Book conservator Domonique Alesi of Collingswood caters to collectors of high-end volumes and those preserving family heirlooms. Her shop invites readers to slow down and experience a handmade process.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 24, 2022
To step into Domonique Alesi’s Book Restoration Bindery is to take a step back in time.
Descending into the shop at 8 King’s Court in Haddonfield, the atmosphere takes on the weight of years.
Awash in the same dark green and muted blue tones as many of the volumes that line the heavy, wooden bookshelves in the shop, its walls are offset by a border spool that harkens to Victorian-era parlors, images of plants and wildlife nested within.
Soft classical music plays beneath hanging bouquets of dried flowers; an overstuffed couch invites lingering. Even with a view to the streetscape beyond, it’s just as easy to get lost in the various curios and ephemera within the storefront.
Some of these antique items are functional, like the jars of dry wheatpaste and collagen, gilding tools, and book presses with which Alesi plies her trade. Others are purely decorative, like the shadowboxes that show off her flair for papercraft.
A graduate of the University of the Arts, where she studied illustration and book arts, Alesi had planned to work in museum settings before an apprenticeship with book restorer David Donahue of Philadelphia set her upon her current path.
Her lifelong love of books comes from a recognition of the fundamental sensory connection between the ideas that line the printed page and the physical weight of the volumes that contain them. Book Restoration Bindery was established to renew those generational interactions.
“When you read, books start to hold all the memories that you have of where you were when you read them,” Alesi said.
“When I was 12, I read a book called Ink Art,” she said.
“[The author] describes the bookbinding process, and I fell in love with it.
“That’s when I got the idea of saving a book and caring about a book.
“I still loved art, still loved books, went into illustration,” Alesi said. “But I also love history, and I love objects telling stories in history, and their places in history.
“I appreciate the books that come in that have historical significance, or are fine and beautiful, but I also love the books that come in and have a sentimental story.”
Alesi’s clients range from book collectors who entrust her with the restoration of classic works, to family Bibles with genealogies between the New and Old Testaments, to cookbooks stuffed with handwritten notes from mom. These are histories writ large and small, and she treats each with equal care.
Some clients commission Alesi to preserve a significant work for shelving or for sale, and others for re-reading. Her work lies in assessing the condition of these volumes and the underlying techniques with which they were originally constructed. Conservation, as she explains it, involves stabilizing the book by working in a way that can be undone by a later book worker.
“You have to use the right adhesives and materials so that you’re not doing further damage to the book,” Alesi said.
“In an academic setting, books are usually conserved; in a library, someone needs to be able to pick up the book and see what has been done to it.
“That means hiding the repair work that we did, and making sure it blends into the original material, keeping its age and somewhat of its wear,” she said.
“We match color; we match texture. You want it to look its age, but be functional.”
All the books in the shop are for sale, from classic mythology collections to a publisher’s copy of Jayne Eyre, complete with author Charlotte Brontë’s pseudonym, Currer Bell, on the cover.
Titles range from $20 to several thousand dollars for a book like Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, finished by renowned bookbinders Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London.
Alesi’s work is of a piece with those, and in keeping with the traditions that underpin them. She belongs to the Guild of Bookworkers, a 116-year-old trade organization established in the belief “that there is a responsibility among civilized people to sustain the crafts involved with the production of fine books.”
“You’re supposed to keep a certain value to the craft,” she said. “This is such a dying art—and such a hard art to keep alive—you want to make sure that we’re all working together to keep it alive.
“I wanted to be able to be a broker and a binder, and I was having trouble finding an outlet for that, so I created one,” Alesi said.
“I hope to be able to provide for other people like me as well.”
Alesi settled in downtown Haddonfield because she hopes to foster appreciation for her craft within its historic community, while establishing a place to potentially cultivate a community of binders who share her passion for the work.
“I would like the front end to be an educational space for people to talk about books and appreciate literature and history in an accessible way,” she said.
“That’s very important to me, because I know it can be intimidating to go into an institution, whereas if this is in your town, you can come in and get your foot wet as opposed to signing up for a lecture.
“My goal is to have books that are attainable and collectible, but introduce people to viewing a book as a piece of art, as a piece of history to collect and preserve,” Alesi said.
“It’s not that I wanted to own my own business,” she said. “I just wanted this to exist.”
Book Restoration Bindery is located at 8 King’s Court in Haddonfield. For more information, call 856-419-8604 or visit bookrestorationbindery.com.
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