Reflections on Scouting, Part II
By David Mason
I believe that profit is not a concern, nor ever was, of all the real collectors I have known. If this assumption is correct we can infer therefore that collectors who are concerned with and constantly stress monetary value are essentially speculators, not real collectors. Maybe that’s why so many of them disappear so quickly.
Collecting is an emotional process, a hobby which seems to so engage the collector and which provides so much pleasure and comfort, that I believe monetary reward is of little interest to them. There are stories of collectors who put their books up at auction, or sell their collection. When this occurs I think the prices or price realized is for the collector only a measure for him – a tribute perhaps to his cleverness and passion – but not really a monetary concern. Some collectors plan to give their collections to institutions on their death – or sometimes before. And some are of the school that believes that they should return them to the open market to give later collectors a chance. Mostly though, a man who has spent many years acquiring books and assembling a coherent collection by imposing his knowledge, experience and passion on a subject will be very proud, and rightfully so, of his accomplishment and will want to have, what in effect is his creation, left intact, both for future scholars but also as a tribute to himself. For that is what a collection is. Whatever other value it might contain a collection is really a monument to the person who builds it.
We have a man in Toronto who obsessively collects all of modern philosophy (this would be from the early 19th century to today.) This man previously formed the greatest collection of the work of Bertrand Russell in the world. A professor of philosophy, unmarried and therefore free of many constraints, he generally spent every summer scouting every bookshop in Britain and would return with 3 or 4 hundred additions to his Russell collection every year, in later years mostly magazine appearances and often books where the index merely cited Russell, sometime only once. Obviously he had the disease badly and incurably by this time, the compulsion for completeness now an obsession.
He once gave an address about collecting where he began by telling his audience that his collecting career started when he collected the printed cards used to separate layers in the old style Shredded Wheat boxes. The roar of laughter which this elicited from the audience indicated that most of the rest of us had done the same thing as kids.
Anyway, this man, when he pretty much ran out of Russell to buy, focused his obsessional habit on the entire field of modern philosophy with the same intensity he had applied to Russell. Both his Russell collection and later, the philosophy collection were gifted to the University of Toronto and every five years or so two appraisers are called in to value the latest addition which is usually so large it generally takes most of a week to appraise. This Professor (his name is John Slater as almost any dealer in the world will have guessed by now) usually drops by when we are about to start on the latest batch to point out things which might escape our notice. This is usually necessary because much of it is so obscure only another philosophy professor might know who some of these people are.
It was very common for John to show us a book, the author completely unknown to us, and inform us what a sleeper it was at £1 or £2, or whatever. This would no doubt be a very scarce book but the real point is, that no one else seeing that book would even know who the author was, nor care. So it was a sleeper only to the man who found it, as in this case.
One year John casually mentioned to me, “You know Dave, my collection will now be the most complete modern Philosophy collection anywhere in the world.”
“Well John, I guess you mean the largest in private hands.
“No, I mean anywhere in the world. I know that because I’ve checked my collection of American philosophy and it’s better than that of the British Library and my holdings of English philosophy are better than what is in the Library of Congress.”
As I meditated on that later I realized that it indeed would be true. An important point. What that means is that one person, on his own, with imagination and passion can supercede the resources of perhaps the two greatest public repositories in the English speaking world. Think about that before you dismiss the private collector as a befuddled eccentric.
The first really serious lessons I learned about scouting I absorbed without even being aware that I was learning anything. The young, starting as they do, with empty minds and little experience, begin by filling those empty minds with everything. But until their experience develops to the point where the deluge of data can be arranged into patterns of order – which needs time as its base – they often fail to see the patterns just under the surface. When I was just a year or two in business the University of Toronto hired me for a project which taught me more about scouting, collecting and quite a few ancillary subjects, than perhaps anything else I experienced in my early years. The project was to supply the University with every piece of Canadian Literature they didn’t have. There was only one tool which existed then for such a project: a checklist compiled by a librarian named Reginald Watters (and referred to by everyone ever after simply as Watters – naturally.) Watters and his student assistants had solicited from all the Canadian libraries and such general repositories as the British Museum and the Library of Congress and certain foreign libraries such as Brown University, which had large collections of Canadian literature, all their holdings based on their catalogue cards. This was published in 1950 and updated in 1960. It was, and is, imperfect but for a long time it was the only game in town.
