A Tale of Illusion, Delusion and Mystery: Booksellers and Librarians
It is over forty years since I last gave a public address and I hope you will excuse me if I am a bit rusty. My last public speech was given in, I think, Grade Three for what was then called Oral Composition: every student was required to give a five minute talk before the class on any subject whatever, for a portion of the English mark. Those judged most successful in each class were sent to the school finals in the auditorium to face the entire school population. The year of my triumph, when I went to the finals, I gave a talk on a man named Cornelius MacGillicuddy, better known to the public as Connie Mack, owner and manager of the great Philadelphia Athletics (a team, which later under their new name, the Oakland A's, would be fodder for the Toronto Blue Jays on their march to their first World Series in 1992). I lifted the text of that talk pretty much verbatim from a comic book, the source of most of my material in my early public speaking career. Comic books with their sparse dialogue and concise description lent themselves admirably to such plagiarism but for this occasion, in spite of an extensive search, I have been unable to located any comic books about bookselling or even about libraries, so I guess I am on my own. On the other hand, no audience could be quite as malicious and vicious as an auditorium full of bored children, so tonight I am actually less terrified that my mind might go blank leaving me to stare at you all in terror.
We are gathered here tonight surrounded by books — raise your eyes and you will see five storeys of books and there are many more thousands (millions, I guess), hidden in rooms below us. Where did they all come from? Many of you could be forgiven for suspecting that they all came from unwary collectors like yourselves, who made the mistake of having dinner with Richard Landon and ended up changing your wills, or simply finding the next day that your books were now owned by the University of Toronto. But even Richard Landon couldn't come up with this many books so if we are to have some understanding of how an institution like this gets all these books, we must look elsewhere. Let me solve the mystery for you; they come from people like me — booksellers.
It is my intention tonight to attempt to give you some idea how this occurs and of the relationship between booksellers and institutions. Naturally, I must use my own experiences as a bookseller to illustrate this unique arrangement and, due to time constraints, I will limit myself to discussing my experiences with the University of Toronto.
Institutional libraries usually have wholesale jobbers who undertake to supply new books as they are issued, but when a book is out of print, a whole new series of problems arises. A library which has the task of acquiring out of print titles will start by assessing its needs in a given area, using existing bibliographic checklists or, if none exists, compiling, with the department of the university concerned with the subject area in question, a want list of titles. Early in my career, if what I do can be called a career, the University of Toronto hired me to work with a librarian to fill out one of their collections. I hope that when I have finished describing my work for the University of Toronto, you will have some idea of the interdependence of each , party in the curious equation involving institutions and booksellers. Most of you will have attended a university and paid fees, sometimes large fees, to do so. My boast is that I also received my education from this university but by a happy reversal of the norm, the university not only trained me for my trade, but also paid me while I was learning that trade. Not a bad deal. Of course, implicit in my boast is the acknowledgement that when the University of Toronto hired me all those years ago I didn't know what I was doing and shouldn't have been hired in the first place. But let's not dwell on that.
I guess some background is necessary to make all this comprehensible, so I had better give you a brief biographical note so you will be able to put the details in the proper context. I started in the booktrade in 1967 after some years bumming around Europe. A part-time job, taken by chance, in a new bookstore, led to a revelation. The only consistent thing in my life had been reading but because I had grown up in a family where books weren't read, and with friends who didn't read, reading for me had always been a private, personal thing. All those years of reading late into the night with a flashlight under covers and all those fights with angry parents who caught me, had taught me that reading was somehow a sinful pleasure, not condoned by society, something to be enjoyed in the dark, so to speak. (To digress slightly, I am constantly amazed at the number of people whom I have met who have had the same experience. Why parents would get angry at children for reading books, even at 3:00 A.M., is beyond my comprehension.) Anyway, I had never, throughout my various failed career attempts, thought that I could make a living at something that I actually, enjoyed. Like books. Now this became a possibility. While I was agonizing over whether to open a bookstore, I became friendly with an antiquarian bookseller and I saw something of the nature of the antiquarian book business. It became apparent that it was a hundred times more interesting than selling new books so I changed my focus.
Having decided to become a bookseller, I went to my father, who was a banker, to tell him the important news. But his enthusiasm didn't match mine — probably because he suspected what was coming next. Now any of you who have had children and have heard all the great schemes that are going to make them millionaire entrepreneurs before the age of twenty-five, will know, as my father did, that the very core of all such schemes always begins with dad laying out some money. After extensive negotiations, we arrived at a deal, which was that I got a one time loan of five hundred dollars (to be paid back for sure this time and not a penny more, ever, no matter what great opportunities or disasters, not one penny more, period, if you want to ruin your life with your crazy schemes I can't stop you but please leave your mother and me in peace for the few years left us., etc. etc.) We all know the scenario. The funny thing was that I paid him back the five hundred and never did ask him for another cent, but, until he died some fifteen years later, my father's look as I entered his home always was a bit quizzical as though he was expecting me to broach the subject yet again. In later years, whenever I told him that I had just bought a library, his instant response was "I don't have any money."
