Confession of a Repentant Bookseller

There’s a very good reason I am blogging this morning and, in agreement with the doctrine of Historical Inevitability, the immediate cause lies in the dim mists of the past, of yesterday evening in fact, and a few glasses of wine too many. Putting aside the pomposity of a slight hangover, I met a couple of old acquaintances from the book trade, stepped into a bar for a ‘quick one’ in memory of old friends; one anecdote lead to another and one glass to another and, the upshot is, I am completely unfit for cataloguing this morning. I couldn’t describe a four page pamphlet accurately and even finding my reading glasses defeats me.
The clunk you heard was only another cup of coffee being poured.
But in spite of this morning repentance, I wouldn’t have missed it: although one of my friends drives a Mercedes and split his wine over a handmade suit, while the other carries his stock in plastic bags and seems to be wearing the same jacket as 25 years ago, for a couple of hours we were all back at the book barrows in Farringdon Road, quivering with excitement over our latest find.
Dave, while sponging the wine out of, or into, his suit with a table napkin, roared with laughter over the worst customer he has ever had, someone everyone in the London book trade has cursed in their time. This man would set Dave searching for impossibly obscure books, reject them when found for the most fantastical reasons, change his fields of interest suddenly and unfathomably, completely refuse to accept that the price he should pay must reflect the amount of work in finding the book and committed every sin against the cannons of fair dealing.
Stephan, my other friend, nodded in gloomy agreement over his glass, I fear for him such customers were, and are, the norm: he once dragged a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica across London, only to be told the binding was the wrong shade of red.
But it was obvious that Dave’s curses and execrations against this impossible customer, were mixed with a great deal of affection. He did not need the small amount of money and the huge amount of aggregation that dealing with him brought, yet year after year Dave went on finding books for him. He did not seem to know why this was himself;-
‘Oh, I learnt a bit from him -’,
‘It was always something different with him -’.
‘He brought a first edition of Pollok’s Course of Time, you couldn’t give that away, but he had to have it in the original boards unmarked, and he read it then spent hours describing it to me’.
I think the real attraction of this customer, for Dave and many others, was his self-propelled journey though the hinterland of literature and bibliography. Mr. Carter or Dr. Leavis stood in vain at the cross roads, signalling the correct route , he would take the path of his choosing, then ignoring the ‘rules’ of collecting, or turning them on their heads, strike off in a quite different direction.
Amongst the fields that he ploughed from time to time, were obscure corners of the Parish of Nineteenth Century Eng. Lit. This set me mussing, rather sadly, on how narrow tastes are becoming in this vast area: after four or five of Dickens’ novels, Vanity Fair and a couple of Mrs. Braddons’ or Wilke Collins’ novels even adventurous readers and collectors seem to feel exhausted, or become monomaniacs, collecting only one author. I wouldn’t recommend Pollok On The Course Of Time to anyone: but there are so many life enhancing writers, many of whose books are absurdly cheap in early editions.
A sudden pain in the ribs recalled me to the present.
‘Do you remember when you sold me that signed W.B. Yeats for fifty quid?’ Dave asked, digging me in the ribs again.
‘That hurt,’ I said, and I didn’t mean the poke in the ribs.