When you walk into a small shop on Vinton Street in South Omaha, you’re immediately struck by the smell of paper, glue and leather.
This is where books are born – and reborn.
Morris Dolgoff founded Capitol Bindery in 1929 on Capitol Avenue in downtown Omaha. In 1953, Leonard Brown — fresh from the Korean War — bought the shop. “He was looking for a business that could give him a career,” says his grandson, Leonard Brown, standing in a sea of type trays and books in progress.
He's the third generation of Browns to bind books. He joined the bindery in 1990 and became owner in 2007, taking over for his father, Robert, who had run it since the 1970s.
What's fascinating about book binding is that the process hasn't changed much through the centuries. Much of today's work involves binding legal documents, bond issues and closing documents for area law firms. Other projects include books for architectural firms, magazine and journal collections, college dissertations, theses for master's candidates, genealogies and Bibles.
Lots of Bibles.
“People cherish them," says Brown, holding a small Bible with a disintegrating leather cover.
In terms of value, someone might pay a dime for it at a garage sale, but memories are priceless.
“This was a Bible a customer received as a girl, maybe as a confirmation gift,” Brown says as he exams it.
The Bible might take three to four weeks to restore. A more difficult project could require three to four months.
Or as long as two years.
“I might get an hour to work on it one week or it might have to wait a couple of weeks before I can get to it,” he says.
“The most daunting projects,” Brown says, “are the family Bibles that are in disarray with the pages coming loose and there just aren’t enough margins. You have to rebuild the signature by hand.”
A typical repair and rebinding involves about a dozen steps.
Once the pages are assembled, Brown sews them together using the oversew machine his grandfather bought in 1963.
From that point, Brown does nearly everything by hand, including trimming, rounding, backing, cutting the cloth (or leather), gluing, binding, covering, titling and finally casing the book.
The process is tedious, which is why estimates for restorations are difficult without a full examination first, Brown says.
Client expectations vary greatly, too.
“One might say ‘Oh my goodness!’ when I tell them the cost and another might say, ‘Wow, is that all?’"
But most people would agree that holding a piece of history is something special, and what the Brown family contributes to history extends far beyond its three generations of book binders.