So I was ready to go. Before one begins, bookselling appears to be very simple. One buys books at yard sales, the Salvation Army and Goodwill, and prices them at fair market value (even though one doesn't have a clue what that might mean) not forgetting to mark them clearly as "first editions," unless the date is too late by more than ten years, in which case it's better to call them the "best edition," and then wonderful and interesting people beat a path to your door, offering cash and thanks. Then one goes back to the Sally Ann for more. Well... .the romantic concept which attracts so many people to books is rather different than the reality. No matter what the romantic aspects of the book business, and they do exist, it still remains a business, with rents, wages and other mundane commitments which must be met. However, that's another talk, one which, incidentally, my father, the banker, became very proficient at giving to anyone who would listen, which usually meant my mother. His talk was quite short and went like this: "This is the stupidest business I ever heard of. All those fellows talk about is buying books. We bankers like to deal with businesses that try to sell things. Why don't those guys try to sell a book once in a while. Then they wouldn't always be broke. Its a good thing more of them never came to me when I was loaning money. I wouldn't give any bookseller a penny. " End of lecture. What really occurs is this: one buys books (without really having any idea if they are books that anyone wants) until one has a few thousand, rents an office or store and settles in to starve to death. This melancholy truth allows me to use here one of my favourite anecdotes, the one about the bookseller who wins a million in the lottery and when someone inquires what he intends to do with the winnings, he answers "Oh I don't know, I guess I'll just go on selling books until it's all gone." Booksellers laugh loudest at this joke, but always with a touch of sadness. My father didn't laugh.
Now that I have given you some background about myself, it seems to me that I should talk a bit about the two people who, in my opinion, were responsible for establishing the groundwork in Canada, so all these happy alliances could prosper. The first was Bernard Amtmann, the first Canadian book merchant who operated like a real bookseller. He was the founder of the ABAC, (the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada), the initiator of almost every important bookselling innovation in Canada, (such as the antiquarian book fair, now in its twenty-fifth year), friend of the booksellers, a man who changed many of our attitudes about books and historical artifacts in this country, and castigator of librarians and Canadian institutions in general. Yet he was a friend of many librarians, although despised by many others — including probably, the second man of whom I shall speak.
Bernard Amtmann taught booksellers that we should demand to be taken seriously by Canadian librarians, but more importantly, he taught us that in order to demand respect we must be worthy of it, by acting like responsible professionals. Amtmann made many enemies with his constant carping about what now seems obvious, that Canadians neglected their historical heritage and that, to paraphrase that famous historical maxim, "those who neglect their country's history are in danger of having no country at all." His constant preaching damaged him greatly but some of us caught on and profited from his wisdom.
The other important Canadian book man was a librarian named David Esplin. Esplin was as opinionated and irascible as Amtmann but also accomplished much for the good of the book community in this country. David Esplin was an associate librarian at the University of Toronto from 1966 until his death in 1983. He was hired to build a research collection of books and manuscripts to support the scholarly aspirations of the revitalized and burgeoning School of Graduate Studies. The Williams Report of 1962 had revealed that only one institutional collection in Canada, the medieval collection at the Pontifical Institute here in Toronto, was capable of supporting research at the post-doctoral level. To look at what is now above and below and around us here in the Thomas Fisher Library after only thirty years is perhaps a more fitting memorial to David Esplin than anything I could say. Incidentally, for anyone who wishes to know more about these Canadian book world pioneers, there is a short biography of Bernard Amtmann, written by bookseller, John Mappin and librarian and university president, John Archer. Biographical information on David Esplin, as well as details of some of the major collections he acquired for this university can be found in the catalogue of a commemorative exhibition put on here from March to May 1984. These two men, both opinionated, cantankerous, passionate men had an enormous influence on all libraries and all bookselling in this country and should be honoured.
When composing this, I toyed with the fantasy of how lovely it would be to have them both together in a setting such as this. Well, the sparks would fly but we would be entertained and, more importantly, we would be forced to think. If David Esplin's monument is on the galleries above us, Bernard Amtmann's is less visible but just as real, for his is seen in every bookseller in the country (including me) who tries to be more than just a trader in used books. I first met Bernard Amtmann on my very first buying trip to Montreal. He was charming and gracious and sold me a pile of non-Canadian books for so little that I thought he must be ignorant of what they were. Of course, it was I who was ignorant (as the young so often are), unable to see that he was being quietly generous to a neophyte. He asked me how I liked the book business and I told him I loved it but was not comfortable being in debt because I had never been able to borrow money, not having the means to repay it. He inquired how much I owed. "About a thousand dollars," I replied. (Remember this was almost thirty years ago.) He was too gracious to laugh so he merely nodded gravely and said, "Well, you'd better get used to it. I've been in business thirty years and I owe seventy-five thousand dollars." I didn't know then that good booksellers are always broke, so I was appalled. When Amtmann died some years later, he was indeed broke in the honourable tradition of the trade.
