Doing My Job

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February 9, 2004 // UPDATED 2:52 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Valerie Lien, bookbinder and book restorer

Valerie Lien is a book doctor. She runs a professional bookbinding and restoration service out of her father's independent bookstore, Lien's Bookshop, 507 E. Hennepin Ave. She cares for her dusty old subjects with intensity and passion, breathing new life into beaten-down maps, scrapbooks, novels and other family heirlooms. Lien, a petite, wiry book maven mends torn pages, patching them with Japanese tissue paper and hand-made rice and wheat paste. She loves collecting old Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald books.

What drew you to this work?

I wanted to do something with books because I would see all these books coming in that were broken, and no one was fixing them. They were all being rebound. I thought there's got to be another way. So I studied to try to find out what I could do. ... I really wanted to become a fine craftsperson; I really wanted to be the best. ... After high school, I begged to work here. But they said you can't work here unless you go to college. But that was never what I wanted to do [even though she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota]. I wanted to work with books. I always knew it. ... You can have a piece of Japanese tissue paper and using this with a wet paste made out of rice or wheat, a paste that I still make by hand, you can actually take a pin prick and water it down and take a piece of paper and fill in a hole.

What's the oldest or most unique book you have worked on?

I have done books where teeth were fangs still. Books that were about volcanoes and fossil formations. Books from the early 17th Century.

Do you have a book rehab that you're really proud of?

Every book I do, I really try to improve for my clients. There's a "Wizard of Oz" book over on my desk. That "Wizard of Oz" book is worth nothing right now. But when that's restored, that "Wizard of Oz" book, another copy of that just went for auction for $2,450. The old belief was let's just leave the book alone. That's fine for furniture, but for books, you have to have them restored carefully. It's meticulous.

How long does it take?

It takes a long time. There's no average book. Every book is different. I probably start at $150 for a book, all the way up to $1,000.

Why do people want to pay for this?

Because they want to hand down the books. Sometimes there's family history, like an old family Bible. There's birth records, marriage records. They want to keep them. There's signatures of great aunts or uncles. You can throw the book away, but it's been in the family. They're sentimental. That's the biggest factor.

What are the most interesting things you've come across?

I just got done doing some authentic Civil War diaries where the soldier had carried them around in his backpack. I also did some memoirs from the Bataan Death March people. That was just chilling to read that. All of their entries were about food and about their moms, sisters and sweethearts. The most innocent things -- just touching somebody's face and hand. I do a lot of old family Bibles. This one guy from Roseau [Minn.] brought in his mother's scrapbook from when she was young. It cost him thousands to get this done. It was all falling apart. It was her poems, her valentines. I work on books of sentimental attachment just as much as rare books.