Talking to Harold Gilbert is like being transported into a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There’s just a hint of Jimmy Stewart in Harold’s voice, something in the inflection or the accent that rings of rural America. Maybe it’s the infectious laugh or the “yah, yah” he uses frequently as he tells a story or relates some adventure from his 85 years.
“Yah, yah, you’ll need to watch your step here,” he says as he guides the way down the steep, narrow stairway that leads to his basement workshop. Since 1982, Harold has met with his customers here in the cozy little room below his kitchen. They bring him treasured copies of Keats, Longfellow or Emily Dickinson. They bring century-old deed books from county courthouses. They bring their family Bibles. Often, his customers bring books that are literally falling apart at the seams. And that’s where Harold comes in. “I like the satisfaction of making the worst new again. It’s a challenge for me.” He grins and adjusts the magnifying goggles he keeps propped up on his forehead but rarely uses.
The stacks of books that line the shelves of the shop, or form small towers on the floor, are waiting for rebirth. With the skills he learned from 36 years at the F. A. Owen Publishing Company in Dansville, Harold refurbishes and repairs the old books with the touch of a master craftsman, by hand.
“Binding books is what I know how to do. I’ve been at it since 1946. The company (F. A. Owen) closed up in ’82, but I just kept at it. I know guys that retired about that same time, who would come around here and say, ‘You don‘t have to be working. Why are you doing this?’ They were all gone within a few years. They did nothing but watch a lot of TV. But I’ve kept busy. It’s what keeps me going, I believe.”
When he began his home-based operation, one of his first customers was the Livingson County Courthouse a few towns down the road. He began working on their old deed books. Twenty-five years later he’s still at it. Harold, now 85 years old, calculates he will have to live until he’s at least 100 in order to finish all the books on his waiting list.
He jabs a thumb in the direction of the pile of courthouse books. “These books go back to the start of Livingston County, so there’s a bunch of ’em. Early 1800s. Look at the handwriting in this one.” He opens the book carefully, displaying the old script with its flourishes and curlicues. “Isn’t that beautiful? Almost as good as mine,” he chuckles.
There’s that laugh again.
Entering Harold’s workshop is like stepping back into a time when the pace of life was slower. Two calendars, one on the back of the shop door and one over the workbench, both with nothing penciled in, each testifying to his “take each day as it comes” strategy. It was this attitude that saw him through cancer in his teen years, which kept him from serving in World War II (he was turned down three times) and a stroke in 1996. If it’s truly important, he says, he writes it on a scrap of paper and pins it to the wall.
Harold has lived and worked his entire life in the small town of Dansville, nestled in a long valley among the fabled Finger Lakes. It’s known for its festival of hot air balloons, and each year the skies above the gentle hills resemble confetti from heaven.
His customers, too, fall under the spell of a slower pace and are not surprised to find themselves leaning against one of the high workbenches for an hour-long chat about vintage cars (his lifelong passion) or the history of the cherished book they are bringing to him for repair.
Anyone who comes into Harold’s cozy clutter inevitably asks about the curious pieces of bindery equipment tucked into the corners of the shop. He is always more than happy to tell you, yet he’s quick to explain that the tools of his trade are fewer these days, now that he uses only hand methods. Leather-covered lead weights, now worn smooth from a century of use. Hand-crank presses, their black enamel paint still shiny in places. A handful of glue brushes poking out of a cubby hole, frazzled bristles looking like the paws of small animals. Onion skin papers; a large serving spoon pirated from his wife’s kitchen for smoothing pages. A steel spatula from the old publishing plant for separating pages. A cut-down graham cracker box for odds and ends. And his own two hands.
He shifts a stack of books on the floor and makes a path to the ancient cutter. Half of its bulk sits under the stairwell, the business end jutting out like an enormous, good-natured animal waiting to be fed.
“I bought it from a newspaper, the Canesteo Times. It’s from about the turn of the century. Look at this detailing: all hand painted.”
He places an old phone book under the long blade of the cutter. With a handle as tall as himself, he brings the blade down making a swift cut that divides the phone book cleanly in two.
“I’m very glad this is hand operated,” he says. “I didn’t want some hydraulic one that I would spend more time monkeying with than using. It’s simple like this; there’s not much you got to tinker with.”
He admits, though, that he likes to tinker. Whether it’s old books or antique cars, Harold loves to putter. And he admits, too, to being something of a perfectionist when it comes to his work or his hobbies.
“Well, yah, yah, I’ll tell you,” he puts down the book he’s working on and looks you in the eye. “You can’t do a good job if you rush through it. Every job I do, even if I’m not going to get anything out of it, I do the best I can. I love my work.”
Harold credits his work ethic to his father, who also worked at the Owens Company “just shy of 50 years.” A childhood through the Great Depression gave Harold his entrepreneurial creativity. Whether it was rescuing golf balls from waterholes and selling them back to golfers, a backyard bicycle repair business, his many years of buying, restoring and selling antique cars, or now in his basement bindery, Harold has always found a way to make an honest living.
“Harold epitomizes what it means to have found your niche,” says Judith Hunter, the town clerk who has been doling out the battered deed books. “He’s dedicated, one of a kind.”
Harold takes a philosophical stance when it comes to the future of books, the leather-bound, cloth-bound kind you can hold in your hands, he points out. With the popularity of e-books and the availability of written resources at the touch of a computer key, will books, as we know them, become obsolete? “There’s always going to be books around for reference,” he says, “but I think people are going to want to get them out of a computer.” Harold agrees that times are changing fast, but as long as courthouses have old deed books and families have heirloom Bibles, he will have a job to do.
He smoothes another page, uncurls another dog-eared corner and admits with a grin that he might be the last of the Mohicans.
There’s that laugh again.
story by Gloria Slater
photos by Jerah Augello
Gloria Slater lives in Scottsville, reports for the Honeoye Falls-Mendon Sentinel and has a humor column in The Livingston County News.