David Esplin's contribution to the welfare of the Canadian booktrade was twofold. Firstly, he knew that booksellers were essential to the growth of great institutional libraries. Although it may have been apocryphal, it was the belief in the booktrade here that Esplin had laid down the rule that, whenever possible, the University should purchase books for the library from local dealers. When books weren't available locally, the rest of Canada would be canvassed. Only after exhausting the domestic sources would the library search for books in foreign markets such, as New York, Paris, London, or Florence. This policy had a tremendous effect on the Canadian booktrade, as it gave Canadian booksellers much needed support in the early years when most Canadian libraries felt that if they needed books the obvious solution was to search overseas. Esplin was not afraid to think big or to spend money for important items or collections. He knew how to deal with dealers. He knew that very few booksellers are crooked and, therefore, huge asking prices didn't scare him. He knew that the survival of dealers requires that prices be related to reality and that he could usually beat down the bookseller, an activity he relished. He was an astute buyer yet he knew better than to be too ruthless because the booksellers were the ones who brought him the books. Early on, I had the occasion to deal directly with Esplin when I was trying to sell him a private collection, the books and papers of a relative of mine whose archive was held at an affiliated institution, where he had also worked. The institution did not enjoy cordial relations with the University of Toronto. Ownership of some of the material could have been disputed because of the nature of some of the papers, so it was a delicate situation. Since the late owner had been a family member, I took the precaution of having a colleague do an appraisal after which I went to Esplin with my figures. I told him the asking price, which was less than the appraisal, and the family's stipulations, which were reasonable. He and I went to the other institution where he examined the archive for half an hour, turned to me and said "If you can deliver it, I'll take it. But don't get me involved in any fights with this place." No negotiating, no attempt to beat me down, he assessed the whole situation including my delicate position and decided on the spot. I thought then that was a very decent way to treat a new kid on the scene and I still think that today.
In spite of the foolishness of the book business from an economic viewpoint, it continues to attract the dreamers and the eccentrics, and somehow some of us survive and the "tradition continues." In my case, luck intervened and before I had time to get in too much trouble, I was offered a job by Gerry Sherlock, who operated Joseph Patrick Books. Gerry was then, and still is, the most knowledgeable dealer in Canadiana in the country. Unfortunately, I didn't have much of a feel for Canadiana and, therefore, didn't learn much about it from Gerry, but he did teach me how to be a bookseller. In other words, I got the proper grounding for which I have been grateful, since aging enough to understand that it is a good idea to learn the basics of any subject before becoming an expert. I was in fact a lousy employee — lazy and more interested in my own book business which I already ran on the side than in Gerry's quite reasonable assumption that feeding me and my family gave him some legitimate claim on my time. Luckily, my bad character traits were balanced by Gerry's good ones — my sloth and ignorance by his tolerance and generosity. I worked a couple of years for Gerry — not nearly long enough to learn the essentials of the trade — before his landlord put us out on the street. Gerry Sherlock went home to catalogue and I, with no money and about eight hundred books, no real knowledge, and a pregnant wife, found myself on my own. My friend Martin Ahvenus, owner of the Village Bookstore, then in the original Toronto bohemia on Gerrard Street West, gave me his third floor for twenty-five dollars a month, which I often couldn't pay. So I was a real bookseller with letterhead and business cards, an address and a few books, everything I needed except the essential components of any business — experience and customers. But that didn't worry me much for with youthful optimism, which was really blind ignorance, I didn't even know enough to be scared.
But good fortune rescued me. At about this time I had a call from Cicely Blackstock, the librarian at the University of Toronto responsible for book selection in Canadiana and Canadian Literature. She asked if I would be interested in taking on a project with the University. I certainly was. I was excited and flattered to be asked for I felt that it would be an opportunity to both learn a lot and prove myself with an important client. We made an appointment and Miss Blackstock explained what the University wanted. The project was straight forward — to supply the University of Toronto with every piece of poetry, fiction and drama written by a Canadian which it didn't own already. Now, when I say every piece of poetry, the librarians here will know that I mean precisely what I say. Every scrap, vanity publication or self-published piece of junk written by a Canadian was wanted. A collection of that sort may not teach a researcher much about poetry, but it will reflect a lot about Canada and how Canadians think, so amassing all the junk is not as silly as it might appear. A country's literature is not just the Shakespeares and Miltons, it is also the hacks and mediocrities. To accomplish our project, Miss Blackstock marked the University's holdings on a copy of Watters. I was free to supply listed items that the University didn't hold, as well as any item of Canadian Literature that wasn't listed by Watters. Here I should explain that "Watters" is the term used by booksellers and librarians to refer to a major, pioneering bibliographic project undertaken by Reginald Watters, a Canadian librarian. The full title is "A Checklist of Canadian Literature and Background Materials. — To 1950." Watters's students solicited the holdings of all major Canadian institutions and a few foreign libraries who had large holdings of Canadian Literature. These included the British Museum, the Library of Congress, and Brown University in Rhode Island which has a huge collection of Canadian Literature. As far as I can determine, different universities sent copies of their file cards, which often carried erroneous information. Watters and his student assistants used these to compile the Checklist. Consequently, new errors were added to existing ones and, of course, many books were missed but the first result, published in 1959, was the only game in town and a necessary pioneer effort. The second edition, published in 1972, was revised and extended to include the period from 1950 to 1960. It is also faulty with less justification, but is still the only game in town. Although extended bibliographic treatment is now available on important Canadian writers, Watters remains an essential reference tool for Canadian Literature as a whole. I must stress here that the books I was seeking were mostly the obscure — titles that the University hadn’t bothered with in earlier years when it had concentrated on buying the work of the important Canadian writers, but which were now required to fill in the gaps in the collection. So there I was, one minute a used bookseller without books or customers, the next a special agent on a crucial mission.
