Saving history

At Grimm Book Bindery, restoration preserves the past.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

When Gottlieb Grimm first started Grimm Book Bindery in 1874, he probably never imagined that his Madison family business would still be thriving nearly 150 years later, or that many of the books being restored now would include those printed during his time, or even much, much earlier.

But preserving historical documents and books is exactly what Claudia Lorena Lamothe does at the company’s Gisholt Drive location, where Bill Grimm, president, continues the family’s legacy. Lorena Lamothe, 41, has worked for Grimm for about 17 years in just about every department, but she’s been doing private restorations for longer than five years now.

“I love my work,” she smiles. “I love the smell of old book pages and seeing the before and after.”

The attention she gives to each project ensures that the books will be around for many more generations.

A glimpse into the past

In her work area, various projects await her expertise. Bibles are a common restoration item — often very large family bibles, some decades old and others more than 100 years old. The huge books here are seven or eight inches thick with ornate leather covers, some embellished in gold lettering or designs.

A collection of seven red and gold hardcover books awaits new covers on another table. Their pages are yellowed with age and worn around the edges, but in this case, the owner has asked that they not be touched. The spines read Dickens Works and inside the first book, the title “Bleak House” is printed in red ink, and “by Charles Dickens Vol. 1” in blue. No date is evident, but the historical significance of the illustrated book is breathtaking.

Next to the Dickens collection, several oversized 1894 tax roll registers from Waupaca County are also being refurbished. Inside, handwritten names fill the pages in penmanship that is extraordinarily tiny and precise but still quite legible.

Other projects include an oversized German church (“Kirch Buch”) book from Neenah, and a tiny missal, no larger than two-by-four inches in size. Bits of the missal’s cover have broken away over the years but are included in an attached baggy for restoration. Considering the tiny leather pieces involved, that’s likely no easy task. “That’s what I like about this job,” Lorena Lamothe smiles, undeterred.

Cutting, cleaning, and sewing

At her table, she cuts the front and back covers off a large, old bible and removes leather from its spine. The book’s cover is almost a half-inch thick.

Using an X-Acto knife, Lorena Lamothe pierces through the bottom edge of the heavy cover and peers inside. She expects a sponge-like material, but finds a type of cardboard filler instead. Eventually, it will all be replaced.

She gently flips through the pages to check the soundness of the stitching and then sets the entire bible, spine-up, into an old machine that clamps it into place. With a straight edge tool, she cleans the bible’s spine, scraping away any old paper or residue before applying new glue and allowing it to dry.

In the meantime, she turns her attention to a smaller book. She again removes the front and back covers and the leather spine. This particular book needs to be re-sewn, she notes. Reaching for a hand tool with a long nail at one end, she punctures the book in five spots, driving the nail on an angle from the top of the first page through the spine. With a long needle and coarse thread she stitches through the holes, securing the pages to the spine.

Lorena Lamothe says she can repair just about anything except holes left from burns. Leather covers and book corners can be refurbished, spines reinforced and recovered, and ribbons and end sheets replaced. Torn pages can be repaired using rice paper with glue, and gold lettering or decorations can be enhanced.

Depending on the project, she often applies a stain to bring back the cover’s original color and is careful to wipe it away from colored or foiled lettering or designs. The goal is to retain as much of the original book’s structure as possible, and the amount of time each book requires depends upon the type of restoration and the customer’s budget, Lorena Lamothe explains.

She thoroughly enjoys the challenge of figuring out what each project needs and how best to deliver the desired results. “Some people might just solve problems with stain, but it’s not just about staining. We have to make sure the book is better, not just re-stained.”



Ducts and dogs

Lorena Lamothe is often asked to repair books with torn corners that dogs have chewed, or books bound together with multiple pieces of duct tape. Duct tape is the worst, she says, and causes time-consuming grief.

“I have to remove all the tape and all the glue, which is very difficult. Please do not use duct tape!” she pleads. Some people also try to sew bindings themselves but end up creating more damage.

She’s restored books she can only describe as “really, really old,” as well as collections of old letters, registers, and maps, but items don’t need to be old to be restored.

Restoring historical books is only a portion of Lorena Lamothe’s job. The entire staff gears up for the company’s busiest time of year, which is when the school year ends, she says. That’s when schools send textbooks in for refurbishing.

Her job has plenty of variety, from working on restaurant menus to general binding to historical restorations to special projects such as creating customized storage boxes for books so they can easily be displayed on a shelf. She’s even fabricated a fake book cover for a handgun case.

A new chapter

Lorena Lamothe immigrated to the United States years ago from Honduras after a hurricane devastated her country. She landed in Boston first and worked for a dry cleaning business before moving to Madison.

She’s been waiting for over a decade to gain permanent residency. “I’m in line for an interview,” she says. In the meantime, her current permit must be renewed every two years and allows her the freedom to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Honduras. If she’s uncomfortable with any aspect of her life here, it’s a self-perceived insecurity about her command of the English language.

“When the job is slow, I go to MATC to take some English classes. Sometimes I have to answer phones and it’s frustrating when I try to say things,” she explains.

“But I plan to stay here. I’ve worked at different places where I didn’t feel comfortable, but here I love what I do. I feel like it’s home.”

Grimm Book Bindery
6880 Gisholt Drive, Madison, WI 53713
608.221.4443  |

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