Alex Brooks left Lexington for two years of graduate school in England, where he studied book conservation. He has returned and started what may be Kentucky’s only company that conserves old books for individuals and libraries. Photo by Tom Eblen
Work is more rewarding when you find a way to turn your passion into a business opportunity. Kentuckians Alex Brooks and Debra Koerner are doing just that, at different points in their lives and with technology from different centuries.
Brooks, 31, grew up in Louisville and discovered creative writing in high school. He made his first book for poems he wrote. As a Gaines Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky, he earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing.
While at UK, Brooks discovered the King Library Press and learned letterpress printing, which led to him creating block-print art. He also worked in UK Special Collections, which interested him in book conservation.
After college, Brooks acquired some antique printing equipment and operated Press 817, a one-man company that produced everything from wedding invitations to his own block prints. His career took another turn when he won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in England. While there, he earned a master’s degree in book conservation at West Dean College.
Brooks returned to Lexington in October and started Alex Brooks Conservation to restore and conserve old books, from rare library specimens to family Bibles.
“The idea in my work is to keep as much of the original as possible,” Brooks said as he showed me a leather-bound volume from the 1830s about horse care that he is repairing for the Keeneland Library.
What he doesn’t try to do is make old books look new, by bleaching pages or replacing old bindings that still have a lot of original fabric. That might make them look good for a few years, but their historical value would be diminished.
“I’m not trying to make a book look like it was never damaged in the first place,” he said, “but to prevent it from further damage and make it usable.”
There is a lot of need for book conservation in Kentucky, yet there are few conservators.
“That’s one of the reasons I chose to move back to Lexington,” Brooks said. “I know the need is out there, but I’m not sure that the finances for that need will be out there.”
Brooks charges about $300 to refurbish a family Bible. Other work is $30 an hour, plus materials. (For more information, email Brooks at email@example.com.)
In addition to doing work for institutions and collectors, Brooks hopes to build a client base from industries such as Thoroughbred horses and bourbon that realize heritage is important to their brands.
Brooks will be sharing his skills at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, where he will teach bookbinding classes March 2 and 16. Learn more at Carnegiecenterlex.org.
Koerner, 45, had written a book about success, been executive director of a spa organization and started a wellness education company. But she had always dreamed of a television career.
“That got me to thinking: if I was going to have a TV show, what am I most passionate about?” she said. “Where can I make a difference?”
Koerner describes herself as a “pudgy insomniac” and former stressed-out working mother. So she decided to borrow from her own experiences to show viewers how they could use local resources to make themselves healthier and happier.
She started a production company and created a self-funded pilot episode of Journey into Wellbeing. The show is planned as a state-by-state series, focusing on creative local wellness initiatives and resources. She gives viewers tips for healthy eating, exercise, natural health care and sustainable living.
The pilot episode focused on Kentucky and will air Tuesday on KET2 and 10 more times through March 21 on Kentucky Educational Television.
In the pilot episode, shot in October, Koerner interviews several Kentucky health experts and travels around the state. She visits an organic farm in Oldham County and Frontier Nursing University in Leslie County. She consults with a doctor and a fitness expert from Lexington and gets advice from a Louisville chef about how to prepare healthier versions of two Kentucky favorites, the hot Brown and corn pudding.
“Every state has great health initiatives, but they are not getting the focus they deserve,” Koerner said. “I also hope my story impresses (viewers) to attempt something they’ve been thinking about and wanting to do. It can happen.”