The last book restorer of Saigon

Vo Van Rang has been restoring books for 40 years, and is now the only person doing it in Saigon.

He lives and works in a small alley off Ly Chinh Thang, District 3. Customers call the 60-year-old a “book doctor.”

At the age of 15 he learned how to restore books while working for a printing press owned by his friend’s family. Then, after finishing high school in 1978, he did not go to university and instead went to work for a press owned by a cooperative, where he bound new books and restored old ones.

He says: “When I was two years old polio damaged my right leg permanently. I chose the career of bookbinding because it was appropriate considering my health condition.”

He uses different techniques to restore a book, depending on its condition. However, most books that come to his table are in really bad shape and need a total makeover. With books like that, he must carefully remove the pages, clean them gently and sew them back together.

He says book restoration used to be popular in the 1980s. At that time there were many bibliophiles who often brought books to him for restoration. Then, with the advent of the Internet, the habit of reading books declined and he had fewer and fewer customers. But even in his heyday, when there were many customers, his work could not make him wealthy.

“All the steps are done by hand and so it takes a lot of time to restore a book. I cannot do more even if I wanted to: a few books a day is the maximum.”

Book restoring is a profession that requires care and patience. “A lot of books here are from the 1960s. The papers are very old, and a little carelessness will rip them.”

His tools are very simple: glue, needle, thread, and a paper cutting machine he had bought from the press owner 20 years ago.

Rang’s customers are usually older people, used book sellers and book collectors. But there was a special customer five years ago he remembers to this day. A boy in primary school came with his father to his shop and asked him to repair a book whose pages were coming off. When he asked the boy why he did not buy a new book since that would be cheaper, he replied he wanted to keep the book because it was a gift from his teacher.

On average, he restores three to five books a day. He charges VND20,000-50,000 per book ($0.8-2.1) depending on the level of damage.

“I have no wife or kids, and so this job is enough for me to live on. I would have quit if I had got married.”

He reveals that one of his secrets is using glue made from tapioca, which is better than normal glue and allows him to adjust pages even when wet.

He is most satisfied when the customers ask him to restore books to their original state without replacing the cover.

“I get to read many great books while doing this job. Thanks to that, I have gained a lot of knowledge.”

His customers are usually used book sellers like Tan, who has a store in District 1.

“I have two books that were badly damaged, but after Rang repaired them, they are very solid,” Tan says.

Rang stops working at 4 p.m. every day. His fingers are tired after work, and to soothe them he often plays the guitar.

“My singing is not good, and so I usually listen to singers on TV and play the guitar to their rhythm.”