Having absorbed the excitement of being hired, I had to face reality. How was I going to supply these books? Where and how would I find them? I had only one idea and it was limited. I went to all my colleagues and explained my position and asked if I could go through their stocks, take what I needed and pay them after I got paid. My colleagues were very generous, or probably just indifferent, and I was allowed access to stock buried in basements and other repositories of the unsaleable — the long forgotten and unwanted junk. I would spend the better part of a day scrounging through places that hadn't been cleaned in many years. The length of time books had laid there unwanted would be reflected in their prices and the amount of dust covering them. I would pick up a book, laboriously check it against my list, and every once in a while — triumph — a book I needed would surface. At such moments, I felt as though I had discovered pure gold not a seven dollar book that I was going to sell for eight dollars. The system was working! I was too green to know even relative scarcity or values, so if a colleague's price was ten dollars my only assumption could be that my colleague must know more than I did (after all, I knew nothing) and that, therefore, the book's value was what he said it was. The truth was that none of these books had any but a relative value, based not on merit, but on general scales for used books. In those days, most books, not special or greatly sought after, sold in the three to ten dollar range. The price was based on such important factors as thickness, interest of title, and colour, but I was too raw to know this. Later, I learned that it wasn't just me who was ignorant about Canadian Literature; so was every other dealer except my old boss Gerry Sherlock. Gerry actually knew scarcity, one of the few safe factors in the book world. My ignorance ensured that I never got to benefit from what we in the trade call "sleepers," books grossly underpriced which, when located by a knowledgeable dealer, can be fairly priced very much higher. So, generally I would get a twenty percent discount from a colleague and add ten percent to the price. Often I was too frightened to do that with books priced over fifteen dollars and chose to operate on just the discount. On any given one of these expeditions, I would buy perhaps six to ten books for sixty to seventy-five dollars and send to the University with a bill for seventy-five to one hundred dollars. This seems a pitifully small amount now, for what would usually be most of a day's work, but in fact, I was delighted. My monthly rent divided by working days was thirteen dollars a day (this was for both the store and home, for by this time I had opened my first actual store, a tiny shop with a tiny house attached, located in the old Gerrard Street Village) and each day I put aside the first thirteen dollars I took in to ensure that I would always have the rent for the first of the month. There were days when I didn't even take in the thirteen dollars. So a gross profit of fifteen to twenty dollars for a day's work was most welcome.
Soon I had scrounged through every filthy basement within traveling distance of Toronto. Unless one of my colleagues bought a big lot of Canadian Literature, my resources were exhausted. I had to think of something new, so I started to study Watters hoping to get ideas. Repeated study of the titles of the books I needed did indeed show a certain pattern. The books I wanted to find were mostly by obscure or unknown writers and had been published in the United States or, less often, in England. Gradually an idea formed. I would prepare want lists of all these obscure authors and titles, one for the United States and one for England. I would then put part of the list in a full page in the AB, a U.S. trade magazine, and see what happened. If that worked, I would advertise in the "Clique", the British trade equivalent of the AB.
Now a word about the AB: AB is short for "Antiquarian Bookman" which is a weekly trade magazine that contains some minor editorial matter and a few obituaries, but is mostly devoted to lists of books wanted by dealers and libraries as well as lists of books for sale by dealers. It is the trade vehicle that we use to search for books (usually by title although small box ads are also used for searches by subject or author — "everything by or relating to....") I would advertise and those responding with quotations would be sent my full list. While I was compiling my list it occurred to me to add to it various writers' names who were much sought after and very saleable here but not needed for my project. The idea being that I might get some quotations for books that I could buy at a good price for regular stock. There were then several Canadian writers who had been very popular in the States and had been largely published there, but whom American quoters would probably not know were sought after and selling at a premium in Canada. A few examples are Charles G.D. Roberts, Susannah Moodie, Sara Jeanette Duncan, Morley Callaghan, Ernest Thompson Seton, Stephen Leacock (who had been very popular in the United States in his heyday), the humourist T.C. Haliburton, and such poets as Bliss Carman, and E.J. Pratt. Also, just starting to be recognized, were the major Canadian writers of today: Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton, and Earle Birney. Soon I had a lengthy list, baited with my cunning little additions. I sent in a full page advertisement and waited with great trepidation. No one else had tried such a thing before and I hadn't a clue what might ensue. However, I did know what to expect in the way of quotations since I had advertised before and I knew something about the people who quote books to that magazine.
