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Yvonne Abraham

Making Magic at North Bennet Street School

It’s easy to see why Sam Feinstein chose the North Bennet Street School to help him put his upended life right. It’s a magical place.

Entering the 127-year-old trade and craft school on the corner of Salem and North Bennet streets in the North End is like going back in time. Furniture-making students bend over benches, creating intricate inlays for clocks and coffee tables. Jewelry students coax braided silver rings into perfect circles. Aspiring violin makers shave slivers of wood off instruments so they curve just so.

It can be noisy and crowded, but it’s also incredibly serene. Moving from shop to shop, you can feel the concentration - and certainty: Students who choose this school are usually pretty sure they want to be here, finding new beginnings in old ways.


Richard Huhn, 58, a doctor, was a researcher at a pharmaceutical company. His true love, making 18th-century furniture reproductions, was his hobby for 30 years until he found a way to spend two years on the school’s fourth floor turning it into his full-time trade.

Liao Liu, 26, was headed for a PhD in aeronautical engineering when she realized she wanted to recover the joy she had once felt playing the piano. And so the rocket scientist spends her days on the school’s second floor rebuilding a grand piano from scratch so she can spend a career repairing and tuning the eloquent instruments.

And then there is Feinstein, 24, a student in the school’s bookbinding program. Studying literature and classics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he had planned to spend his whole life immersed in writing. But on Sept. 28, 2007, a minivan plowed into him as he was riding to school. His head hit the pavement.

“Then the headaches started,’’ says Feinstein, sitting on a bench in the school’s busy stairwell on a recent Monday. His head hurts “literally, all the time.’’ He can’t read like he once did, so he’s estranged from Milton, Congreve, and the works he loved. He can no longer write poetry and short stories. His reserves are low: Simply taking the T can sometimes wipe him out for a weekend.


He dropped out of school, tried to figure out what he could do. Then he remembered the ornate manuscripts to which a Latin teacher had introduced him. “It just clicked,’’ he said. “I thought about how I loved reading the books, and thought, I might enjoy making them.’’

Until he did some searching, Feinstein had no idea people still made books by hand. He seems to have gotten the hang of it pretty quickly. Recently, he has been working on a woodcut-illustrated book called “The Dance of Death,’’ first published in the 16th century. Feinstein took it apart, re-sewed it, covered it with black leather, gilt-edged the pages, painted them with a floral motif, and set an onyx stone in each cover. After 50 hours’ labor, it is a thing of beauty, dark and elaborate.

“I’m not sure why bookbinding fits,’’ Feinstein says. “It gives me something to focus on. I can do this despite the pain.’’

This place is full of people like Feinstein, for whom fine detail is either a vocation or a second, surer path - people who want to build cellos and chairs from scratch, and to give old pianos and necklaces second lives. Perhaps surprising in this distractable age, their devotion is rewarded - 90 percent of the students find jobs after graduation.


And there are plenty more clamoring to get in, zigging toward specialized, even archaic, careers while the rest of the world zags toward the disposable. So many, that the school is too small for its mission now. Its leaders hope to relocate from the warren of buildings on Salem Street to the now empty city print building on nearby North Street.

If the city agrees, we would all benefit: How lovely it would be if this island of purpose and charm were bigger.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at