The University of Toronto, like most Canadian libraries in the money-drenched 60s, had bought major works by what were considered the major Canadian authors, but had ignored the minor, the obscure, the self-published vanity productions, the things which, while not individually important, help to reflect the mind of the country.
They hired me to find what was missing. It was a daunting task, especially for a neophyte who hadn’t, then, a clue about how to go about it. I was given a copy of Watters marked up by them with their holdings and carte blanche to supply what was missing from their lists. And also anything Canadian which had not been included in the checklist, which was plenty. Too naïve to realize that I would be profiting by my acquired knowledge long after the project was completed (in fact I continue to profit, regularly, 40 years later) I concentrated only on seeking the needed books. After all, I needed to make a living. It was hard work but very rewarding – it got so every time I found something obscure it felt like it had seemed when I found that beautiful golf ball at seven years of age – a triumph! I became very adept at spotting, and then surmising what should be a Canadian writer, even though neither the book or the author’s name was known to me. With no model to guide me, nor even suggestions from more experienced dealers as to how to go about it, I was forced to invent my own systems for locating things which I couldn’t often identify, people and books which were not even known to be Canadian. The full account of what I did and how I managed it, can be found in an essay called “A Tale of Illusion, Delusion and Mystery: Booksellers and Librarians”, which can be found on my website.
I learned the names, for instance, of several English and American publishers who operated what are called Vanity presses, publishers who were paid by the authors to print the books which conventional publishers reject.
It made sense if one found a small book of poems by one of these publishers in Canada that the author should be Canadian, the logic being that the author’s only audience would be his friends and family, one of the reasons – aside from vanity – that such books often have lengthy presentation inscriptions in them. Such books often don’t stray far from the source, and about 90% of the time this premise would prove to be true. And I was often aided by flashing the pages to find Canadian place names in the text. Charles Everitt in his book “The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter” mentions that after a lifetime flashing books he got very good at spotting the word “America” in unlikely books which then rendered them salable as Americana. I practiced this idea to my great profit as well by flashing pages seeking Canadian place names and I still do.
Many important lessons were learned but for scouting the chief two were: look closely, then look again and never dismiss a book until you are sure you know what you are looking at. And look everywhere. In the usual chaos of a used bookstore, especially those with several employees, anything can be anywhere.
Whatever bitterness older dealers have about the depredations so prevalent on the Internet it does provide great benefits, readily accessible now, the lack of which tortured us when we were young. One can “Google” almost anyone and place their citizenship and importance in context in 30 seconds, instead of spending hours in a library consulting books. And we can check the holdings of every major institution in the world, also in a couple of minutes. On the other hand, while the young dealers have an enormous apparent research edge over those of us who suffered our way to knowledge, these young dealers don’t strike me as any smarter than we were and I now wonder what one retains from any pool of knowledge which is so easy to dip into.
I hope I’m not going to be one of those old grouches who goes around spouting platitudes like “No pain, no gain” and “the younger generations are hopelessly lost”, but I guess I’m guilty because that’s what I have come to believe.