When you enter a bookstore such as mine you are viewing something which may appear simple but is not. Perhaps the most common question we get in a store is: "Where do you find all these books?" — a question booksellers try not to answer for the system is very complex and any reasonably accurate answer would take far longer than that sort of casual courteous question would warrant. There is a very complex system which has worked reasonably well for centuries and when you walk into an antiquarian bookshop you are seeing the apex of the pyramid, the upper levels, but even here there is a hierarchy. So if Quaritch and Maggs in London, or Kraus in New York represent the pinnacle of the trade, there are books on their shelves that came from a hundred lesser shops, not just in Britain, but from the entire world. And underneath the antiquarian shops are the used bookstores, and under these are the junkshops, the antique shops, and under these are the runners, the scouts, the amateurs, and the collectors with a bit of an eye. Please don't think I refer to these lower levels as in any way inferior, for they are, in fact, as necessary and as important to the well-being of the booktrade as the loftiest dealer, although often those lofty dealers would like us to think otherwise. Scientists now point out that every part of the world's ecosystem affects every other part and that, perhaps all systems are the same. When Miss Blackstock hired me, she in fact hired about a thousand people. Or to be more precise she hired me to handle those thousand other book people on her behalf and I often wondered if she had any idea of the nuts and eccentrics and downright fools and crooks that I was handling on her behalf. If not, she will learn tonight.
So, we can see that there are many people involved in the antiquarian book world who are invisible to the final customer and perhaps that is for the best. The people who quote through "Antiquarian Bookman" are not perhaps the lowest in the scale, but they include the most eccentric ones. Anyone who has used the AB as a means of getting books has hundreds of stories about the eccentricities of the quoters, and anybody who uses it regularly keeps a file of names to be avoided usually designated "DANGER." Actually, most dealers try not to use it at all for the paperwork alone can drive you nuts. Most quotations arrive on three by five inch file cards or postcards. Now, normal business practice indicates that if you are trying to sell someone something, your first priority is to let potential buyers know what it is you are offering for sale. Not so for quoters from the AB. Many quotations that arrive are completely illegible, some written in huge scrawl and others with tiny crabbed letters. On one occasion I put in the AB a small block ad requesting anything by a writer whom I collected personally. I received one quotation which was completely incomprehensible except for the author's surname and the prices for the seven or eight books quoted. I couldn't decipher a single title. I pondered it for a while, trying to figure out what the books were but had to give up and was just going to throw the card in the waste basket when I realized that the prices asked weren't very high so I decided to take a gamble. I wrote the man: "Dear Sir, Thank you for your quote. Even though I can't tell what you have quoted me because I can't read your writing, I have decided to take a chance so I enclose twenty-five dollars. Please send all the books. P.S. Please print next time. Yours truly,...." A week later seven books appeared, all written by my author, all in a series he had edited which I had not know about and none of which I had in my collection. Furthermore, all of them were in fine condition and were properly packed (another area of great peril). Unfortunately, this sort of happy resolution was rare. More common, were exchanges like the following.
In my early days there was a man who quoted fifty U.S. dollars for every book he offered for sale, perhaps on the assumption that sooner or later he would quote one at fifty dollars which was actually worth that much and he would sell it. He was famous and this went on for years so maybe he sold lots of them. Another quoted me an original, signed photograph which turned out to be a frontispiece from a book and signed on the plate — not quite worth the thirty dollars I had paid and certainly not worth the six months and three letters it took to get my money back. The real trick is to not offend the quoter when you ask for your money back. It takes a fairly high degree of stupidity to make such an error and it requires the skills of a politician to tactfully suggest that someone could have made such a mistake without letting on that you actually believe your quoter to be an idiot. My favourite example of the perils of the quotation system is that of a friend of mine who, having sent a man a cheque for a needed book which had been quoted as a fine copy, received a book that was badly dog-eared and filthy with detached covers which were water-stained and soiled so badly that the title had been obliterated. Sending the book back with a rather sharp note demanding his money back, my friend couldn't resist asking (even though he knew he shouldn't get further involved) how someone could possibly describe such a copy as fine. Back came a reply of such unassailable logic that we can only marvel at the quoter's fine sense of the fitness of things. "Well," he replied, "if I had told you what it was really like you would not have ordered it, would you?" Another common occurrence was the receipt of a large group of quotation cards on which the quoter forgot to put his name and address. This was particularly painful if the books were very good and inexpensive; for there was no way to contact such a quoter.
So advertising in the AB was an act of considerable courage and I awaited the mail thereafter with mixed feelings. But, in fact, things started off very well. I was not deluged by quotes although a lot came in and the majority were for books that I needed. Early on, it became obvious that after fulfilling the needs of the University of Toronto, I should buy any duplicates offered, since it was logical to assume that if the University of Toronto didn't have a particular book, other Canadian institutions would also need it. This assumption proved to be correct and my next few catalogues devoted to Canadian Literature contained a large percentage of my surplus purchases. I had also received a good number of quotations for the planted authors. I was able to purchase many of the titles offered so I was almost immediately supplementing my efforts for the University with unexpected sales. Another thing occurred which I hadn't anticipated. Many quoters, no doubt grasping at straws, quoted me any book they had relating to Canada. I didn't want most of them but the odd one was worth buying, so I augmented my take that way as well.
