HCM City's last bookbinder keeps craft alive

June 28, 2020 - 09:53

Twenty to 25 years ago, when the internet was not as well developed as it is now in Việt Nam, a bookbinder was still a famous high-paying job.


With meticulous care and a great love for books, Võ Văn Rạng has been restoring old books for more than 40 years in HCM City. —VNS Photo Xuân Đăng

Xuân Đăng

Twenty to 25 years ago, when the Internet was not as well developed as it is now in Việt Nam, a bookbinder was still a famous high-paying job.

Võ Văn Rạng, now the last bookbinder in HCM City, was one of them. Over the past 40 years, Rạng has helped restore and preserve thousands of books. His house in the small alley at 152 Lý Chính Thắng Street in District 3 is known by every bookworm as a reputable spot for book repair.

“When I was a high school student, I worked for a printing house owned by my friend’s family. At that time, I just worked for fun, but thanks to this job, I fell in love with books,” Rạng said. 

“After finishing high school, I did not go to university and instead continued to do this work. My right leg was paralyzed after a bad fever when I was three years old, so this job is appropriate considering my health condition,” Rạng added.

He worked for a printing press owned by the cooperative where he could read new books and restore old ones.

“At that time, many friends of mine also did this job. Time flies, and afterwards some of them opened a photocopy shop, and some found new jobs to have enough money to take care of their family. I was the only one who kept the job,” Rạng said.

“I have no wife and kids, so I can live well with the money from this job.”

Piles of books are found in every corner of Rạng's house, waiting to be restored and wear a new cover again.

“I love this job because it gives me a chance to be able to read as many books as I can. People come here and give me their books to be restored, so I always have books to read as well,” he said.  

Every day starting at 8am, Rạng breathes new life into old books.

“This job requires me to be meticulous, so I can't repair the books immediately. Sometimes, it takes me two to three a day to fix just one book, depending on the condition of the book,” he said. 

Most of the books that customers give him are in very bad shape, some with severe damage that the owner thought was irreversible.

Most of the steps in bookbinding are done by hand.

“First, I have to check the physical condition of the book. Then I unbind the book, rearrange each page, sew them back together, and rebind them. This is a sophisticated and meticulous process which takes a lot of time,” Rạng said.

“The hardest step is removing paper. It requires patience because without it, the paper will tear apart more, and it will take more time and effort to restore it.

“Some books are very old and they easily fall apart whenever I touch them. In those cases, I need to be more careful.” 

His working tools are simple: Some clips, scissors, knives, needles, and threads. But his secret “weapon” is home-made glue made from cassava flour.

“It is not like industrial glue. Paper sticks together firmly,” he said.

“There are many ways to resew the book, depending on the thickness of the book. You can sew four double pages or eight double pages together. When sewing pages together, you need to avoid the old needle line to prevent it from tearing apart again.”

Rạng added: “Customers bring old books here, and most of them are memorable books from their grandparents and parents. They treasure the memories of the books, so they want to restore them. Even if the books have another copy, they still want to keep the old ones because they can keep the memories.” 

On average, he restores three to five books a day. He charges VNĐ20,000-50,000 per book (US$0.5-2.0) depending on the level of damage.

Nowadays, fewer people are interested in reading physical books and prefer to read online, so Rạng is slowly being forgotten. However, he still finds happiness in taking care of old books and living with them every day. VNS