Step into the small building on Hurfus Drive in Houston which houses Bella Becho Book and Print Bindery, and it feels almost as if you’ve been transported to another world. The cozy foyer, a semi-circular room that surrounds you with floor-to-ceiling shelves of specialty books and albums, is warm and inviting. Leather-bound Bibles and memory books lay open for browsing. This is clearly not an inexpensive, run-of-the-mill book binding factory. This is the kind of place that caters to people who are looking for something special.
Bella Becho is the brainchild of owner Deborah Karchmer, a petite brunette with a wide smile whose friendliness welcomes customers of all types, but who privately admits that she would be just as happy staying behind the scenes. Fourteen years ago, her creativity and passion for helping people preserve their memories led her to start a small custom photo album business run from her kitchen table. Today, Bella Becho is one of the top book bindery companies in the United States.
Looking around the client area and in the back rooms where they make and repair the books, one might think this business is all about paper and ink, or perhaps the beautiful suedes and cowhide that so many customers opt for as book covers. After five minutes with Deborah, though, it’s clear that to her, Bella Becho is all about people.
“It’s so rewarding,” she says. “You know, the people that come in, sometimes they’re really troubled. Sometimes they’re very happy. We celebrate all the moments [of their lives].”
Deborah continues, “These days, you know, everyone thinks that everything is digital. That’s why the book has become so special. It’s not just a commodity anymore, right? It’s treasured.”
She immediately takes us back to the vestibule to show us some examples of books that were made to honor people at various milestones of their lives, such as birthdays or retirement.
“See, now this is the guy who started Express, Michael Weiss. There he is, wearing his famous glasses. So what we did was do a blind deboss of his glasses on the cover,” she explained.
She pulls out another book. “Look at this man, he’s almost 100 years old and he’s skydiving! This is a story of his life and the people who love him. His name is Jackson Grayson, one of the founders of The Houstonian and a big philanthropist. People in his organization wanted the story of his life, and they had a party to celebrate it. In the back, you’ll notice there’s a little box for notes and cards.”
The foyer’s books are full of stories, some of famous people and some of just ordinary folk. Deborah pulls one that was used as a wedding proposal, and another that served as an invitation for Jennifer Lopez to come perform at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. Some are made while the people are alive, whereas others are made to commemorate the lives of loved ones after they have passed away.
And while making books is a staple of the business, many customers utilize Bella Becho for repairing existing books like family Bibles, yearbooks, cookbooks, and children’s books.
“If you can make a book, you can fix a book. So people come in and they have a special book. Maybe their mom or dad or grandfather wrote something on the inside of the book, but they’re going to do everything they can to save that signature. And we can do that,” Deborah said.
Deborah walks to the back of the shop, over to a rack filled with a variety of books with order slips attached, and explains the typical repair process.
“Most people will find us on the Internet. So people will come in, they will bring their book if they’re local, which is great. Otherwise, they ship them in.”
“Once they arrive, back here they get opened and they get quarantined. We then call the customer (or meet with them, if they are local and came into the shop) and have a consult to review their options and confirm their order.”
Deborah’s husband Jeff, a business attorney who also handles the website for Bella Becho, explained that people’s first choice in book restoration is whether to have a new cover made or to save the existing cover.
“A lot of people are trying to salvage the [original] cover because it has sentimental value. We use different techniques based on the circumstances. With some books, we can use the ‘splice’ method, in which we create a new spine and then splice the cover and the new spine together,” Jeff explained. “If the cover is too thin to splice, we seat the original cover and spine into a ‘well’ frame. This is a newer, state-of-the-art technique we got into awhile back, and people love it.”
While keeping the original cover is certainly an option, Deborah says she often recommends creating a new cover. It is less expensive for the customer, and with a large selection of cover materials to choose from and a graphic design department that can recreate printed covers, the results are often similar to the original, only better.
“Like here is a Bible that is old and needs to be redone. We are going to make a replica of this. So we’re going to go for a grainy black leather, just like on the original, and then we’re going to mimic exactly the gold Holy Bible stamp here. The only thing we’re adding new is the name of [the customer’s] grandfather.”
The next step in the process is to examine the pages to see if any of them need to be repaired using an archival tissue paper that is laid over the original page and binds it together. If a page can’t be repaired by tissuing it, then Bella Becho can replicate it digitally and replace that page in the rebound book. Once again, however, this is a customer decision.
“See the tape here on this page. Sometimes if it’s old enough, it will just pop off. If not, we can just tissue over it. We don’t want to take anything away. If we wanted to, we could recreate and replace this page, but [the customer] doesn’t want that. He wants this page just the way it is, because grandpa put this here with his hand.”
From tissuing to trimming to stitching, there are a number of steps that go into or repairing each book, which can be unique to each project.
“Everything is segmented. Because there are so many steps, I tried to count once, and it was ridiculous. So rather than have a station for each step, I created an assembly line of little buckets of duties,” Deborah said.
While some of the books Bella Becho repairs are just old, others are in need of repair due to storm damage or because of the specific materials used in the original books. One example is Art Leather, which was a popular brand of wedding album in the second half of the 20th century. The covers are made of a synthetic imitation leather that can break down and get sticky as it ages, so Bella Becho now does a lot of business replacing those covers. Bella Becho also rebinds custom memory books designed and purchased online, which look beautiful but often separate from the binding because the pages are glued in rather than stitched.
“The glue dissolves, or they used animal glue and little bugs eat that because it’s sweet,” Deborah explained. “Our books are going to last because we stitch them. Nobody’s going to eat that thread.”
As we prepare to leave, I contemplate the amount of emotion going into creating and repairing these special books and ask Deborah if there is one story that stands out from all of her years in this business. She shares a story of Dr. Bob, a small-town emergency room doctor.
“He was telling me about a lady who told him she was dying. He said to her, ‘You have the dwindles. You’re not dying. I would tell you if you were dying.’ He’s very straight up with her. He didn’t think she was physically dying, but he had a feeling because she was so sure she was dying.”
Deborah continued, “So anyway, she started reading the Bible. It was in pieces, and since we had done work for him several time before, he sent it to me. He was like, ‘Can you fix it, and can you fix it fast?’ I told him yes, and so we did. He gave it to her, and he said she was very emotional. So he gets emotional. Then I’m emotional. So we’re crying on the phone. And you know, he said that it was just a few hours later that she died. But he said she died with a smile on her face.”