I know many dealers who have made most of their living carrying lists of wants of their institutional clients around the whole continent. If my experience with the Canadian Literature project is any indicator the permanent benefits of the things learned is far more profitable in the long term, than whatever monetary rewards occurred at the time. Another project, similar in style, if not content, to the Canadian Literature project was conducted with the National Library of Canada, our equivalent of the Library of Congress and the British Library, whose mandate is to acquire all things relating to Canada. But in learning the same sorts of things there was a significant difference. This project was virgin territory, an area which was almost entirely ignored till I happened on it as a very young scout and which, if the truth be admitted, I believe I invented. This is the field known now as Canadian Editions, that is books by foreign authors published in Canada. When I started it was an area almost completely ignored. This is a field which should be fascinating from a bibliographical point of view, but I can only remember one major bibliography which properly attempted to cite Canadian editions and that was James McG. Stewart’s “Rudyard Kipling: A Bibliographical Catalogue” (Toronto: Dalhousie University Press and Toronto University Press, 1959). Stewart was a Canadian, and would have been regularly exposed to the Canadian editions of Kipling’s books of which there were quite a few, demonstrating his importance at the height of the British Empire. Jacob Blanck’s “Bibliography of American Literature”, the major attempt to categorize American literature from its beginnings into the early 20th century, in 10 volumes (generally now referred to as BAL, or sometimes just Blanck) was a major achievement and they note Canadian editions when they located them. The single most interesting section of BAL for Canadian editions is the entry on Mark Twain, who was constantly pirated in Canada and some of whose true first editions were thus published in Canada. The Canadian pirates would steal the text from a periodical or sometimes directly from the English or American text, printing so quickly that they often were offering their cheap productions within a day or two of the American publication. And when they stole from periodical serials they were often out with their piracy before the proper first edition was issued and thereby usurped that position, becoming themselves the true first edition (a phrase loved by booksellers – it makes us appear knowledgeable.) So incensed was Twain by his enormous losses at the hands of the Canadian pirates that he moved to Montreal for six months, the legal statutory period to gain Canadian copyright protection. He did this to protect “Life of the Mississippi” (Montreal, 1881) which is therefore a legitimate publication, although there is an earlier pirated version of part of it called “Old Times on the Mississippi”. A Canadian librarian once compiled from Canadian sources his own checklist of Canadian piracy’s of Twain’s books which is a good 50% larger than BALs. I have specialized in this field for almost 40 years and I have done well supplying foreign institutions, and collectors, with the Canadian editions of their writers. I believe the situation in Australia was similar although I am ignorant as to whether piracy was as prevalent there.
I have made a lot of money over the last forty years with Canadian Editions and so I should have, because, until I started buying them they were pretty much entirely ignored. I will tell the full story of this but the real significance, I believe, is not these variant issues themselves but the obscurity they rested in until I discovered and exploited them. The first one I discovered in a used bookshop was Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tales of the Jazz Age”. Pulling it off the shelf, thinking it was the first edition. I was surprised to find instead, that it bore the imprint of the Canadian publisher Copp Clark although the copyright page information was precisely the same as the Scribner’s U. S. issue. This was because one of the formats used was to simply print the Canadian issue from the plates of the U.S. edition, changing only the imprint on the title, the spine, and the dustjacket.
The second surprise was the price - $10.00. The first edition of that title at that time would have been $100-$150, the significance of the dustwrapper (which this copy lacked) not yet having reached the ludicrous point it occupies today. The dustwrapper is today considered essential, and even the common practice (at least in Canada) of clipping off the U.S. price has rendered a recent first edition pretty much unsaleable to collectors. It didn’t make sense to me that there should be such a discrepancy in price, so I bought it. These books were usually part of the first edition and I assumed, and later research confirmed, where print-run figures could be learned, that there would have been a very small percentage of an entire edition with a Canadian title page. Sometimes evidence shows the Canadian issue could have been as few as fifty copies explaining the great scarcity of some of these editions. After some time I became very proficient at spotting these books on store shelves by spotting the Canadian publisher’s name on the spine. Indeed, I eventually got very proficient at guessing even with no imprint on the spine what foreign titles in a certain period should have been first Canadian editions. Pulling them off the shelf I would be enormously pleased when I was right most of the time; a good example of what I have come to call the “educated instinct.”
My Catalogue No. 2 issued in 1968 contained a section devoted to Canadian editions which I prepared with great trepidation. After much agonizing I priced some of my Canadian Editions right up there with nice copies of the First Editions and I was frankly scared as to what the reception would be. After all, I was exploring a field that had been ignored by everyone and had no established bibliographic foundation. This is why I priced the books with such trepidation. I, a relative newcomer, was setting the prices.
