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Bound to books in Eagle County

Charlie Owen
HL Helmut Fricker1 KA 05-20-08
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When books get sick, they go to Helmut Fricker. He fancies himself a doctor of old books; if they’re literally falling apart at the seams, he fixes them. He works in the basement of his Eagle home, in a workshop littered with Bibles, cookbooks and historical literature that date back to the early 1700’s. Stacks of colored leather sheets, thread and manuscript paper line one wall of the room and in the center stands his workbench, cluttered with odd-looking tools as old as their 71-year-old owner. His current project ” at any given time he is working on several ” is an old, heavy-looking Bible. Fricker was commissioned by the owner to rebind the cover to the pages. He once restored a book worth more than $60,000 for a guy in New York.

“I get books from people all over the world and I get so much work and I’ll never finish it in my lifetime,” Fricker said. And it all comes to him through word of mouth.

When he was a boy growing up in Germany, Fricker had a choice: Go to high school or finish elementary school and learn a trade. He chose a trade, that of a bookbinder ” a skill that can be traced back to the 15th century. He studied for five years as an apprentice and finally became a master bookbinder in 1955. Ever since he has stayed close to his trade/hobby and now he is the one teaching an apprentice, Vicki Medall of North Carolina.

Most know Fricker as the jolly, alpenhorn blowing, lederhosen-wearing mascot of Beaver Creek. He has been working for the mountain since it opened in 1980 and claims to be the first employee. But there is more than meets the eye with this man.

Behind closed doors he labors over disintegrating volumes cherished by the owners. His hands delicately work needle and thread through heavy pages in an effort to restore the works to their original glory. Depending on the work needed on a particular tome, he may have to guild a cover with gold designs or clean old stains and blemishes from its pages. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a new book look ancient. The hand-crafted details he puts into his work take a lot of time, patience and talent.

“That’s where the profession comes in,” Fricker said.

When restoring a book, he only uses materials and binding styles related to the books age. He trys hard to make a book look exactly like it would in the era it was printed.

Peter Geraty, owner of Praxis Bookbindery in Easthampton, Mass., has been a professional bookbinder for more than 30 years and understands why people still seek out the kinds of services that he and Fricker offer.

“There is a tactile difference, there’s an aesthetic difference, there’s a smell, there’s a look; it works on a lot of subliminal levels to make you feel that you’re holding something that’s rather special,” Geraty said.

But Fricker doesn’t just restore old works, he also creates new ones. Atop his workbench sits a wooden sewing frame which he is using to stitch together what will eventually be a guest book for a wedding. Fancy photo albums, leather-bound furniture and wooden signs are parts of his work that keep him busier than he can handle.

Two of Fricker’s original books are on display at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail. One is a register of their benefactors, the other is a scrap book of Betty Ford’s personal letters from longtime locals and national dignitaries.

“You just don’t see stuff like this everywhere … you can sense that it’s going to be around a lot longer than any other book in your library,” said Stephen Wood, media liaison for Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. “This is hand-made, hand-crafted artwork with a higher purpose.”

All that said, what does the future of professional bookbinding and restoration look like?

“It’s actually a dying art,” Fricker said, saying there aren’t many people who want to carry on the traditional bookbinding craft.

Geraty disagrees, saying that in his building alone there are five businesses that perform the same kind of hand-bound, artistic services that Fricker does. There’s also a number of college courses across the country that teach the trade, Geraty said.

But even Geraty acknowledged the work done by German-trained bookbinders is often-times superior to modern techniques.

“The regimen that they had for doing stuff was just perfect, you know, they really were highly-trained artisans,” Geraty said.

Whether or not bookbinding is a “dying art,” Fricker said that there will always be people who wish to preserve their family heirlooms and historic documents.

And Fricker said he will keep doing it as long as he can.

“You have to love it or leave it, otherwise you’ll never be successful,” Fricker said.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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