‘I Love Old Men’ by Jennifer Geraedts

I love old men. Let me clarify that. First of all, not all old men –  not the perverts and the creeps. Second, by old, I mean old – at least 80. While people in their sixties and seventies are hardly considered middle age anymore, I wouldn’t call them old. I’m talking about old men. I like old women too, but there’s something about an old man. Women tend to get feisty, men tend to soften. I’m aware too that my fondness for old men may have something to do with the fact that I don’t talk with old men every day. It’s like eating an ice cream cone outside on a hot day. If you live in Minnesota like I do, this is something special. It’s not possible most of the year, so when it is possible, it’s special. Should my husband and I be so lucky to live into our 80s, and I’m spending a lot of time with an old man, well, it just may lose its charm. But for now, I love old men.

I’ve known some wonderful old men. When I decided I wanted to learn bookbinding, I discovered there was a bookbinder in a town about 50 miles from my house. I called him because he had no website and therefore I had no idea what his email address was, so I was forced to either show up unannounced in person – no thank you for this introvert – or call on the phone, cold calling also not being a favorite activity of an introvert, but what to do. I called and an old person answered the phone. I wasn’t entirely sure if it was a person of the male or female variety. It was either a woman with grit or a man who once sang tenor. It turned out to be a man named David. I explained that I wanted to learn bookbinding and asked if he would mentor me. He agreed. I began making trips, usually weekly, to see David and learn the craft. He wasn’t all that forthcoming about his family. I knew he’d been married at one time but whether that relationship ended in death or divorce, he never told me. But I wasn’t there to talk about family, I was there to learn about repairing books. I once asked him what equipment he owned when he started bookbinding and he told me, “A pair of scissors.” I often think of that when I’m grumbling about a lack of a tool – David started with a pair of scissors, I can do this.

David was a fantastic teacher; I say this because he was patient. When I came to him for the first meeting, he was literally getting a blank slate, I didn’t know a thing about book binding, printing presses or other base knowledge you might hope for in a student. I’m not terribly mechanically inclined. If I take a clock apart, I end up with clock parts, never to be a clock again. How electricity or gravity or simple machines work is a mystery to me. I just knew I wanted to learn book binding. David had to repeat himself. A lot. Not once did he intimate that perhaps this might be a skill out of my grasp. He found kind things to say to me. Once he said to me, “I can tell you love and respect books by the careful way you handle them.” I tried not to visibly puff with pride. At one point I said to David, “Now, I want to be very clear that, you know, once I learn the craft, I plan to start repairing books as part of the bookstore business, so you know, that would kind of put us in compet–” and before I could finish the sentence he pointed a finger in my face and said, “Don’t you worry about that!”

We fell into a routine. I would arrive, David would greet me with a kiss on the cheek, we’d work, we’d stop for lunch – provided by David, a bit of a risk because David’s eye sight was failing and his dish washing skills were compromised. We’d listen to the radio while we ate. One time, early in our meetings, the radio station was tuned to a famous radio personality that I did not care for – someone whose politics I consider offensive. I didn’t say anything however – this was David’s bindery, lunch, and radio. Suddenly, David said, “What the heck is this crap?” and turned the dial. I was so relieved. After lunch, we’d work some more and then David would kiss my cheek goodbye and I’d leave. One time, we were at a bit of a stopping point – book binding involves a lot of waiting, you have to wait for glue to dry – and I said, “Now what?” Without missing a beat, David replied, “Now, we pick glue from our fingers the rest of the day.”

David was old school. At the time I was learning from him was shortly after all televisions were converted to digital from analog. Anyone who didn’t make the conversion was unable to watch TV. David told me, “This timing worked out well for me. I’ve been frustrated because the TV was cutting into my reading time, so I didn’t convert so now I can’t watch TV and I can read more.” David, having once been in the newspaper business, read a number of newspapers every day, so to keep up with his reading was a serious endeavor.

One time when I arrived to spend time with David, he had hand-written for me a list of bookbinding qualities. I keep those qualities posted on the wall in my bindery. Here are David’s list of qualities:

  • Patience
  • Caring – both for the author of the book and the owner of the book
  • Visualization
  • Attention to detail
  • Perfectionism
  • Courage – try something new
  • Planning – if this doesn’t work, then what?
  • Reverence for tradition – to a point
  • Respect for the book
  • Respect for the book owner
  • Original preservation – insofar as possible
  • Precision – when important
  • Consistency in practice
  • Creativity – in design and implementation
  • Acceptance of modern technology

One day, David called me to let me know he needed to take a break from our lessons. He’d had an episode with his heart and was recovering.

Some time later, I got a call from a woman who introduced herself as Christine. She was David’s daughter. David had died. I felt like I’d been sucker punched, which is ridiculous – David was 82 years old and struggling with heart issues, but I was still surprised. I’d grown so attached to this little man. We hadn’t finished my training. Christine was lovely to talk to – as much as I hated the reason for her call, I enjoyed chatting with her. To my surprise, she also offered to sell me David’s entire bindery, from the scraps of paper to the enormous paper cutter that we lovingly call the guillotine, to the hot stamp presses for a price I could afford. Had I known the future pleasures of working on the machinery that I learned the craft on, the machinery that had been used by my mentor, I would have paid double the asking price, which would have required begging, borrowing, and stealing on my part, but I gladly would have. My dad, husband, and I set up a time to meet with David’s son at the bindery to load up all the equipment. It was no easy feat. Most of this equipment had been made at a time when equipment weighed a minimum of 2 tons each. Even more difficult was getting the tools and equipment organized once we unloaded it in the basement of the bookstore. Organization has never been my strong suit. If you ask me to make a messy room presentable, I’ll usher you out of the room and close the door. With David’s, now my, equipment and tools scattered about me, I felt myself spinning in circles, no idea where to begin. My eyes fell on a knife. I knew that knife. That knife should be with a laying press. One of the early steps in repairing a book is to strip the book of its cover, secure the text block – which is a fancy word for naked book or book with no cover – in the laying press spine side up and scrape off the old glue and bindings with a knife. This knife. It was a start. I knew one thing. I could figure out the rest.

I went to David’s funeral. At one point, the minister held up a book that was barely in one piece. The minister said, “This was David’s bible. He was a bookbinder for God’s sake and look at his bible!”

Months, maybe a year or so, after David died, I was invited by a local organization to do a presentation on bookbinding. Part of my presentation of course included my time with David. To my great surprise, when I told the group that David died, I choked up. I mean, really choked up, as in my throat completely sealed. The gracious host simply stood, handed me a tissue and said, “While Jennifer recomposes herself, let me tell you about this wonderful event that the bookstore recently hosted…” What a gift.

There’s an inherent problem with old men and you know what it is – their life expectancy is seriously compromised. Being middle-aged, I expect to outlive any wonderful old men I meet. And yet, so what. I don’t turn away the ice cream cone on a hot day because it won’t last. You better believe I even get a second scoop sometimes. I’ll keep on loving these old men while I can.