If you hadn’t noticed from my recent blogging fervour, restoring second hand language books is my latest hobby obsession. There’s something beautiful about rescuing discarded treasures from forgotten bookshelves, and making them useful again. Plus, they’re dead cheap. It’s a hobby that can easily become addictive thanks to the bargains to be had.
That said, if you want a smart, tidy bookshelf, some of those books will need a little tender loving care. When first faced with slightly grubby, neglected and bashed about titles, my first thought was: how on earth do you clean a book? I mean, plain old soap and water isn’t going to help matters here; nobody wants to read a damp Teach Yourself.
Thankfully, paper-friendly clean-up isn’t too hard at all, and you may well have many of the tools at home already. Here are some of the best methods I’ve found for brushing up my ever-increasing hoard of yesteryear’s language learning resources.
By way of disclaimer, I’m no expert – just a book lover who has Googled this stuff endlessly over the past couple of months! If you’ve come across different advice or have other book-restoring tips, please let me know in the comments.
That’s the Spirit!
My number one, can’t-do-without item for sprucing up tatty books is surgical spirit. It’s excellent for cleaning glossy-cover paperbacks for a couple of reasons:
- It’s not caustic, like bleach-based or similar solutions
- It evaporates quickly, so doesn’t drench and damage pages
- It has strong antibacterial properties
For covers, I dampen a kitchen towel with some spirit and wipe outwards from the middle of the covers to the edges. Always be careful not to scuff or over-dampen the card edge. Done well, this can make glossy colour picture covers positively pop.
For book edges, you can apply some spiritual cleaning by switching to a dab technique. Moisten your cloth or towel, and simply pat the sides of the book down slightly, taking care not to rub too vigorously.
Boots do a 500ml bottle of surgical spirit for just over a fiver, and it lasts for ages.
Foxing – those little brown spots on the sides of books – used to give me the heebie-jeebies. I assumed they were organic marks, like mould, which might spread to other books.
Fortunately, foxing is almost always completely harmless. It’s generally the result of reactions between paper chemicals and air, amongst other things, more or less akin to rust on metal. Granted, they’re not the most aesthetically pleasing, so you wouldn’t be blamed for wanting to improve the appearance of foxed books.
I’ve had great results by gently filing away fox marks with a nail file (also a great remedy for yellowing book edges). Note that it does take some time and requires some care, being a destructive process, if only mildly so. For good measure, I dab the filed edge with a cloth slightly moistened with surgical spirit afterwards.
Foxing – before filing
Foxing – after filing
Getting Things Straight
Perhaps one of the most common types of damage you’ll come across is page creasing and dog ears. It’s tempting to go straight for these with you hands to try and uncurl them, but this can cause even more damage and breakage if the crease is old and worn in, or the paper is thin.
Instead, get yourself an egg-cup of warm water and a cotton bud. Dampen the bud slightly, and use it to tease out the dog-ear and roll it flat. It’s a much gentler way to get things straightened out.
If you’ve had to do a lot of de-creasing, you might also find it helpful to press your book back into shape. You can use boards (like flower-pressing boards, for example) and a vice for this, but it’s much simpler to leave it under a bigger, heavier book for a day or two.
Holding Your Nose
If there’s one rogue smell you notice most on a second hand book, it’s the dreaded smoky house. I’ve had a couple of books that quite obviously spent a lot of time around tobacco, and if that’s not your thing, it can be quite off-putting.
Luckily, you may well have the magic treatment in your kitchen cupboards already. Bicarbonate of soda or baking powder work an absolute treat on smelly items. Seal the book with a spoonful of powder in a freezer bag, and leave it for 2-4 weeks. It’s honestly astonishing how effectively it minimises odours.
After all that hard work making your old books beautiful, you want to keep them that way. And plastic book jackets are the way to go! They’re available at loads of places online, as well as major bookshops – I’ve been picking them up for around 60p each at Blackwells.
They come in a range of sizes to fit standard book dimensions. As you work with more and more books, you will become geekily acquainted with those measurements. Say “Teach Yourself” to me, and I’ll fire back 198 millimetres! like a shot. (Told you I was becoming obsessed.)
Plastic paperback covers
You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat…
Unfortunately, there are bigger nasties than a bit of foxing and yellowing. Sadly, some books end up in much worse states than these techniques can remedy. But all is not lost, and a bit of Googling throws up all sorts of heavy-duty book rescue tips.
This post – pictures not for the squeamish! – shares a particularly impressive restoration story about a cache of roach-soiled tomes. And if you can stomach taking on truly filthy material as a restoration project, innovative cleaning techniques range from putting a book in the oven on a low heat to treat infestations, to using fancy UV-C sterilisation boxes. Thankfully, the big eBay book sellers don’t sell anything quite so unsettling, and I’ve never had to turn to these extreme techniques. I’ll think I’ll stick with standard scuffs, dust and dog ears, personally.
But it’s good to know that even the most unfortunate volumes can be saved!