Books are the very foundation of civilization, but with today’s internet, social media and e-books and their devices — not to mention the threat of artificial intelligence — do they have a future? It is an interesting and timely question for debate, one posed by readers, authors, bookstore owners, publishers and librarians. I was not surprised to see a journalist address the topic in a recent Esquire article, “What’s the Future of Books?”

 

One local man, Johnny Ross Machycek, is not so much interested in the publication of new books as he is in the future of old books. Johnny’s father, John D. Machycek, founded J&B Quality Book Bindery in the Landmark community on the south side of Little Rock in 1976, and Johnny has worked there since he turned 19. For nearly half a century now, the Machyceks have taken in old and damaged volumes and made them whole again.

 

The elder Machycek moved to central Arkansas from Texas as a young man and worked for years at Little Rock Book Bindery, one of half a dozen or so such establishments that operated in the city decades ago. When the bindery closed, he struck out on his own, taking another job to help pay off his investment in machinery. His business colleague in the early years, Betty Kitchens, was the “B” in the firm’s name.

bookends history

Given that stabilizing and restoring a vintage book can take up to 52 steps from start to finish, it is no surprise J&B Quality Book Bindery has, over the years, acquired an amazing assortment of equipment, both automated machines and a variety of handheld tools. A quick tour through the shop reveals a sewing machine (although some projects require hand-stitching), a gluing apparatus, a paper cutter, a stamping machine and several hydraulic presses. Johnny showed me a trio of short but very heavy segments of a train rail used to weigh down a book while the glue sets. The outfit even has its own hot-metal caster for producing lead type, something seldom seen in the 21st century.

 

Another old-school characteristic is the company’s approach to promotion. J&B Quality Book Bindery does not have a page on Facebook and does not have a webmaster, much less a website. What they rely on is the tried-and-true advertising technique known as word-of-mouth marketing. Some individuals have been customers for years now and refer their friends and acquaintances to Machycek.

His father retired several years ago, but Johnny has his hands full dealing with a customer base split about 50/50 between in-state and out-of-state clients, along with a handful from foreign countries. Probably three-quarters of the business these days is repairing or restoring old books, most of them family Bibles. The remaining portion of the company’s trade revolves around binding reports, maps, manuals and periodicals. Staff from the Mexican consulate in Little Rock come by regularly, needing official documents bound. Last month, Johnny put 67 theses from the graduating seniors of Pulaski Academy through the binding process, an annual occurrence. Another long-term client is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the statewide newspaper. J&B Quality Book Bindery has produced four large hardbound volumes of the paper each month since 1976.

 

Still, Bibles are the backbone of the family business. On any given day, Johnny can point to dozens of Bibles — large and small, some quite old and others of a more recent era — that require his attention. The oldest one he has worked on was dated 1611. To put that date in perspective, consider the first known performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth occurred in 1611. The word “telescope” was coined in 1611, and Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe would not name a certain outcrop on the Arkansas River “la Petite Roche” for more than a century.

bookends history

For anyone curious about the expense of hiring Johnny to restore the family’s Holy Bible, it will probably cost about $125 for an average-sized copy. Large Bibles could run anywhere from $500 to $1,000 or less if the book is in reasonably good shape. With his backlog of work, expect the restoration to take four to six weeks.

 

Collecting Arkansas-oriented books is one of my pursuits, and I have acquired a couple of examples in rough shape during my quest. The covers were in shambles, and the stitching had come undone. I took the books to Johnny, and he allowed me to observe him as he performed his specialized skills on the seemingly ancient works. He first carefully removed the covers using tools that might not have been out of place in a surgery center and set them aside. He then scraped away the old glue from the spine. Next, he replaced the front and back leaves and reattached any loose pages. After rebuilding the covers, Johnny stamped the titles on the cover and spine. The handsomely restored books, each of which required hours of labor, could easily last another couple of hundred years.

 

What I noticed while Johnny was working was his unwavering attention to detail. He is truly a genuine craftsman, maybe even an artist. For sure, he is a practitioner of a dying art.

Johnny Ross Machycek, second-generation owner of J&B Quality Book Bindery, restores Bibles and other antique books.

I should add that J&B Quality Book Bindery has its own on-site menagerie. Three cockatiels (Doubie, Trubby and Bubba), one cockatoo (Casey), and Moby, a Heinz 57 pooch, keep things lively. As for the future of J&B Quality Book Bindery, Johnny said he has got another five to 10 years of work in him. He is hopeful a grandson might express an interest in continuing the family legacy. He would also be willing to entertain the idea of an apprentice, providing he can find someone interested in producing quality results day in and day out.

 

When I asked Johnny about the best part of his job, he grinned, and said, “Lunch time!” then admitted to the sense of satisfaction he gets from returning a family heirloom.

 

“It’s great to see their faces, knowing they can use it again,” he said. “Many cannot believe it’s the same Holy Bible.”

 

I am not a big Stephen King fan, but I appreciate one of his quotes: “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” I am glad the Machyceks have been working lo these many years to keep the magic alive. 

 

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