Richard J. Piraino, 79, a mender of books

Richard J. Piraino at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he worked in the bindery for 41 years.
Richard J. Piraino at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he worked in the bindery for 41 years.
Posted: March 11, 2013

No one understood better than Richard J. Piraino the tortured lives of public library books.

Broken backs, lacerations, dog ears, suffered at the hands of people who professed to love them: If they were to survive to be read another day, it would be up to Mr. Piraino to save them.

Intently, quietly, he did - mending a million volumes, he estimated, over 41 years in the bindery of the Free Library of Philadelphia. When they left his care and returned to shelves in branches across the city, they were as good as new, if not better.

Mr. Piraino died at 79 of complications of a blood infection Thursday, Feb. 28, at Underwood-Memorial Hospital in Woodbury. A South Philadelphian until he retired in 1996, he and wife, Eleanor, lived in Sicklerville.

Preceding him in death was the bindery, with the craft itself in a slow fade.

When he started there in the 1950s, the staff numbered two dozen. When he left, there were four. In 2000, the bindery was subsumed under Collection Care, which moved from bookbinding toward conservation and preservation scanning.

The old ways were laborious. Yet one man's tedium was Mr. Piraino's joy.

Each book or periodical delivered to the bindery had a tale of woe, and fixing what ailed one was never the same as fixing what ailed the next. Between cutting and gluing, stitching and hammering, lettering and rounding, "you're always doing something different," he said in a Daily News interview marking his retirement. It was "never boring."

Otherwise, why show up an hour early every day?

"He thoroughly enjoyed his job," said his sister-in-law, Dorothy Pokalo. Until nearly the end of his career, "I don't believe he missed a day of work."

The Free Library was the only workplace Mr. Piraino knew. In the early 1950s, while still a student at Furness High School, he enrolled in a co-op program that placed him part time in the bindery, then on the library's lower level at 19th and Vine Streets.

He apprenticed among men, and some women, who had mastered an ancient craft said to have originated in India in the first century B.C., when twine-bound palm leaves made scrolls passe. Bookbinding had come a way since then, accoutred with hulking sewing machines, manually operated, levered presses to ensure that glue adhered, "guillotines" to cut ragged edges.

Mr. Piraino also learned its delicacies, for instance how to wield a tiny hammer to vertically crease a book's new spine along the front and back covers.

He concluded there was nothing he'd rather do.

From 1953 to 1955, he served in the Army Medical Corps, stationed in Japan. It was his sole separation from his library job - though in 1993 the bindery would move away, to nearby Rodin Place.

Like the library, he was quiet and gentlemanly, with a wry sense of humor waiting in the stacks. "He was always willing to help, always opened doors," said Debbi Scolnick, a library cataloging tech. "And he never said anything bad about anyone."

For his retirement, the library threw a party in December 1996, and Mayor Ed Rendell went. Mr. Piraino was hailed as "every supervisor's dream" by his boss, the late Joseph Kuliszewski. "I think he could do anything here in his sleep."

There was a melancholic tinge to Mr. Piraino's farewells, which seemed to extend to his craft.

"Books today, they glue up the back and that's it," he told a reporter. "It's a lot cheaper to make, but the binding won't last."

Still, he mustered some library humor.

"Adam and Eve were the first bookbinders," he said. "They invented the loose fig-leaf edition."

He is survived by his wife of 61 years, and many nieces and nephews.

Services were Saturday, March 9, with interment in the Camden County Veterans Cemetery, Camden.

Contact Kathleen Tinney

at 610-313-8106.

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