As with all books turning up in faraway places the occasional item appears that, for one reason or another, (for instance being privately printed by an ex-Canadian who no one remembers is Canadian) is not known by anyone. I have learned to look for such books especially in places like California where a lot of Canadians seem to have migrated, some no doubt for climate but others for more esoteric reasons like religious cults, etc. I always check prefaces to see where they were signed and dated. Just a short while ago, I flashed the preface on a book about Tibet by a woman with a Dutch name 'and found that the preface was signed and dated at "Chatham, Ontario" — usually proof that the author was Canadian. When I checked Watters, I found that she was. Another winner. The word "Chatham" added a hundred dollars to the value of what otherwise would have been a twenty-five dollar book. Charles Everitt, whose memoirs "Adventures of a Treasure Hunter" is to my mind one of the best books on bookselling, mentions somewhere that after a lifetime of flashing the pages of books, he became quite adept at spotting the word America in unlikely books. When this happens such a book becomes Americana and opportunities are opened for its sale in markets otherwise closed. I have also been doing this for many years and have found Canada or Canadian place names in some very interesting places. Once I bought and was cataloguing a Victorian triple-decker (a three volume novel) when the words "New Brunswick" caught my eye. I discovered with a bit of investigation that the author, a British officer, had spent a couple of years serving with his regiment there. Examining the text, I discovered that the entire novel was set in eastern Canada and dealt with the Indians, always an interesting and sought after subject here. I promptly doubled the price and called Richard Landon. "I have a novel you don't have," I informed him, which translated as "you must buy this book," and he did. I then had the pleasure of boasting to my colleagues about how clever I was, but as it turned out, Landon was more clever than I, for he did his homework, properly checking all other sources and found no other copy anywhere. In other words, it was unrecorded and had I known that I probably could have asked not three hundred but one thousand dollars or more. Even worse, Landon didn't just boast to all our friends about the wonderful sleeper he had bought from me, he actually went so far as to put it in print, in his annual report. I still get to hear about that regularly, and I guess I will till I die or until another copy turns up somewhere because it, I believe, remains the only copy known. As a result of this humiliation I evolved a clever system. When I found obscure items that didn't appear in the usual bibliographic sources, I phoned Gerry Sherlock. If Gerry said he had never seen it, then I knew I had a real rarity. In fact, I've continued to do that for the last twenty-five years for no reference book ever equals a good dealer's experience. Even though I haven't worked for Gerry for a quarter of a century, I still make use of his good nature. At least I can now return the favour, occasionally myself having some areas of expertise which I can share with him.
My greatest discovery using my new quoting method was a writer I had never heard of and one that most of you will not have heard of either, although she was the best-selling Canadian author of her time. Her name was May Agnes Fleming and she wrote perhaps a hundred books or more. (The exact number is difficult to establish because the titles were changed regularly, not just between England and America, but also between publishers — a new publisher, often a pirate, would change a title to make his edition appear to be a new title.) Watters lists sixty-one titles for Fleming, but leaves out a lot. It does note some changed titles, in some cases with three different titles for the same book. "Wright Fiction", which is the American equivalent of Watters, lists some thirty-nine titles for Fleming, apparently not aware of the fact she was Canadian. These are not always the same titles as those listed in Watters so it is confusing. I came to feel a special bond with Fleming, for I felt that I had discovered, or at least rediscovered, her. She is no longer in complete obscurity, as she is given space in the "Dictionary of Canadian Biography" as well as other reference works such as the "Feminist Companion to Literature" where, incidentally, she resides right next to Zelda Fitzgerald and Janet Flanner. May Agnes Fleming was born in New Brunswick in 1840. She began her writing career early and, at age fifteen, she had a short story published in the Mercury. She never looked back. A prolific writer, she wrote for four newspapers at one time and from 1868 on, she wrote an average of three novels a year. Fleming eventually transferred to the "New York Weekly", then the most widely circulated newspaper in the United States, and at the same time she was providing serials for the "London Journal". She soon became a master of Gothic fiction, manipulating very complex and ingenious plots. Several of her works contain a "villainess of passion, initiative and determination" contrasted with a "virtuous and submissive heroine." Fred Cogswell, in the "Dictionary of Canadian Biography", compares her plots to those of Wilkie Collins.
