She learned the old world trade of bookbinding as an employee at Colonial Williamsburg. There she learned to reproduce 18th century books with low-tech tools during a seven-year apprenticeship.
In the early '90s, Graves left behind her period costume and moved to Atlanta. Working for a paper conservator, Graves learned to preserve paper treasures that had been stained, water damaged or turned yellow with age.
She set up shop as Rhonda Graves Hand Bookbinding five years ago. While many small businesses lure customers with flashy websites and advertising, Graves gets most of her business through word of mouth and referrals from book dealers and antique shop owners.
Graves earned a degree in history at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., and is a member of the Guild of Book Workers.
Is bookbinding a dying art?
There are a lot of people doing bookbinding. A lot of it is [treating] the book as an art form, doing more creative stuff, actual printing and limited editions. At a lot of the arts centers around town very often you'll find classes in book arts or papermaking.
Have you always been into books?
I was always interested in books when I was a kid. I'd go to auctions with my parents and I'd get boxes of books for $1. I'd talk them into buying them for me. I always enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together.
What kind of books did you make at Colonial Williamsburg?
There was a print shop where they did reproductions of books, and we would bind those in appropriate authentic forms. Lots of large, blank, leather-covered books. I wore the costume, the long skirts and the little white hat. When I graduated from college I was more interested in museum work than teaching, and there just happened to be an opening there. It's pure accident that the job was in bookbinding. I went through an apprenticeship program and talked to a lot of tourists. After a while, I got burned out on that.
Do you have to serve an apprenticeship to learn the trade?
I've heard of a lot of people who just love books and will go to the library and get a book on bookbinding. You don't really need a lot of complicated material. You can start with bindings, needle and thread and paper. To do conservation, that's definitely something that you'd need more direction for, I'd say. But making blank books for journals, you can't mess up too much.
What kind of clients do you serve?
Mostly individuals. I get a fair number of family Bibles, but it's a wide range of books. I've done cookbooks and some rare books. The majority of things have more sentimental value than real value. I did a book for Jane Fonda. It was a Christmas gift for Ted. It was pictures of wildflowers from one of their ranches, and I bound them with bison leather from another of their ranches. I also worked on an autograph book from a kid that was around in the Civil War, and he had the autograph of Nathan Bedford Forrest who started the Ku Klux Klan. It was owned by a private collector.
What kind of equipment do you use?
Most of the work I do is by hand. I use scissors, needle, a bone folder used for creasing paper. I have presses from the early 1900s for flattening paper and holding books while I'm working on them. It's a really old trade. There are a number of bookbinders in town that do more of the book as an art form. I'm more of a technical bookbinder than artistic.
What's the hardest part of your job?
Probably just being patient enough to put up with the tedium in some of the jobs. Paper mending is the worst. I love sewing books because it's relaxing. I love putting leather on books. Sometimes paper mending seems never-ending.
How long do you spend restoring each book?
It really depends. I've been working on a set of Harper's Weekly, six volumes from the Civil War, and they've just been a headache. Most things generally are five or six hours spread out over a period of a couple weeks or months depending on how many other things you're working on. I just did an estimate on a family Bible and I think it was going to be 30 or 40 hours. Usually the turnaround time I tell people is six to eight months, but I have had to keep things longer than that.
Do you find yourself reading the books as you're working on them?
A lot of the ads in there are really interesting. They have some great prints, especially in the Harper's Weekly. A good portion of my time is spent on reading things.
Do you charge by the hour?
Every book is different. I look at how much work is involved and give an estimate.
How much money do bookbinders make?
Most bookbinders do not make a whole lot of money. We do it for the love of the books. There are bookbinders that probably make lots more than I do. If they have apprentices they could probably do $60,000 a year. In my case I probably do less than $20,000 a year. I'm fortunate that I have a partner that makes good money.
How many hours do you work each week?
Probably about 20-25, if that. I can't ever imagine working for anyone else now.
What do you wear to work?
Whatever I want. Sometimes it's my pajamas. I have to be careful with sleeves. I don't want to catch a corner with baggy sleeves.
Do you ever get asked to bind a book someone is self-publishing, like a vanity press?
I do get that call every so often. Sometimes it's just a small number of books, which I could do. Two hundred would be too many.
What's your dream job?
I wouldn't mind having an antique shop or a bookstore, something like that. But still do bookbinding on the side.