It was through my exploration of Canadian editions that I had a wonderful experience with one of the great 20th Century collectors and bibliographers, Matthew Bruccoli (referred to by some as “Mad Matt” for his passion and uncompromising dedication to the principles of bibliography.)
He had visited my first tiny shop the year before in company with the well-known Faulkner scholar James Meriwether, a real southern gentleman. Both of them were a delight to meet, especially for a neophyte, and I was very impressed by both. After an hour-long visit both men bought a $10.00 book, which even I could see was really just a gesture of courtesy, which made this meeting even more important to me.
Shortly after their arrival Bruccoli took a large cigar out of his pocket and unwrapped it. But he didn’t light it. An incessant smoker myself then, I offered him a light as I lit my own next cigarette.
“Oh, no. I don’t smoke them”, he replied. “My wife doesn’t allow me to light them.”
He then proceeded over the next hour to eat the cigar, chewing it up bit by bit and depositing the refuse in his pocket and all over my floor. When they left it was a mere stub, and I had to vacuum the rug.
I had quoted Bruccoli the two Canadian Fitzgeralds in the catalogue before issuing it but he hadn’t replied. Naturally I took this to mean that not only was he not interested but was so contemptuous of my effrontery in my pricing that he didn’t even bother to reply. However when I issued the catalogue I got a frantic call ordering them; he had actually been out of the country and hadn’t seen the quote. Shipping the books I included a note, my natural insecurity at the pricing causing me to make an apologetic reference to the prices. (This is a very common syndrome amongst young, or beginning dealers, especially the better ones. It takes many years and much experience to over-come this natural tendency to fear that your prices might appear too high.)
I received a wonderful note in reply from Prof. Bruccoli containing one of the greatest comments from a scholar / collector I have ever seen.
“Don’t ever apologize for the price of one of your books”, he replied. “Any scholar who won’t pay the proper price for a book is neither a true scholar nor a true collector. He’s a phony.”
What a gracious gesture to a neophyte! Thirty years later when I obtained the only known copy of one of those Canadian Fitzgeralds in the dustwrapper I took great pleasure in offering it to him. It was a considerable price I asked for it too, but true to his credo he bought it by return and thanked me profusely.
I was saddened to hear that Matt Bruccoli had died just over a year ago, but now that he has, it allows me to admit that, high as my price was for that still-unique Fitzgerald, I had purposely taken a couple of thousand dollars off the price in grateful homage to that civilized gesture he made towards me all those years ago.
People love rules and systems, as witness all the “isms” which in the 20th century have caused the slaughter of so many millions of people, and book collectors are apparently no different. But I hope that all these anecdotes demonstrate the importance of absorbing the rules and then defying them. The world is changed by people who defy the common view and apply their own experience and intelligence to life’s challenges.
When you are a beginner everything provides a lesson. Some of the ancillary lessons I learned with this Canadian editions project were difficult and in the end painful, although necessary lessons to learn.
The man at the National Library who hired me for the Canadian Editions project had to be convinced of the importance of these editions, both bibliographically and for what they illustrated of Canadian publishing, bookselling, and, more important, the reading habits of Canadians in that period.
I did not learn, until some years later, that neither this man nor his assistants and underlings were librarians – they were civil servants, bureaucrats in fact. So naïve was I then that it never occurred to me that a library could be staffed by other than librarians but such was the case in Ottawa, in one our most important national institutions.
It all began when, after considerable effort, I convinced this man that it was an important project to amass a collection which showed so clearly what was seen as culturally important reading in Canada during the period covered. I sold him a collection of some 700 – 800 titles I had formed but pointed out that this, being only a relatively small percentage of the total output – from, say, the 1820s to the 1940s – that the really important part of our deal was to find some way of adding the missing titles to their holdings. After I managed to convince him that Canadian editions were a legitimate concern of Canada’s National Library, I suggested to him that he hire me to fill out the collection with new acquisitions. I explained that the only way to do such a project was for one person to have an exclusive contract to supply missing books.
