Local student revives, repairs rare books

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Tim Gress has always been a bookworm, but since he first began his federal work-study job in Manhattan College’s campus library, he has found a calling. 

Mr. Gress, a sophomore at the college, has taken on a peculiar interest at his job at the Mary Alice and Tom O’Malley Library, where last year he discovered a wall filled with books, which he learned were the last remnants of what used to be one of the largest rare-book collections in the United States.

“I started working in the library when I was a freshman, obviously once school started and I just started looking at the back books like most of the kids do and I just said ‘We should really do something about this,’” he said. “We have all these books, there were a lot of books down there on the bottom floor and they were all water damaged.”

Mr. Gress said he decided to take action and, with the blessing of the library’s director William Walters, learned how to start repairing, refurbishing and, in some cases, reconstructing books, some of which predate the American Revolution.  

“I talked to the director, William Walters, and he was really on board so they put me charge so me and couple of kids over the summer just moved everything,” he said. 

Mr. Gress spent his summer rebuilding books, so long as repairing them would not diminish their overall value, and working with a still impressive collection of 400 books published as recently at 1875 and as far back as 1715. 

“I’m a nerd—I mean I’m a philosophy major, so I’m a nerd—so when I came here, I had never seen all of these old books before, and they’re all out in the open,” he said of his discovery of the collection. “Nobody else kind of knew, even the other people that worked in the library, nobody really knew it was there.”

Manhattan College’s library now plans to dedicate an entire room on the second floor to the old and rare books that Mr. Gress and his cohort have been working on. 

The collection is made up of the remnants of the Fales Collection, a portion of the extensive collection of noted rare book collector DeCoursey Fales around the middle of the 20th Century. 

The books were largely sold when Manhattan College fell on hard economic times during the 1980s, but some of the books were hidden to avoid sale and largely left unattended until Mr. Gress, 19, got involved.

“There are books signed by T.S. Elliot in there, there is a first edition of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ which is [worth] a lot of money, [and] the first printed English dictionary,” he said. “We are planning on putting this whole collection on the back wall [of the second floor], which we think will highlight it.”

Still, much of Mr. Gress’ time not spent fixing and categorizing the books is spent trying to track down lost or stolen books from the collection. 

“We had a first edition of “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Oliver Twist,” and some of those have gone missing, so we are trying to track them down,” he said.

This venture of caring for rare volumes has surpassed the level of a college part-time job for Mr. Gress and moved into the realm of a career goal. 

“I had applied to other work study jobs and you just never heard back from them,” he said of finding the job he now loves. “I think my dad was just kind of like ‘Why don’t you go work in the library,’ so they just kind of took me and it went from there.”

Books have become an important part of Mr. Gress’ life since he first took the job, turning him into a self-proclaimed bibliophile.

“I have like a list of books that I want to read because I can’t read them all at once like ‘Oh, I have to go back to this one,’” he said of the many volumes he works with. “Ever since this I have been going to Strand in the city and buying old books and I have kind of fallen in love with it and it is kind of what I want to do, I want to be a librarian now.”

Editor’s note: Anthony Capote is a student at Manhattan College. 

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