• Image about jim-jasek-texas-waco-library-binding-institute-americanway


AMERICANA

ADMIT IT: SOMEWHERE stored away, you still have that treasured copy of a book you received as a child. Black Beauty, The Littlest Angel, maybe that first edition of a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery, or perhaps some Golden Books like the ones you read to your children. How about that beloved old family Bible that has been handed down from generation to generation?

The passage of time has caused such keepsakes to become soiled and tattered, worse for the passing years of wear. But you’ve kept them because they are touchstones of your past, hold-in-your-hand proof of warmly remembered bygone days.

And you wish they could be new again, the dust and disrepair of time magically swept away.

Jim Jasek can do that.

He has been doing that for a half century, in fact -- plying his ancient bookbinding trade, making old new and bringing the past into the present. He’s watched tears well in the eyes of his grateful customers who’ve seen the miracles he performs. He has re-bound and restored books that were given as gifts to former president Gerald Ford and former Texas governor John Connally. When NASA was anticipating its first moon landing, its officials brought Jasek a worn copy of Jules Verne’s classic novel From the Earth to the Moon, asking for it to be re-bound so it could be carried on the historic voyage.

“Yes, I like what I do,” the 68-year-old Renaissance man -- book collector; photographer; spelunker; student of math, philosophy, and languages -- says as he sits in his small Waco, Texas, office. “I can’t imagine a more satisfying way to earn a living.” Bookbinding, he insists, is an art -- one that may be obscure, even fading, but an art nonetheless.

Back in the late 1940s, the owner of a suburban Chicago bookbinding company sent his father to the Southwest in search of areas ripe for expansion; Frank Jasek returned with news that every major city in Texas had thriving bookbinding businesses. The most viable possibilities for expansion, he reported, seemed to be Waco, Texas; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Waco got the nod, and the elder Jasek was given the responsibility of opening and operating the Texas branch of the Library Binding company. Ten years later, he purchased the business from his old boss.

And now, half a century later, it is looked after by his son, who began working for him, sweeping floors, at age 11.

Today, Jim Jasek’s is the last remaining bookbinding company in Texas. And while Jasek stops short of declaring his a disappearing craft, he acknowledges that those practicing it are now fewer in number. Today, the Library Binding Institute and Hardcover Binders International, a trade association that serves as the industry’s clearinghouse and standard-setter, has but 72 commercial bookbinding companies, mostly family owned, as members. Those are hardly Starbucks numbers, but, as Jasek argues, “There will be bookbinders as long as there are books and periodicals in need of care and repair.”

Certainly, it is a craft with a long history, originating in India in the first century during the prepaper days, when treated palm leaves were used as pages and wooden boards served as covers. In the United States, Acme Bookbinding, based in Charlestown, Massachusetts, can trace its history to 1821. And those who argue that the art form isn’t going the way of the Edsel and Beta videotapes point to the fact that today, several universities offer courses in bookbinding.

While public and school libraries are Jasek’s main customers, shipping worn books in need of new covers, it is a rare day that some new and challenging request doesn’t reach his door. In the central Texas community of Ennis, school students recently completed the massive undertaking of producing a handwritten, illustrated copy of the Bible. Jasek and his 30-member staff were asked to bind the six-inch-thick book. He admits that he still gets nervous when some collector’s one-of-a-kind book comes his way, as well as when he receives a request to bind collected copies of something, like the 12-issues-per-year scientific publication Biological Abstracts, which has a subscription rate that rivals the cost of three bedrooms and two baths.

“One of the things we’ve been doing for a growing number of customers in recent years,” Jasek says, “is binding collections of comic books.” Issues of Spider-Man, Batman, and other comics now regularly come his way from throughout the United States and Canada. Recently, he’s had inquiries from as far away as Germany and Austria.

Debra Nolan, executive director of the Library Binding Institute and Hardcover Binders International, agrees that the industry is constantly evolving. Publishers who offer print-on-demand book services are seeking bookbinders to produce the copies they’ve promised to authors. Photo books of weddings, graduations, and family reunions are being bound for individuals in growing numbers.

And, yes, the requests are sometimes strange. A few years ago, Baylor University, wishing to give a unique token of its gratitude to those who donated funds for a new campus building, asked if Jasek could provide a stylish binding for a number of bricks that would be presented to donors.

No problem. “I’m in the business of making people happy,” he says. And, when you think about it, attaching a cover to a brick isn’t that far removed from the ancient art of binding pages made of tree leaves.