Many of her books have wonderful Victorian titles, and I must ask for your indulgence because I cannot resist quoting some of them. For instance "Ermine; or The Gypsy's Vow, A Tale of Love and Vengeance." (We don't get titles like that anymore, do we?) Another: "The Twin Sisters or The Wronged Wife's Hate." Curiously, Watters notes that this was later published as "The Rival Brothers or the Wronged Wife's Hate." You will notice that she changed the focus from the sisters to the brothers, but she still leaves in the wronged wife, and another one: "La Masque or the Midnight Queen, A Tale of Illusion, Delusion and Mystery." Now this strikes me as one of the greatest titles for a book, one so good that, as was said about the first sentences of Johnson's "Rasselas", there is no need to read any further. Could there be a more perfect description of marriage than the subtitle "A Tale of Illusion, Delusion and Mystery"? Her last novel was something of a groundbreaker, as her heroine faces psychologically complex problems and demonstrates initiative only previously attributed to her villains. (Perhaps this is why she qualified for inclusion in "The Feminist Companion.") It includes a perceptive portrait of a woman who has the courage to escape from a horrible marriage and forge an independent life. Obviously, it was based in part on her own experience. For although she did marry and have four children, by all accounts, her husband was some sort of drunken wastrel, and she relied on fiction to support herself and her children. That her husband permanently embittered her is indicated by some of her other titles; for instance, "A Mad Marriage", and an intriguing combination of two titles published in a double volume — the first, "Fated to Marry" followed by "A Night of Terror." Other titles include, "Wedded for Pique", "The Wife's Tragedy", "A Wronged Wife", and perhaps the most evocative of the lot, "The Unseen Bridegroom or Wedded for a Week." Her situation was so grave that she took legal action to ensure that her husband could not get his hands on any of her money which, given her success as a novelist, was substantial. From 1870 on, she earned about fifteen thousand dollars per year — no paltry sum at the time. Fleming was one of the most successful and popular novelists of her day and was Canada's first best-selling novelist, even if no one has heard of her. Her popularity was such that publishers tried to continue their commercial success after her death, by putting her name on hackwork written by others.
I got quite a few quotations for Fleming, mostly pretty cheap and I bought everything offered. I listed them in my next Canadian Literature catalogue and was deluged with orders. It seemed no library in Canada had any May Agnes Fleming and I ended up with many back orders for them all. I put special ads in the AB just for her and for the next two or three years I ran a mini-specialty in May Agnes Fleming. Naturally, other dealers caught on and started searching as well, but my head-start ensured that I had all the contacts and I supplied an enormous number of books until, inevitably, the sources dried up and the prices rose dramatically. I still see the odd Fleming title, always with a tinge of affection for that strange woman. She died in 1880, at the age of forty, worn out from all the writing or, more likely, from raising children, writing all night and holding her drunken husband at bay. It seems to me that there is material for an interesting Ph.D. thesis somewhere in all of this and when the scholar appears who takes it on they ought to thank Miss Blackstock and me for making it all possible. They won't, of course; they won't even know about us. But we don't care; we did our jobs and the books are where they should be, waiting for future generations to make use of them. I believe it was through Fleming that I came in contact with a quoter who will serve as an example of the sort of eccentricity I mentioned earlier. One of my earliest quotations was from a man named Clyde King. He had sent a long quotation and I had responded in the usual manner we used with all new quoters — encouraging them by buying as much as possible. He became my largest supplier of May Agnes Fleming and some others, but soon human nature reared its ugly head and prices started to rise. It seemed that the more I bought, the higher the prices on the next quotation until finally his prices exceeded what I felt I could ask my clients. Now I couldn't come right out and tell him: "Clyde you are getting too greedy. Smarten up if you want me to buy books," so instead I stopped buying certain books, at first stating I didn't need them all, but also subtly hinting that some were getting a bit more expensive than I could afford. But subtlety didn't work with Clyde King and he started to become cranky, so I started turning down lots of them, and finally large lists of books, none of which I felt I could buy without gouging my clients. In the end, I stopped answering his quotations.
Previously, King had offered me some children's books which I didn't want but which seemed interesting so I sent him on to my friend Yvonne Knight of St. Nicholas Books who specializes in children's books. She bought them and he began quoting books for her regularly as well. Later, when I had resorted to the ultimate defense of not answering King's letters, I had a call from Yvonne. "Clyde King is asking me what happened to you," she said. He says you don't answer his letters. I told her why and inquired how she was doing with him. "Well, he gets a bit querulous when I don't buy everything," she replied. "Just wait," said I, smiling to myself smugly. Then I started getting calls from Yvonne weekly — "Clyde says you don't like him anymore." "Clyde says he sold you wonderful books for nothing and now you don't even reply. He says you made a fortune off him and now that he simply wants his fair share of the huge profits you cut him off. He called you an ingrate. Clyde says he bought a huge pile of May Agnes Fleming just for you and now he will be stuck with them. He says to tell you he is not sure if he will be able to stay in business." The next week: "Clyde is ill with worry. Can't you do something? If you would buy just a few, he might be able to survive." By this time Clyde's relationship with Yvonne had started to deteriorate too, and his complaints were turning into diatribes. "You are a traitor and a weasel this week," reported Yvonne. Then it became nationalistic:"What's the matter with you Canadians? Don't you understand anything about loyalty or decency?" Finally, one week Yvonne called to tell me that Clyde wanted the address of the President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada. "He's going to have you expelled from the association." "For not answering quotes?" I asked. "Well he calls it 'unprofessional foreign relations,'" she informed me. I recognized Clyde's distinctive prose style. Poor Clyde, he was doomed to further frustration for, as chance would have it, I had just been elected to the Board of Directors of the Association. Yvonne's next call conveyed yet another whine: "Don't any Canadians answer letters? Are you all ingrates?" By this time Yvonne was sick of being the go between and wanted to be rid of Clyde, but was much too nice to be curt with him as I had been. Then one day, I thought we had been saved. The newspaper sports section announced that George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, had once again fired Billy Martin and named a new manager — his name — Clyde King. I immediately phoned Yvonne. "We've been saved; we're saved. Clyde King is the new manager of the New York Yankees. Boy, is Steinbrenner ever going to get it. If he thought Billy Martin was bad he hasn't seen anything yet. By the time Clyde gets through with him the Yankees will be finished for decades." Unfortunately, my euphoria was short-lived because it was, of course, a different Clyde King who became manager of the Yankees, although I believe our Clyde would have been perfect for Steinbrenner.
