Iron Ink Books – Independent Publishing • Omaha, Nebraska

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September 15th, 2021

Sewing And Stamping And Binding Oh My!

The place is dark though well-lit. The light comes in through large windows facing Vinton Street and then dies out into a darker light that shines down from half-lit fluorescent lights tucked between ceiling tiles.

The ceiling tiles bulge in odd places from years of water damage and hang as if on the verge of collapse like large saltine crackers that have been soaked-through and dried-out and left to crumble at the slightest touch. Below them a darkness rises up from the dark wood floor stained through with glue and cigarette ash and the trails of worn-out souls. And the darkness covers the walls, too, in rows of old books rebound and forgotten, the dust that covers them older than your grandfathers pocket lint. Between are the pages sewn across three generations toward their own possible finality. The first time I entered the place I took a shot of tequila and didn’t come back for nearly a month.

It was early April when I first called Capitol Bindery. The sun finally warmed and had some effect on the white landscape, revealing a floor of punctured asphalt and fractured concrete. I called looking for a smyth machine to sew A WE THING. I wanted the book to have that same quality of earlier children’s books, back before they started using glue to bind the signatures together instead of thread. Kevin Brown answered and then turned me away. He didn’t have what I was looking for. Or so I thought. It was only after a night out at Second Friday that I began to frequent the place.

I remember standing among the semi-circle of chairs near the front door. I could hear the voices around me as I stared past the sounds out over the long stretch of this bibliodashery and began to write in my mind my curiosities and wonder. There were stacks of books covering the long tables and large rolls of material stacked at the far end—leather and buckram and all sorts of paper cut from the same tree but with different teeth—and there were large drawers of typefaces and patterned dies scattered about the place, many of them strewn about the three hot foil stampers that spelled out in anagrams a secret language bought from old binderies or from Morris Dolgoff himself whom Kevin’s grandfather bought the bindery from when he returned to Omaha after the Korean War.

In my eyes the colors of the bindery became grey and brown and green with its yellow light and strange hues of possibility brought forth by my own hands into tangible objects to be held and read and shared.

The mystery and magic consumed me.

Months later I came back to see what I could make of the place.

“I’m a terrible teacher,” Kevin told me as his hands disagreed.

I watched his trembling hands like someone with dementia who sits down at a piano and begins to play the delicate and somber songs of Chopin or Bill Evans. They became articulate and purposeful while always with a cigarette between two fingers, the small grey rivulet of smoke ascending upward. I watched those hands strip book blocks from their tattered covers and place them in a press for their spines to be scraped clean of old glue and mousseline, right down to the pages, and then those hands weaved needle and thread between torn signatures of the classics or old family bibles.

Oh the bibles! how they come in droves! Stacks and stacks of them in Spanish and English with little written notes in the margins to be preserved as if great-grandmother’s rosary were in there somewhere with a thousand worries and prayers, and all of them falling apart at the seams and they bring them here for salvation as if the death of the book itself would erase all of Genesis through Ecclesiastes. In the beginning was the Word that withers in time and then grows again upon the page! And I watched as the old bookbinder breathed new life into them. They were resurrected by his hands. He turned to me when they were completed and says,

“I better be getting some fucking bonus points for fixing all these damn bibles,” and laughs easy.

The oversew machine hums in contemplation. I nod in agreement with the old master knowing that’s not how it works. He knows too. And when the books and bibles are sewn tight with new end-sheets and the spine is glued to new branded material, it is returned to the owner like a newborn baby washed clean, containing all the wisdom written in its pages.

The bindery isn’t always like this. Most days are monotonous with the tearing of guts from scientific journals to be bound and catalogued year after year. Or investment reports foil stamped at the end of the month to be passed around oblong tables at board meetings and then later tossed in the trash come the following month. Most jobs are to keep the doors open, leaving potential hanging around like an old winter coat in California. Imagination yawns. Stretches out. Lays with the dust. Gets swept up in monthly bills and conversations with John from two doors down whose talk is guttural and dry like Noam Chomsky. Kevin takes a smoke break between cigarettes. Makes more coffee. Changes the music from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Frank Zappa.

I take a seat at the front and watch the world go by including the drunk from Louis M’s Burger Lust at ten in the morning. I think of all the small movements between the major works of my life and realize where I have grasped and been grasped at. Shaken around. Rattled for good measure. I come to the conclusion that this is one where I’ve been grasped while grasping in a strange arm wrestling match with God or the universe or whatever is you want to call it. I recognize the opportunity like an unlocked door.

There is something hidden in the place. Something forgotten. And sometimes I can find hints of it snooping around, lifting up stacks of binders board or behind the cobwebs of oddities and relics in the corners of the bindery’s past. I find glimpses among the large cutter and foil stampers. Between conversations with Joe, that old Italian from Rhode Island with all of New England coming out of the side of his mouth. Joe who went to Boys Town and played Defensive Back and could lift 225, “no problem.”

Joe now fragile with cancer and thin red beard and smiling eyes who talks of old movies and says, “I love them old westerns, man. Ha ha. Oh man, the way they’d hang your ass for stealing a horse. Ha! Wow. They’d fucking hang your ass for just that. Boom. Dead. Ha ha. Oh yea, man. I love that shit,” as he blows grey smoke about the place. I find it here and there when John has gone away or the customers stop coming in and there’s nothing else to do. I find it there between the dark wood floor and dim lighting and the humming doldrums of the mundane, right there in the middle of all the paper products and their possibilities.

Capitol Bindery is the story of hands and razor knives and glue.

It is the story of needle and thread and the heritage of literature lovers. It is the story of creation and rebirth on the lower level of a two-story building that hugs the outside edge as Vinton curves east towards Iowa. It is dead ahead on the long stretch once you’ve rounded the bend at Vinton Street apartments, past El Queztal Market and International Bakery, where the street begins to grow dark in sepia tones and the air smells sweet like corn. Not the corn of Nebraska, but the maize of Sinaloa or perhaps Tamaulipas and Veracruz.

And you can imagine it there as it stood long ago along a dirt road with the old street lanterns dimly lit in the night, like someplace like Winesburg, Ohio, when the inhabitants were Polish and Irish and of Eastern European descent with the coming of the Union Stockyard.

And as I write this now on Fowler Avenue, as the bells from St. James Catholic Church off  90th street clamor in the soft daylight of a Tuesday afternoon, I can see that the future of the Bindery will be one without bibles and reports stamped for approval. I’ve seen it after I’ve scraped a line of that thick dust with my fingernail. And what lies beneath it are the proverbs of imagination and potential written by those who can dream up something holy new, who can sew the signatures of their minds and bind them for all the world to read. And it will be waiting there for them once they can see it for themselves. I will be too. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Amen.



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