It’s obvious why it needed to be exclusive since careful records would need to be kept to avoid buying unneeded duplicates. I knew that though Canadian Editions were ignored and cheap in Toronto stores then, they would not long remain cheap when the other dealers finally caught on to what I was doing. The man agreed, the principle being obvious, but he told me that he couldn’t put such a thing in writing because someone might consider this as fishy, even perhaps a criminal conflict of interest. As a public servant he needed to think of such things.
The way he put it was to say, “I can’t sign anything but I’ll guarantee that we won’t buy anything from any other dealer.” He then gave me authorization to send all books $25 or under without quoting them; I could simply send them with an invoice. Anything over that amount I had to quote. Within a year he had upped my blanket-shipping invoicing limit to $50; obviously I had passed the test.
I worked directly with his assistant, a young woman who had been present at all our discussions, and the project worked very well. It was a couple of years later when the young woman, with whom I had forged a very smooth working relationship, called me one day to tell me she was leaving the National Library. I was upset as she was very clever and our system of communication had worked marvelously. She had also become a collector of Edna O’Brien whose red hair and patrician profile she shared.
“Where are you going?”, I inquired sadly.
“To the Treasury Department”, she replied.
“Treasury? What the hell is a librarian going to do in Treasury?”
“Oh”, she replied, astounding me, “I’m not a librarian, I’m a civil servant. They move us around like this all the time.”
That’s when I learned our national repository of printed material relating to our history is not staffed by librarians.
I kept a careful record of all transactions, compiling a list as I went which effectively became the first written record of the publishing of foreign titles in Canada. Indeed, I am now working on cleaning up bibliographic descriptions because I intend to make a book of it. It will be the first published record of actual foreign influence on the Canadian literary psyche.
But just as my scouting efforts for the University of Toronto were seen as a great success by both parties, the National Library project ended in disaster, based on the usual human failings, namely greed, envy, spite and a few more.
I learned a lot of lessons here too, although not ones I particularly wanted to learn in this manner. I will tell the whole story with all the sordid details in my memoirs.
Now it’s time to tell you about another form of scouting, one which I expect you will, initially at least, find silly. I refer to scouting my own store. You will say, but how can you buy from yourself and make a profit? Well, I shall explain and when I am done I hope you will see not only the logic and beauty of it but several other things relevant to human behavior.
One of the delights of starting a new collection from a fresh idea is to scout one's own shelves for those books which fit in and it is surprising how much one will usually find in one's own store. I have come to believe that this occurs because an unconscious factor has been, and is, in play here. The idea for a new collection, or catalogue, must have been gestating in the subconscious, maybe for years, causing the dealer to have a more than normal interest in that category of book, causing him to buy that sort of book over the years. When the idea becomes conscious and one pursues likely components which fit into the newly formulated pattern, it is not surprising that one finds one already owns a good selection in the subject. And more important, by imposing an overview on what had been considered unrelated objects, one creates a new perspective. That is what makes book collecting a creative endeavor. The vision of a collection by its very conscious formulation imposes a larger meaning on the individual components. Afterwards, everything is looked at differently.
An example. When I began collecting publishers’ bindings some 35 years ago the first thing I did was to scour my own stock for appropriate components. The binding publishers used, starting in the 1820s, is cloth, sometimes leather. Previously, books were issued in paper covers which the buyer was meant to take to his bookbinder, for binding in leather of his choice. I was initially shocked at how many lovely examples illustrating the evolution of publishers’ trade bindings in very fine condition I found, but on reflection it became apparent that I had been buying such things for years because I liked them. When the idea took coherent form the components were there waiting. This happens whenever one begins a new collection and I think my “subconscious” theory is the only one which adequately explains this phenomenon. More surprising is how frequently on searching one’s own stock that one finds books which one would buy in an instant from another shop. In fact it’s surprising how often one has. Which is why dealers regularly end up with several copies of books they like. Many times, having priced a new acquisition, I file it in its place in the shop only to find I have a copy of that same book already on my shelves and priced less than the price I had just paid a colleague for the second copy. Some people accuse booksellers of systematically pricing up their books but it is quite surprising how seldom dealers actually do this. It’s hard work and time consuming, in spite of the fact that it can eventually be the source of profit, I, for one, find it boring.
