Did Someone Call Me Indiscreet ?

A certain degree of discretion is probably called for in narrating what I am about to tell you. This normally comes fairly easily to me, up to the point when I suddenly blurt out whatever I am supposed to be concealing. However a bookseller gets a good deal of practice over the years; whether it’s dealing with a clergy man with a taste for erotica or a wealthy collector who needs to dispose of some books quickly and discretely, for cash. One person who came to me with some antique books to sell explained that he did not want to tell me his name, which presented a few difficulties; somehow it’s difficult to talk to someone for any length of time when you don’t know their name and few dealers would wish to purchase valuable books with a cheque ‘payable to bearer’ and no record of the seller’s identity. But they were interesting books, and the bibliomaniac, as well as the bookseller, within me burned to possess them; and, as usual, even if he had no identity, the books did and a little research on the internet and a few discreet enquiries in the antiquarian book trade, revealed all. He had nothing to hide, but like those vandals who mutilate the title pages or endpapers to remove their signature from books they are selling, he wanted to be discreet about selling his books.

Anyway last week I visited the home of a customer to deliver a book: this is almost always a pleasure and, in the case of valuable and delicate books, such as this volume of Dickens’ Sketches by Boz’, saves me much loss of sleep: our dear old post office is an excellent institution (in which I have probably spent as many hours queuing over the years, as I have spent in bars) but I cannot get out of my head the sight of my prized volume being tossed through the air by the clerk onto a heap of other parcels. I once read an article about someone who sent bricks through the post, I forget the details, but I still have nightmares about my beautiful book being buried under his bricks.

While I sucked in a welcome cup of excellent coffee, fortified with a tot of whisky to combat the rain, my customer (whose identity must be buried in discretion), examined the volume. His way of handling the book would have been a pleasure for any book lover to see, he could not have used more delicacy if it had been his day old first-born.

“Beautiful,” he said and, taking a key from his pocket, went and opened one of the many glass fronted cases. He rearranged one or two other books, slipped the Sketches into its place, locked the door and returned the key to his pocket.

“Do you have a copy of your description of the book?” he asked.

Putting down my cup, after a last restoring gulp, I picked up my bag and began to excavate; under the lump of cheese wrapped in grease-proof paper, a selection of crumpled receipts and sundry other incommodences. It was in there somewhere I was sure. Inspiration! I took out the book I had been reading on the train, because I usually tuck important papers in the back of any book I am carrying. Occasionally this leads to difficulties, when I sell the book and have to retrieve the document; every bookseller’s heart leaps with hope when he finds a paper in a book - perhaps a letter from the author - and they are understandably disappointed when it’s only my shopping list.

“Here you are,” I said. Opening the book and handing it too him whilst balancing a kilo of Gorgonzola on my other arm wasn’t easy.

He didn’t take the paper and I realised he was staring at the book in my hand.

“Is it the first edition?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” I replied. “Well spotted, we’ll make a book dealer of you yet.”

And (hoping not to offend any grammatical purists) it was; the first edition of Henry James’s ‘What Maisie Knew’ in the primary binding. I’ve spent a goodly part of my waking hours, and more of my slender substance than I should, building up my collection and I am going to enjoy my books. I am not going to read an ill-printed paperback when (to quote Henry James) I have The Real Thing, still less a shiny electronic screen.

“Are you going to read your copy of ‘Sketches by Boz"? I asked.

“Certainly not.” My customer glanced round conspiratorially, “I’ve got reading copies hidden in that cupboard."

He looked down at my copy of ’What Maisie Knew’.

“Aren’t you afraid you’ll leave it on the train?” he asked.

Gingerly I balanced my cheese on the arm of the chair, so I could put the book back in my bag safely, fortunately my friend didn’t care much about chairs: only books.

“It’s a chance you have to take,” I replied, remembering a few dashes to the London Transport Lost Property Office in Baker Street, opposite number 221B, and the relief of being reunited with a missing volume, like meeting a long lost child. Fortunately I never had to call in at 221 to consult Sherlock because the only book that didn’t turn up was a copy of a play by Thomas Shadwell, which I could well live without.

Now I’m not advocating we should behave like Dr.Johnson, banging his books together whilst wearing gardening gloves to get the dust out, and I’m sure every collector has the odd treasure, which they hardly handle themselves and would barely let the hands of their truest love besmirch, but read your books and enjoy them, let their design, their type and their paper inform you about the author’s world, don’t lock them up behind glass. I’m not going to talk about psychology, but there’s a Freudian term for that kind of thing.

Apologies to Chris, perhaps it’s only envy of your original cloth that brought this on;- oops, that’s let the cat out of the bag.