An Ancient Art Kept Alive by a Wordly Caretaker
Photo Courtesy of: Margie Miller
Mike Arnold, known as the “book craftsman” serves a valuable niche market out of his location, The Book Craftsman. He offers specialty book-binding and restoration services.
By Margie Miller of Grand Terrace
Mike Arnold is the current caretaker of a shop that is truly one of a kind. The one-time attorney’s “retirement gig” is as a “book craftsman”, a unique craft routinely practiced long ago that is now an almost forgotten art. The company binds and restores, by hand, many kinds of books both for individuals and institutions. Family Bibles and many other kinds of written materials are lovingly restored here. The eclectic shop has all manner of fonts, dyes, stamps, presses, machinery, leather pieces and scraps, and anything else that is essential to the art of book binding and restoration. Much of the equipment is 100 years old or older. It is very fascinating just to come in and look around. The affable, charismatic, and knowledgeable Arnold has quite an interesting background. In his youth he mined diamonds under the sea off the coast of southwest Africa. He also serves on the boards of the Redlands Yucaipa Guidance Clinic, the San Bernardino Symphony, and the Redlands Chamber Music Society, as well as serving as the President of “Habitat for Humanity” in San Bernardino County. Not too long ago he spent time with Jimmy Carter in Tijuana, where he helped build 100 homes. Arnold came to America in 1967 on a whim, and stayed. He left school in England when he was 14 and talked his way into college when he was 27, at UC Riverside. From there he went to USC Law School. Arnold purchased the company about five years ago – he used to have books bound there, and he knew the prior owner. An example of the company’s work that gives Arnold so much pride is a $1,500 leather-bound volume highlighting famous local woodcrafter Sam Maloof’s beautiful work. There is also a less pricey paperback version that goes for $16.00. “He produced gorgeous work – including $75,000 rocking chairs,” Arnold says of Maloof. Arnold possesses two of the books, signed by Maloof himself. The Book Craftsman, located in Mentone, California, received a large family Bible from Pretoria, South Africa that the shop bound, then shipped back. The shop charged $520 for their work, and shipping cost $1,200. “The customer was delighted” with their work, said Arnold. Restoration of rare and valuable books is indeed an important area of the store’s emphasis. A recent example is a 1627 Bible brought in by a distraught owner. He had returned home from vacation, only to find vandals had entered the home, thrown books (including the Bible) on the basement floor, and left a faucet running, which flooded the entire area. The Book Craftsman immediately froze the Bible to deter mold, then shipped it to New York to be freeze-dried (by the same company that had freeze-dried documents recovered from the Titanic.) Upon its return to the Mentone shop, the now bone-dry Bible was carefully taken apart, covered in leather, dyed where necessary to form a match with the original leather, and returned in beautifully restored condition to its grateful owner. Another specialty of the shop is the binding of new manuscripts. During the academic year, many hundreds of dissertations and theses are bound for graduate students, “most of whom seem to have left everything to the last second. Some things never change,” says Arnold. The shop also supplies slip cases and clam shell covers for protection of rare and valuable books. Recent commissions have been to supply this type of cover for first editions of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a mint condition copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and a special edition (pre-first edition) of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, signed by the author. They have also bound an old Harper’s Magazine, 50 years of National Geographics, professional journals, family genealogies, dissertations, and students’ papers. A coffee table book was made out of a tattered copy of the newspaper issued the day after the Titanic sank. The Book Craftsman was first established in 1931 by Wesley Aplanalp, a Swiss immigrant who worked out of his garage in Yucaipa. He died in 1988 shortly after selling the business to Donald Morrill, who had been a farmer and who learned the basics of book binding from Aplanalp during a three-month period. Morrill added to his sum of knowledge greatly over the next fifteen years, dying in 2003. Afterwards his widow, Joan Morrill, ran The Book Craftsman until she sold it to Arnold. Master book binder Ben Gonzales, who has been working at the craft for over fifty years, is currently in charge of the shop. In his twenties, he bound books for John F. Kennedy, and later on as owner of his own shop in Mexico, he worked on a book restoration for Pope John Paul II. The staff also consists of people in their teens and twenties, who no doubt feel privileged to have the opportunity to learn this beautiful and rare craft. As far as Arnold knows, there aren’t many others who are doing this kind of work. “I know there is an elderly lady in Apple Valley who works out of her garage, but she can’t take on much work. The only other people I know who do this type of work are in Los Angeles.” The Book Craftsman occupies the unique position of a business that is simultaneously preserving the memories of the past while keeping up with the present. As a flyer for the shop gracefully puts it, “As long as a need for artistic creation and loving restoration survives, so will The Book Craftsman.”