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Fixing old books

Fixing old books — A ragged copy of ”Alice in Wonderland” gets spruced up by the ”Booklover’s Repair Kit”

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It was around teatime one day in late October, and there were four women in Estelle Ellis’ New York City apartment — our hostess, her assistant, a friend who works in book conservation at the Frick Collection, and Alice. As in Alice in Wonderland. She had seen better days. This color-illustrated 1946 hardcover copy had a loose back flyleaf, a distressed end band on its spine, and all kinds of frayed edges. I had taken Alice downtown to meet Ellis, the creator of the Booklover’s Repair Kit.

Ellis, 80, got her start in publishing on the business side of Seventeen magazine in the mid-’40s. She came up with this idea while cowriting At Home With Books, a 1995 peek into the libraries of folks from the poet Richard Howard to the guitarist Keith Richards. ”Of course, not everyone collects first editions and leather-bound volumes,” Ellis said, going into a sales pitch while the tea steeped. ”But if I want to keep the thesaurus my uncle gave me when I went off to college or the first cookbook I had when I got married — and keep them with all the smells and the stains and everything — shouldn’t I be able to?”

She got together with Wilton Wiggins and Douglas Lee, two Santa Fe bookbinders, to assemble a bibliophile’s toolbox. (Those who want to follow Alice must drop $125 down the rabbit hole of Knopf, the publisher.) There’s mending tape, mounting tape, gloves, clamps, brushes, tools, three types of eraser, and pH-neutral glue. There’s a hardcover book that includes chapters on ”Rescuing Paperback Covers” and ”Repairing and Cleaning Dust Jackets.” I fumbled with the kit, and the instructions were a bit vague, but by the end of the tea party, Alice was on the mend. Unlike her old pal Humpty-Dumpty, she was all put back together again.