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Columbus bookbinder still uses old-fashioned techniques

For decades, a small shop on West Broad Street, has survived economic ups and downs by providing a unique service....bookbinding. On this Columbus Day holiday, WOSU begins an occasional series of reports on Central Ohioans who discovered Columbus and now help to thread the fabric of community.

Ron Bowman turns 73 next month. He has lived 68 of those years in Columbus.

"My life story would be: I've had the same job for 50 years, I've had the same wife for 52 years, and I've lived in the same house for 45 years. So how much more exciting can it get than that?"

That same hearty chuckle accompanies many of Bowman's stories.

He tells some of those stories sitting in a plastic, green chair at the rear of his bookbinding store, Beck and Orr, on West Broad Street. On this day he wears a gray Ohio State football T-shirt. A casual, tan flat cap covers his white hair, and he has a neatly-trimmed mustache of the same color.

Bowman and his son, Skip, who he calls his "number one," are the only two people in the Central Ohio area who bind books the old fashion way - by hand.

Skip runs a piece of blue cloth through a machine that rolls a very thin layer of glue onto one side. The cloth is about an inch wider than the book it will cover. Two pieces of board, the book's front and back covers, are placed on the sticky surface. Skip uses a piece of metal to fold the edges of the sticky cloth over onto the board making sure it holds tight.

Beck and Orr bindery, which has been in operation since 1888, is a no-frills kind of workplace. Old plastic mustard bottles hold glue. Half-finished books lie in stacks all over the one-room shop.

An old radio with aluminum foil on the antenna fills the store with classic rock.

Bowman did not grow up wanting to be a bookbinder; he said he never had any specific career goals. He grew up on the Hilltop and graduated from West High School in 1954.

"So I loafed around for a while. I played a lot of ball back then. I got tired of the gym and so forth. Football or basketball? Basketball. And I think my parents told me I think it's about time you get a job," Bowman said.

So Bowman went job hunting. He landed an apprenticeship with a printing press just around the corner from Beck and Orr, back then on Oak Street. He got to know the Beck and Orr workers at union meetings. And in 1959 the binding company recruited Bowman to come work for it. Three years later he was part owner.

Soon thereafter the company lost a big client and his business partner took another job.

"And I told him, well, we'll lock the doors and we'll be out of here. And he said well why don't you try it?," he recalled.

So he did. The only change he made was having one employee instead of 15. He said the business runs more smoothly with just two people. Today, it's just Bowman and his son, Skip.

The father and son team use the same machines Bowman used when he first started the job in 1959. Even then, he said, the equipment was at least 20 or 30 years old. And Bowman said it still works just fine. He said he works better with an older machine than a newer one that's computerized.

"And I can probably cut faster on this machine than I can that one over there. So after working there on this here machine all day you don't have any trouble with your ears," Bowman said.

Some of their customers include Ohio State Ph.D. candidates, the Masons, people looking to have family Bibles restored.

Long-time customer Betty Woods has been taking her genealogy work to Bowman for 40 years.

"The minute I call he knows my voice and he says hello 'Knock em stiff.' Why does he call you 'Knock em stiff'? Because it's a little town in Chillicothe where I originally came from," Woods said.

Bowman said he's had some pretty special visitors over the years. Splayed on a wall is a large matted collage of Bowman and his family with Senator John Kerry.

"I often said if Kerry would have been president, I might have been binding books over in the White House," he said.

About a year ago Bowman had a close call. He went to the hospital because he, in his words, "just felt weird." After a cardiac catheterization, doctors discovered Bowman had a small tear in his aorta. Surgery repaired it. Doctors said he was lucky. But Bowman does not chock up his survival to luck...he thinks a higher power may have had a different plan.

"I'm back. Like I say you can call me lucky. But I always maintain that maybe the Lord wanted me to do a few more rebinds on his Bible before my number was up. So, I don't know which way," Bowman said.

Bowman's son, Skip, has worked with his him for the past 13 years - something Skip said he's always wanted to do. And he gets a little choked up talking about his father.

"I don't know how many people...ah, how do I explain, get to have the working relationship you know with their dad every day. Pretty special thing I guess? Yeah," Skip Bowman said. Bowman said since the tear in his aorta he has had some tingling in his legs, and he's anxious to get back to his old self. Bowman, always trying to get in a good laugh, told this story:

"I asked the doctor I said how long am I going to be like this? He said it just takes time. And I said well how long have I got?"