The accusations kept coming through Yvonne, more and more scurrilous, but the amusing thing was that every few months I would receive another letter directly from Clyde. "Dear Mr. Mason, It's been a while since we were last in touch. I think of you often and I hope you are well. I just got some wonderful May Agnes Fleming books and I wanted to offer them to you first because of old times." I guess Clyde was from the carrot and stick school of quoting but I was smart enough not to start the cycle again and I never answered. I still occasionally wonder who Clyde King is persecuting these days.
All in all, the experiment worked very well. But one day after four or five years, it became apparent to me that I was no longer supplying very much to the University of Toronto. Most of my sources had been depleted and my business had grown. The University's collection was now only one project among several and I couldn't give it my full attention. I was no longer hungry enough to be as fully effective as this sort of project necessitates. I called Cicely Blackstock and told her what I thought. While I was prepared to continue indefinitely, I thought it was time we passed the project on to a newer, more hungry dealer who wanted an opportunity to prove himself. She agreed, and the project was given to another dealer. I was very pleased with how things had transpired, for the University of Toronto had become a valued client and I had gotten to know a lot of the librarians, many of whom I am still working with twenty years later. I tried to locate my figures so I could give some idea of how many books I had supplied but, unfortunately, the records for that period are in storage. I do remember adding up, some years ago, all the books I had supplied to the University which hadn't been listed by Watters and it was, I think, over three hundred titles. That being true, the Watters items supplied would have exceeded one thousand items. I considered that the project had been a great success and I hope the University of Toronto did too. Other good things occurred which I hope my talk illustrates. I think the most important was that while I was working out ways of completing the project, I invented systems which I could apply in other areas. I am still profitting from many of the lessons I learned.
I found that constant perusal of my lists and of Watters led to a certain expertise. I learned a lot of names of Canadian'authors whom I would never have guessed were Canadian. This is more important than it sounds. If sixty to eighty percent of the books in any bookstore's fiction section are by unknown authors, knowing which of those authors are Canadian will allow one to make money. A book by a Canadian author in an obscure store in someplace like Long Beach, California will be priced very cheaply. The profit from finding twenty of these will pay for one's plane fare or hotel. It's not an accident that I mention Long Beach. There is a famous store there called Acres of Books. It is huge and I mean huge. I once spent a whole day there going through just their fiction section and at the end of the day I had only got to letters C and D. That's why it's called Acres of Books. The store gets scouted by countless knowledgeable dealers, but if nobody but me knows which authors are Canadian, I can pay for my whole trip in that one place.
By no means the least important benefit of those years was my learning how a library functions from the inside, and how librarians view books and booksellers — all important things for an ambitious bookseller to know. I will end by stressing what may not be so apparent to some of you here and that is the position of this library in the world of books. The Fisher Library is the greatest library in Canada, in every sense of the word, and probably one of the top half dozen in this hemisphere, and that is so, in my view, because it includes all the aspects that a great library must: good professional librarians, interested alumni and students, serious non-academic users and, equally importantly, an interested group of collectors and readers who understand and appreciate that a great library is really a great museum and must be supported in the same manner. My bias is obvious; something for which I don't apologize. Indeed, it is nice to be partisan when the party deserves it. This library has been very good to me, and I appreciate it.
When Richard Landon asked me to give this talk and offered to pay me a modest stipend, I decided to return it to the Friends of the Fisher Library as a small token of my gratitude. But on reflection, I decided that might not be wise. After all, Richard would use it to buy a book, but might slip-up and buy the book from one of my competitors, who are nice enough fellows mostly, but not that nice. In order to avoid any unseemly occurrences, I have purchased a book for the Fisher Library from a dealer I know personally to be honest, clever, fair in his pricing and generally a nice fellow. The book is a pirated Dublin edition, probably the true second edition of the first part of Samuel Johnson's "Lives of the English Poets." It was printed the year after the first edition which was also pirated, also in Dublin. Both these editions precede the English edition printed in London, in four volumes, one year later. The University of Toronto doesn't seem to have it (according to the computer anyway) In fact, it seems to be a rare book. But, of course, booksellers always say that, about their own books, don't they?
Talk given by David Mason at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, 15 March 1995, published in Descant 91, Volume 26, No. 4 Winter 1995. The article is published on www.davidmasonbooks.com. It is presented here by permission of the author. Thank you very much.