Vanity is the downfall of many scouts. The urge to boast of great finds often causes the scout to reveal his secret triumphs, especially late at night when the alcohol is flowing. And it’s not just scouts and dealers who do themselves in, figuratively – collectors do it too. A smart dealer always has his ears attuned for the verbal slips which mean useful knowledge for the future. But just in case you might think I am revealing these secrets out of some innate superiority, let me admit right now that this syndrome is so familiar to me because I share the character flaws which cause it. I am also guilty. The temptation to tell the story of a great find, especially when you are the brilliant hero of the story can prove overwhelming even when you know that in the telling you will be revealing things which would be better kept secret. An example: many years ago when the Canadian art-collecting market became popular it overflowed into books. The new collectors of art, educating themselves, sought reference and history books on Canadian art causing the field to become very expensive, rising prices reflecting both demand and intrinsic importance. Art collectors began to frequent bookshops. It became a common occurrence that an unknown visitor would casually inquire of a bookseller if he had any issues of a book-collecting magazine called The Colophon. We always knew what that meant.
The Colophon, perhaps the most beautiful and ambitious magazine on book collecting ever done, appeared as a quarterly from 1930 to 1950. It was originally issued in ornate decorated board covers, with a number of different articles in every issue, each one designed and printed by a different fine printer. It was a beautiful piece of work and because of the interest in book illustration it often contained etchings and woodcuts commissioned for articles, or simply on their own. So it was that in 1932 they commissioned a print from David Milne, a drypoint etching which has become very collectable, partly because it is one of very few signed Milnes that is accessible to a Milne admirer who is not rich.
The perhaps apocryphal story about it is that Milne did the etching by running the plate through the wringer of a washing machine which caused wear to the plate which ended up resulting in four states of the plate. This plate extracted from the Colophon readily sold from $1500 - $2000 then and those of us who knew that often would put out feelers to American dealers and friends to supply us that issue. In those days single issues sold for $20-$25.
Some art collectors learned where it had been published which explains the seemingly casual inquiries for the Colophon we started to get. Some dealers would even buy a complete run of the Colophon, expensive even then, due to its importance and beauty – not to mention it’s very interesting content – just to get the Milne print. Even today when one see complete runs of the Colophon offered in the market they are usually described as “missing a plate from issue No. Five.” Once, scouting in a huge used bookstore in San Francisco, I went to the Books on Books section to find that it contained only one issue of The Colophon and it was No. Five! Probably part of a bigger run, it had remained unsold because half of the back-strip was missing. My great good luck, because it was priced at $7 and the Milne plate was still in it. That find paid for the whole trip.
All this was ruined by the vain boasting of Richard Landon, the Director of the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto, a known frequenter of bookstores and a serious private book collector himself. Landon once found in Michael Thompson’s shop in Los Angeles, a copy of No. Five for $10 or $20, and later over drinks couldn’t resist one-upping Thompson by boasting of the sleeper he had just bought from him. This was particularly galling for me because until then I had been buying an average of 2 or 3 copies every trip to Los Angeles from Thompson and other dealers – mostly for $20 each. Thompson being a very smart bookseller continued to offer them to me but rather than $20 I now had to pay $100 (US) and, of course, even that price rose in time. But I still bought them and Thompson and I continued to move them along for a while – a nice lucrative sideline for us both. However, gossip being what it is, that only lasted a couple of years before too many others caught on and another sleeper disappeared, the result of Landon’s loose lips. But that wasn’t Landon’s only sin. Another Canadian book often found cheaply in the States was Louis Hemon’s “Maria Chapdelaine” illustrated by the important Canadian artist Clarence Gagnon, published in Paris in 1933. Because the book had been first published in 1916 and the French-Canadian artist Gagnon was not well-known outside Canada it appeared to be just another of those later illustrated editions of literary classics that the French so love to issue, to the wonder of the rest of the world.
