Hilo bookbinder Jesus Sanchez exams a blowup of a photo he took while in Cuba of a damaged book. Sanchez will return to Cuba soon to begin a project of restoring 1,200 such damaged historic books.

Big Island artisan gets
call to save rare books
in Cuba

HILO » Sitting in cardboard boxes in a library of historic books in Havana are 1,200 decaying volumes with insect-eaten, moldy pages, rotting bindings and missing covers.

The damaged books were placed in the boxes beginning early in the 1900s by long-gone librarians who knew that something had to be done to save them but did not know how.

Soon Hilo bookbinder and restorer Jesus Sanchez will fly to Havana to begin rescuing books waiting for repair for nearly a century.

A link between Hilo and Havana might seem odd. Perhaps stranger still is the fact that it was made possible by Pope John Paul II.

In 1998, John Paul made a breakthrough journey to the communist nation. One result was a new degree of openness in Cuba to Catholic humanitarian organizations, one of which invited Mexican-born, internationally known bookbinder Sanchez to do a workshop on his skills there.

Sanchez was chosen because, by his own description, only about a half-dozen bookbinders in the world have the level of skill he has.

Honolulu real estate developer and book lover Don Graham, who used Sanchez's services to restore a collection now valued at $10 million, narrowed the assessment of Sanchez. "He's the finest there is," Graham said.

Sanchez made repeated trips to Cuba, meeting Fidel Castro in a reception line, then in a meeting with other restoration experts in which Castro bombarded him with questions for 45 minutes.

"When he got to me, he was boom, boom, boom. He is not shy to admit that he does not know something," Sanchez said. "He just showers you with questions. He loves books."

Eventually Sanchez was shown the books, starting with one from 1658 which, despite a Spanish title meaning "General Government, Moral and Political," actually deals with "noble" birds like eagles. Others deal with the voyages of German explorer Alexander von Humboldt and a description of "Indian Monarchy."

Still, nothing happened until a later trip. An official told Sanchez to be waiting in front of a government building at 7 a.m. the next day. A car picked him up and took him to a modest two-story house in a Havana residential area.

Castro was waiting for him. Sanchez said the project would cost about $200 per book, roughly $250,000. Castro said the Cuban government would provide a workshop and young assistants to learn the skills, but no money.

Sanchez is now preparing a fund-raising effort. In a few weeks he will go to Cuba with Hilo photographer Robbyn Peck to take pictures of the books. Those will go into a catalog to be shown to donors interested in restoration.

Peck is delighted with the opportunity.

"The thought of going to Cuba is intriguing. It looks like a photographer's paradise," she said. "I think it's a worthy cause. I mean once they're gone, they're gone."

Sanchez can get started almost immediately. "We don't need a lot of money to take the books apart," he said. Fumigating books is also cheap.

Restoration is costly. A spool of linen thread to sew bindings costs $100. A roll of gold leaf for lettering, $1,500. Leather for bindings is "terribly expensive."

Where insects have eaten away part of a page, a new but matching sheet of paper has to be married to the old page. Where words are missing, the book in hand has to be compared with other editions elsewhere so the missing words can be learned.

Then they have to be reprinted onto the page, if necessary by casting a new set of type in the style of the original book. A wooden press has to be created to do the printing.

"It has to be as close to the original as possible. You want to repeat the look of the book," Sanchez said. "In the end it's like a painting. You're not supposed to know it has been restored."

Besides saving old books, the Cuban project could save the art of bookbinding. The half-dozen expert bookbinders in the world are all old. Libraries now microfilm old books instead of restoring them, Sanchez said.

Sanchez, 54, had open heart surgery in 1997. "What saddened me was when I die, nobody is going to take care of the books."

Now a new group of young book restorers will be formed in Cuba to carry on the old skills, he said.

Anyone interested in helping with the project can call Jesus Sanchez at 808-938-2056.

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