Old books with a new purpose

A sample of a book illustration along with one of Ms. Pratt's cards. — Photo by CK Wolfson

Among the discards and donated clutter of the Vineyard Haven Thrift Shop, Sandy Pratt, manager of the shop, has found a creative outlet that gives artistic expression to her aesthetic, demonstrates the regard she has for old books, and contributes to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, which the shop’s proceeds support.

It began when she put a section together of the distressed magazines that were being collected at the Thrift Shop. “The National Geographics from the ’20s and ’30s would come in, and the color saturation, paper quality, the ink, and the printing process they used were phenomenal,” she says. “These are images worth saving. No one was buying the damaged books, and some of them from the late 1800s were just gorgeous — I couldn’t let them go to the dump.”

She made a sign encouraging people to find ways to use the pictures and illustrations. “But no one was interested,” she recalls. “Nobody got it. So I took them home and started making cards. I do it as a craft. This is a way of repurposing something beautiful.”

Ms. Pratt says, “I do it as a craft…So first you have to get over the stigma of cutting a book. That’s the thing.”

She goes through the old books, magazines, Audubon publications, and atlases that have been damaged beyond repair, looking for those images that capture an artful representation or design, or a bit of history. She buys cream-colored card stock in bulk from Staples, and with meticulous application and a Glue Stick, cuts and affixes the pictures to the folded stationery. When she can find them, she identifies the date and name of the book or magazine on the back of the card. Larger images get inserted in a frame, usually one from the Thrift Shop.

In both cases, the images take on new life and are offered for sale. She gives all the proceeds, not just the profits, to Community Services.

Ms. Pratt appreciates the other artistic uses for damaged books. She mentions the collages made from salvaged books by Inas Al-Soqi, a graduate of Museum School of Boston, who curates the shop’s annual Chicken Alley Art Show, and the Altered Books workshops taught by Sandy Bernat at Seastone Papers, and Emme Brown of Featherstone Center for the Arts.

Ms. Bernat explains, “It becomes a new form of expression. You can take apart a book and place its parts in another format, preserving the parts important to you. It can follow the theme of the book, or be a complete departure. As much of the original book is preserved as the artist wants.”

The former Oak Bluffs language arts teacher gives the example of an altered book made from “Alice in Wonderland,” by one of her students, who used the book to extend the theme of transformation to express the seasons in nature.

Emme Brown (who first experienced Altered Books as Ms. Bernat’s student), says, “It’s all about finding a book that tells you what it wants through its feel, the texture of its cover, its language, and its font.”

She says, “I’m not saving the book, but I am giving it a new way to be read — visually, rather than literally.”

In the small cluttered office of the Vineyard Haven shop on Lagoon Pond Road, Ms. Pratt looks through a heavy, ornately bound 1920s copy of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” whose glossy pages are falling apart, and explains that the shop could get about $10 for the book, but selling framed pictures from it could earn Community Services 10 times that amount.

“I’ve always had a passion for the Thrift Shop,” she says. She used to work in Edgartown as Dr. Erickson’s dental hygenist, and has been with the Thrift Shop for 35 years. “It is my dream job,” she says. “It’s really hard work – a lot of manual labor – but it’s an adventure every day. A lot of times we’ve opened a book and found old letters inside. You never know what you’re going to find.”

And she adds, “I’d love for other people to take on this craft.”