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A Considerable Town

Kater-Crafts Bookbinders Practices an Ancient Art While Feeding the Hollywood Beast

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Thu, Jun 28, 2012 at 11:00 AM
click to enlarge Kater-Crafts employee Josefina Ramirez practices the art of book making. - PHOTO BY ANDRA LIM
  • Photo by Andra Lim
  • Kater-Crafts employee Josefina Ramirez practices the art of book making.

In the workshop of

Kater-Crafts Bookbinders, Bibles from the 19th century, calculus

textbooks and medical journals on digestive diseases sit in stacks,

reinforcing the reputation of books as arcane, unsexy, packed with

esoteric information. But two shelves tell a different story. Lined up

here are menu booklets seen in Ocean's Thirteen, a leather-bound yearbook from the TV series Castle

and books of behind-the-scenes shots from Tom Cruise films, all made by

the small, family-run company. At this Pico Rivera bookbindery,

Hollywood glitz and glamour meets a dying art. Drama meets

down-to-earth.

Here, siblings Bruce Kavin and Judy Howard work

with their 25-person staff to restore and craft small orders of books.

They also provide key props to Hollywood; books they've made to order

have appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean, Titanic and Tron. Later this year, one of their books will play a crucial role in the film adaptation of Life of Pi -- in fact, as many as 200 copies of it may see screen time.

Sitting in an office space (full of books, of course), the two explain how the movie business came calling.

"We

never went looking for this kind of work. They find us through

word-of-mouth," Kavin says. "Our father started the bindery, and it just

evolved that we were able to do this."

Originally founded out of

the basement in their home in 1948, the bindery later moved to a quiet

road, southeast of downtown Los Angeles, lined with manufacturing

warehouses.

As teenagers, both were dragged into the bindery

during summers -- Kavin remembers his first job extracting staples from

magazines. Both moved on to other lines of work after graduating

college, and they sometimes lived far apart, getting together only for

holidays. But eventually they both returned to the bindery, where

they've now worked together nearly every day for about 15 years.

Their

characters are cut from a pragmatic cloth, and when they start gushing,

it's always about books. Their relationship centers on professional

matters -- their mutual love of books, how to keep the business afloat.

But their overlapping jobs have allowed each to understand the other's

personality at its best and worst.

Describing their work spats, Howard, 68, admits, "I tend to be more volatile."

Laughing,

Kavin, 65, firmly says, "I agree." But he adds that she's a "creative"

asset, while she calls him a "gentleman" with insights into every facet

of bookbinding.

The books they construct are the product of old

machinery and human hands. Even their larger orders, such as special

editions of a novel or binding work for libraries, only run up to a few

thousand copies.

The bindery uses a sewing machine from 1935 to

stitch pages together and a 1960s contraption to round off book spines.

There's a linotype machine -- used to print newspapers until about 50

years ago -- that engraves letters onto a metal block.

"It's like a

Frankenstein machine from the dinosaur age," Howard says. Many of these

machines, Kavin adds, are no longer manufactured because no one's using

them.

When they're first hired, most employees have no experience

binding books. They show up needing a job, a paycheck -- and they build

up their skills over the years.

Erny Liem, 61, has become an

expert in restoring old family Bibles in her 20 years at the bindery.

"If you damage it, there's no replacement," she says.

In the end,

most of Liem's efforts are invisible to the eye: She patches up the

infrastructure of the Bible while leaving its exterior intact.

"People

wonder why bookbinding costs so much," Kavin says. But after they see

the process, he continues, "they say, 'How can you do it so cheap?' "

Howard mentions another common exclamation from customers who last visited years ago: "Oh good, you're still here!"

The

digital age has not been kind to bookbinders, but Kavin and Howard have

made up for lost business by ramping up specialty orders. They've

restored a 325-pound visitor register for the Los Angeles Chamber of

Commerce, dating from the 1800s, and bound dissertations. Each book has a

story behind it -- and, in the case of books made for Hollywood, each

helps to tell a story.

Life of Pi follows a young boy

who's shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean. On a lifeboat with a Bengal

tiger, he finds a manual that provides tips for hand-to-mouth living,

such as keeping hydrated with turtle blood, a "nutritious, salt-free

drink."

But the lifeboat scenes were filmed on water -- and water

and paper don't mix. The bindery created several hundred copies of the

survival guide, so a new one could appear in each take.

"We need

that stuff to look absolutely authentic, and there are so few people who

know how to make anything look good anymore," says Robin Miller, a prop

master who's worked with the bindery on several movies, including Life of Pi. "You see these things in a huge close-up on the movie screen, in high-definition."

For Titanic,

the bindery constructed an album, around 4 feet long and stamped with a

custom-made template, which was supposed to encase the blueprints of

the doomed ship.

"I was expecting it to be sitting up on an easel,

but it was lying on the floor," Howard says. The camera passed over the

album in a matter of seconds.

At the end of the day, Howard and

Kavin are dazzled not by Tinseltown credentials but by the artistry and

antiquity of their work. "I like the old equipment, the skill of it, the

beauty of the books," Kavin says. "We're not starstruck."

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