Meet Jack and Taff Fitterer, the wizards of book restoration
Posted Friday, January 17, 2020 6:00 pm
My father passed along his passion for books to me. I’m actually of the opinion that collecting is a gene that some possess, other don’t.”
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
Back in August, with fingers crossed and the maximum amount of insurance the U.S. Postal Service offers, I shipped my beloved but battered first edition of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” to the Adirondacks and the workshop of Jack and Taff Fitterer, admired book restorers.
It probably says something about the demand for their expertise, the painstaking nature of their practice, and how few possess the talent and knowledge to do it right that it took until December before Taff Fitterer notified me that the book was repaired and ready to be returned.
But in the same way that you’d feel more confident consulting a physician face to face rather than over the phone, even if the operation proved a success, I decided to drive the two hours from our home in Columbia County to theirs in Indian Lake to retrieve my “Oz” and perhaps to learn something about the couple’s craft. It was also an excuse to visit the snow-covered Adirondacks for the first time in many years.
Something of a skinflint, my father enjoyed recalling the circumstances under which he acquired the book, as well as the price. It was at a rare book auction held at Sotheby Parke-Bernet during the 1960s.
According to his tale, a prior auction had been completed and the auctioneer promptly launched into the book sale, unbeknownst to the collectors and dealers milling outside the auction room.
My father, fortunately, happened to be inside the auction room when the sale began, proceeding alphabetically by author. L. Frank Baum was among the first lots. Without any competing bids, my dad acquired the book for $8.
It’s safely worth more than that today.
My father passed along his passion for books to me. I’m actually of the opinion that collecting is a gene that some possess, other don’t. He also thought it was a neat hobby to include on my college application to help distinguish me from the rest of the rabble applying to the Ivy League. If my acceptances, or rather rejections, are any indication it wasn’t and it didn’t.
However, I was left with some lovely volumes — among them autographed first editions of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” — and an unsigned first of “The Great Gatsby,” though without the extremely rare and valuable dust jacket.
I found the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, much to the bookstore owner’s surprise and dismay, while visiting Princeton for an interview. While the university didn’t see fit to include me in the Class of 1975, the bookseller felt obligated to sell me the classic for the price he’d long before scribbled inside its front cover — $10.
With the exception of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” most of my books, some of them dating back to the 19th Century such as “Huckleberry Finn,” are in reasonably good condition. The “Wizard” wasn’t in terrible shape, especially for a children’s book, since kids, if you have any, or recall your own childhood, have a tendency to manhandle them and employ them as coloring books.
“Crayon doesn’t come out,” Taff told me.
Fortunately, crayon wasn’t among the indignities my book had suffered. Most egregious was the cloth on the spine that had been torn in half.
I can’t tell you precisely what Taff, who is responsible for repairing clothbound books, did to fix mine. I prefer to think of it as alchemy because when the “Wizard” was returned to me, it was virtually impossible to tell where the tear had been. And the once rickety pages were so sturdy that Jack was able to turn them as freely as you could the latest John Grisham potboiler.
My understanding is that Taff took the book apart, resewed the whole thing, and reinforced the spine by putting material under the spine to support the original cloth and label. A painter, she also matched the repairs to the cover’s original greens and reds.
As repairs go, mine apparently wasn’t one of their more challenging assignments. Jack, who does the leather bindings, showed me a two-volume set of “Don Quixote” published in 1755 that he was revitalizing.
“We easily have as much work as we can handle,” he said. Waiting time for Taff to attend to a book can be eight months or more. For Jack, it’s over a year.
Jack also has the specialized tools and expertise to create slipcases and beautiful tooled leather covers, such as one he was making for a first edition of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” a paperback original.
The couple even possesses the finesse to repair torn dust jackets. One of those on their agenda was an extremely rare copy of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” translated into English and published in 1920 in London for the layperson. Taff’s challenge will be to remove the tape keeping the dust jacket intact, mitigate the tape residue that can migrate into and weaken the paper, and then color match the Japanese tissue added to replace any missing material.
The final step in the repair process is returning the book to one’s shelf. There my “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” again sits, restored to health, in the good company of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Mark Twain.
I like to think my father would have been pleased.
Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at [email protected]