The bubble burst one year when the New Yorker published a profile of Larry McMurtry, the writer and Academy Award winning screenwriter, who has been an Antiquarian bookseller for some 50 years. One of the people the author of the profile chose to interview was Landon who could not resist boasting that he had bought a copy of “Maria Chapdelaine”from McMurtry’s Washington store for $10. Even worse he revealed its value, (it was then selling for upwards of $2000), to the entire readership of the New Yorker. Soon we were getting offered the Milne print for $1000 - $1500 by our American colleagues and “Maria Chapdelaine” for even more. Landon seemed unperturbed when he was informed that his loose lips significantly lowered the average yearly income of half the dealers in Canada.
Now I find myself back where I started, the reflections fueled by Justin Schiller’s visit which prompted these musings and memories of my forty-some years in the trade.
While my general purpose has been to amuse, with some of the many stories that long-time dealers can relate endlessly, it seems clear to me that the real purpose in this, and all anecdotal histories of the booktrade, is to impart some sense of the sheer richness of the bookseller’s life and how important what we do is. I have come to believe that more important then mine or my colleague’s petty concerns about our personal ambitions, the true significance of our work is our social function, our contribution to the salvaging and retention of important artifacts of our civilization. The sense of continuity and the importance of the long established traditions of the trade are, I hope, apparent here, as they are so well-reflected in the sadly-few memoirs left by my betters in the trade.
For many years, in discussions about the literature of the trade, I tended to praise Charles Everitt’s “Adventures of a Treasure Hunter” as a wonderful book for booksellers. It has always been the first book I give to recently hired employees to introduce them to the literature of bookselling but it has always been received with a mixed reaction. Some liked it – or said they did – others barely bothered to mask their indifference, and quite a few have eventually expressed open contempt for my choice.
My choice for second best is David Randall’s “Dukedom Large Enough”, but the book most book people seem to prefer is David Magee’s “Infinite Riches” which is a delightful book by a delightful man, civilized reminisces by a very witty Englishman who transplanted to San Francisco and never left. That Magee personally collected Wodehouse will tell you what to expect from his own book. The first time I met Magee he welcomed me into his house where he was ensconced in a sunken living room space having a gin and tonic with a visiting collector exchanging gossip and witticisms. It was not yet 11am. The book shelves in the area behind this space had huge gaps. “Yes it’s those Heritage boys”, he said, “they’re up here buying books about once a month. I can’t keep the shelves full”, he explained. Magee was, by this time I guess, buying back the libraries of those of his collectors who had died before him and like many older long-experienced dealers he was either out-of-date with the aggressive pricing favoured by ambitious young dealers or perhaps – what I prefer to believe – he just didn’t much care about profit at this stage of his life. He was very cordial, and inscribed a copy of his book “To my young Canadian colleague”. I was so impressed by Magee that those images played in my mind for a long time. That’s how I want to end my so-called career I would think – not so much swilling gin and tonic at 11am, but enjoying the fruits of all those years of struggle surrounded by old friends, cronies, and the learned and civilized people that booksellers get to deal with, ambition and money being relegated to where they belong at that age – down near the bottom of the list.
In closing I’d like to provide an answer to a philosophical dilemma which has haunted the booktrade, certainly during my time and probably since some Babylonian or Greek manuscript peddler hawked their wares in some early pre-Christian marketplace. For as long as I’ve been around there has existed a controversy over whether bookselling should be considered a trade or a profession. Well here is the answer and like all great truths it is succinct. Bookselling is a trade: Bookscouting is a profession.
The article was published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Issue No.78, Winter 2010, and is available on www.davidmasonbooks.com. It is presented here by permission of the author. Thank you very much.