Our guest today is Marianna Holzer, a third-generation bookbinder, who also happens to be Heidi’s sister. She owns the Holzer Book Bindery in Hinesburg, Vermont, and specializes in book restoration and preservation. She was recently featured on WCAX TV's Made in Vermont series. To learn more about Marianna and the Holzer Bindery, visit her website. And be sure to check out the WCAX video of Marianna at work.
I grew up in a bookbinding family. It all started with my grandfather, Ulrich Holzer, who emigrated to Boston from a Swiss village on Lake Constance, after learning his craft in Italy. His two sons and three daughters all worked in the business. Everyone loved to read and the story went, “you have to wait for your books to be read by each member of the family before you get them back.”
Our house was filled with books, most of which were beautifully bound in leather with colorful marble paper and gold lettering. Every evening, my father, Albert, would read stories to us from those precious volumes: Mother Goose, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Han Christian Anderson, or Mark Twain. Then I discovered Gone With the Wind, Jane Eyre, and the works of Louisa May Alcott. All these stories stood on our shelves and I wouldn’t go anywhere without a book in hand. We even had a complete set of Dickens, crafted with a blue leather cover and matching marble paper that a long-ago customer had commissioned then failed to retrieve.
Years later I became a bookbinder myself. My father had died when I was still young, but my mother, who’d learned the craft in her native Germany, set up a small bindery in our new home in southern Vermont. There she taught my sister and me some of the basics skills needed to bind books. We made simple blank journals and repaired a few literary treasures for family friends. After college, I discovered a small bindery in northern Vermont and went to work for them. This bindery mended and repaired municipal records for cities and towns all across the United States. What a gift it was to get paid to do what I loved: take care of books. I deepened my skills in creating those leather covers, stamping gold letters and designs on the spine as well as restoring and rebinding books that were falling apart.
In addition to working on the municipal records, I took on smaller jobs—the cookbook that was falling apart, the treasured family bible, the much loved and worn children’s books. Sometimes we would get a request to create a special book for someone’s birthday, wedding, or another special occasion. These were the projects I really loved to work on.
The company that had employed me for nearly 30 years was sold to new owners out of state when the original proprietors decided to retire. This brought many changes, culminating in extensive layoffs. I had collected a lot of tools over the years, which augmented those I already owned, left over from the family’s Boston bindery. Some of them are big heavy cast iron tools like a guillotine to trim the pages, a backer to hold a book while you round the spine with a special, fat-headed hammer, and a big press to press the books in the final stages of the work. Other essential tools are small, like the bone folder, the glue brush, a ruler and good quality, sharp scissors.
I was collecting all these tools with the intention that “some day,” “after I retire,” I would open a small bindery of my own. Well, that day came a lot sooner than I had planned. After the initial shock of losing a steady paycheck and company health insurance, I am finding renewed joy in having my own family business, working with my husband, Rik Palieri, to repair that abused cookbook, imprint a name on a bible, or make a beautiful cover for someone’s first book.
Our current project is rebinding a book called The People’s Home Library, published in 1917. This copy was in terrible shape with the front and back pages torn and crumpled, many of them falling right out of the book. It is exciting to take something in such poor shape, mend the torn pages, re-sew the book and put it all back together, using the original cover material and making it readable once again. This particular book is so interesting that the customer may find herself waiting for us to read it before she gets it back! Together, Rik and I are continuing the Holzer family tradition of turning old books into new and creating finely crafted heirlooms for future generations to enjoy.