We’ve all done it. It’s an iron rule of bookselling experience that after you have spent hours – even days – carefully selecting and packing books to take to a bookfair, you will have a space of some sort left in the final box. You then cast about and grab the first book that comes to hand that is the right size and shape to finish of the box, stop the books rattling around and complete your task. Doesn’t matter what the book is – right size and shape.
And it’s also an iron rule of bookselling experience that this book – the afterthought, the makeweight, the cuckoo – will be the only book you are absolutely guaranteed to sell at the fair. It’s usually the first to go. So much for planning and forethought. To save everyone the time and effort of trying to find this year’s last-book-in-the-box when they come to Stand 84 at the ABA London International Antiquarian Book Fair when it opens at Olympia tomorrow (Thursday 24th May 2012) – see you there – I shall tell you what it is.
Slightly unusual shape to be filled this time, so it’s Arthur M. Binstead’s Gal’s Gossip (1899) – charming cover by Jan van Beers – and, as the Glasgow Herald put it in a contemporary review, all “very amusing, but Gal’s Gossip is not a book for girls’ schools”. Certain to sell at the fair – or, hold on, wait a moment, is it? Because I sense an equally powerful iron rule beginning to develop in another direction. This is that – despite all the success that blogging about books is alleged to be having in moving buyers and sellers together, despite the recent flutter on Twitter (twutter?) that Brooke Palmieri (Sokol Books Ltd.) caused with her recent post on the subject (and please do, do, read this – Bloggers of the World Unite: Rare Book Bloggers and the Links They Build – link in the blogroll to the right) – my own experience is that even mentioning a book in this particular blog puts a particularly toxic curse on it rendering it completely unsellable. I haven’t sold a single book mentioned in these posts. I have not even had an enquiry. Not so much as a single “How much”? I’ll bring them all along to Olympia tomorrow to prove it.
It’s as if I have somehow reified or “museumified” them by discussing them at greater length than the customary catalogue description. Rendered them somehow hors commerce.
A more plausible theory may of course be that I simply haven’t got a clue about what the book-buying public wants to buy. A little harsh, a little unpalatable to accept, but I will admit to a certain penchant for authors popular and important in their day but now more or less wholly forgotten. But then again, isn’t that part of what we do? Shouldn’t it be? Isn’t it – at least a little – about recovering a lost past?
Take Arthur Morris Binstead (1861-1914), journalist and novelist – he of Gal’s Gossip – for example, as he has come quite serendipitously to hand. Born in the heart of Victorian London, the son of the manager of the Continental Gallery on Bond Street. He drifted into journalism of the racier kind, joining The Sporting Times (aka The Pink ‘Un) in 1884, a journal – as the ODNB puts it with delicious straightness-of-face – “whose eccentric staff included the Dwarf of Blood (Colonel Newnham-Davis), the Stalled Ox (Jimmy Davis), and the irrepressible Shifter (Willie Goldberg)”. Binstead’s own moniker was The Pitcher , apparently in homage to his outstanding ability at pitching a tale. Tall, grave and courteous in manner, a man comfortable in his own skin, a man at ease with those from all walks of life, a friend of both dukes and of costermongers – no easy matter in late Victorian and Edwardian England. He was that curiously turn-of-the century combination of socialite, bohemian and sportsman. It is said that a libel action over one of his stories was settled out of court with damages of “two whiskies, a ham sandwich, a cigar, and 5s. in cash” – and that the five shillings in cash was only the result of losing a double-or-nothing toss.
Could he write? Well, if P. G. Wodehouse was a great admirer, particularly of his style – which he was – then I think we can take it for granted that he was no slouch. Here he is on the New Woman – “The girl of the twentieth century, even if she smokes a cigarette and talks slang, seems to me an infinitely more capable being than her grand-mother was”. And if E. V. Lucas regarded his book of reminiscences, Pitcher in Paradise (1903), as quite the most authentic guide to the bohemian life of the late nineteenth century – a mixture of Juvenal, Rabelais and Pierce Egan – which he did – then I think we have to sit up and take notice. Plenty of people less worthy of remembrance.
Listen, I am going to excavate that last box and bring along all four of these – two of them are signed. To hell with iron rules.
Good luck to everyone tomorrow – visitors and exhibitors alike. It’s the biggest and, I hope, the best fair the ABA has ever put on. Report next week.