in Baltimore and has been trained as a professional book conservator at Smithsonian Institution and Princeton University libraries.
The free clinics, which began Dec. 8 and take place every two weeks, include instruction and advice in the repair of rare books.
Topics include mold and mildew treatment, mending torn pages, reattachment of loose book plates, rebinding and recasing, repair of book boxes, wrappers and dust jackets.
January's sessions may focus on rebinding and "recasing," or recovering, books.
"The purpose of these repairs is to hold a book together for your own personal use," said Clifford Panken, who operates the store with his parents, Irv and Ethel Panken.
The clinics are the only ones of their kind in the county, Mr. Panken said, and have drawn about two dozen bibliophiles in the past two sessions.
"The people who have come have been very enthusiastic," he said, adding that all but one have been repeat visitors.
The clinics have attracted book-lovers who bring treasured family Bibles that need mending, out-of-print books damaged by fire and books whose edges have come unglued or whose bindings have caved in.
Glenwood resident Mary Alice Schaefer, who owns about 3,000 books, said she finds the clinics rewarding.
"They're terrific," she said. "We have books that are more than 50 years old, and a few are leather-bound."
Some of the books people have brought to the clinics required only minor repairs. But others, such as a set of books damaged by fire, were virtually unsalvageable.
"With the amount of fire damage, most of the books were not worth repair," said Mr. Loew, who told the owner to look for replacement copies.
Mr. Loew told the book owners how they could do "quick and dirty" repairs with such commonplace tools as a plastic comb and butter knife.
For example, Mr. Loew said he likes to use a piece of cattle bone, rather than a steel straight-edge, to smooth out paper creases, saying the soft bone is more efficient and gentler on the book.
But instead of using expensive cattle bone to burnish and fold paper, amateur book conservators can use the back of a plastic comb to achieve the same effect.
And a butter knife can be used to slit the uncut pages of a book, he said, noting, "In the nineteenth century, every gentleman had a paper knife."
Mr. Loew also told clinic participants what materials not to use when repairing books. Common adhesive tape or Elmer's glue are discouraged, because both materials become acidic over time, discolor and become brittle.
"It's a real botch of a repair," Mr. Loew said of make-overs done with adhesive tape. "It turns acidic, and it'll discolor the original page."
Instead, Mr. Loew suggested using a glue that will remain flexible, contains no acidity and doesn't discolor over time.
For the Ellicott City bookstore's owners, the clinics offer some practical tips for customers with a clear love of of the printed page.
"The orientation is toward repairs individuals can do at home," Mr. Panken said.
The book repair clinics will take place at the bookstore every other week. The next session is Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 313-9994.