A Factotum in the Book Trade

Well now, here’s a thing.  While I’ve recently been offering you the odd reminiscence about my fifty years in the trade, someone else has been doing it properly and turning their recollections into a book.  It was published a few weeks ago across the Atlantic — and today, I am reliably informed, marks its official publication in the UK.

You will all want to buy it (just read the reviews online).  It is by Marius Kociejowski.  It is published by Biblioasis.  And it is called “A Factotum in the Book Trade : A Memoir”.  But please buy it from a proper bookshop — the author can be a little testy about what the online world has done to the book trade.  As he said in a recent interview, “the very future of the bookshop is at stake and with it goes a mighty slab of our culture”.  As the book says, “bookshops are magic places: somewhere, in one of their nooks and crannies, there awaits a book that will ever so subtly alter one’s existence.  And with every shop that closes so, too, goes still more of the serendipity which feeds the human spirit”.

Born in Canada — Polish father, English mother — the author has worked in the London book trade (“a floating world for people of intelligence unsuited for anything else”) since 1978 — fourteen years at Bertram Rota — no longer in London; an ill-starred interlude with the late Bernard Stone and his Turret Book Shop; a good few years with the Ulysses Bookshop — alas long gone — and then for seventeen years or so with Peter Ellis in Cecil Court — the shop now closed, although Peter continues to work online.

Our paths have obviously crossed — this is my world too — although we have never been on more than nodding terms.  I have handed him a cheque or two made out to Peter Ellis in Cecil Court, but I can’t recall that we have ever had anything amounting to what you might call a conversation.  Evidently my loss.  I am fairly sure it was Veronica Watts, characterised in the book as “one of the most mysterious booksellers of all”, who told me that Marius was much more than just a bookshop assistant (honourable a calling as that is), but had a whole other life as a published poet and highly esteemed travel-writer, which indeed he does.  You can see him in poetic mode on YouTube.

That other life comes through very clearly in the book.  It is enviably and beautifully written, full of memorable flashes of description, bringing characters to life in a phrase.  And there are so many characters — booksellers and collectors we expect, but here are name-dropping encounters with all manner of people — Peggy Ashcroft, Bruce Chatwin, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Depp, Bryan Ferry, Elton John, Annie Lennox, Patti Smith — and that’s not to mention Philip Larkin and a whole pantheon of modern poets — just about all of the ones you have heard of, plus quite a few you probably haven’t.

Endlessly and entertainingly discursive — “be warned that the diversions will be many … I abhor the straight line” — the book goes far beyond the confines of even the most cluttered of bookshops.  There is a barbed and juicy account of his time working for the Poetry Society before embarking on a career in the book trade — “The very idea of a poetry society struck me then as the most unnatural of growths …. Can one imagine William Blake paying his annual Poetry Society subscription?”  There are reminiscences of his early years in Canada — “I squeeze myself inside the child that I once was, lying on the floor rummaging through my parents’ books”.  There is a whole chapter devoted to the researching of  “a curious feminine manuscript”, saved by mere chance and turning out (somewhat spookily) to relate to the author’s own great-great-grandfather.  There is a fascinating account of the idiosyncratic Kociejowski collection of books.  There are opening and closing thoughts, and so much more in between.   

Book collectors are facetiously categorised as a “human subspecies … mostly to be avoided or else kept at a prophylactic distance; they tend to lack social graces and have alarming food regimes; their clothes are oddly tailored, sometimes resembling the square suits of illegitimate regimes”.  He makes a nice distinction between the hawks and the magpies of the book-collecting world, but the collectors he describes seem, to me at least, to belong more in the category of obsessives than among the general and perfectly sane run of collectors I have known. 

The only collector he mentions that I can recall was the late Alan Clodd — here styled “A quiet man, the quietest of them all … the greatest collector I have ever known.  So extensive was his collection, so secretive the making of it, as if it were the erection of the Great Pyramid inside a sandbox, its parameters were not known until after he died”.  I am not sure it was quite that secret — one of my colleagues in the trade was certainly shown round it at one point — but no denying that it was magnificent.  Although Alan Clodd was a very good customer of mine for a quarter of a century, I cannot claim that I ever really knew him.  The only time that I can remember him offering even a vestige of friendliness was when I packed up two carrier bags full of some exceptional Seamus Heaney material for him in 1998 (my catalogue No. 50 — only five copies were needed).  Marius describes him as “Shy, deeply sensitive, a man who spoke only when it was necessary to do so” — I always took it for aloofness, an unwillingness to engage more than necessary with a mere dealer, but I may well have been wrong.

For booksellers, of course, the essence of the book, the meat of the matter, are the sketches and sometimes much longer accounts of our fellow booksellers.  There is much on the Canadian bookseller, Bill Hoffer, whom I never knew — but a man who once sought “an arrest warrant for Margaret Atwood for misuse of Arts Council funds” commands our attention.  There is an extended footnote on the scurrilous compiler of “Driff’s Guide to all the Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookshops in the UK”.  There are pleasant references to the late Helen Hardy and Edith Finer (Lady Finer), both of whom in their different ways brought a certain distinction to Cecil Court.  We meet Martin Stone and Rick Gekoski, both of whom Marius almost-but-not-quite went to work for — the former too restless to keep a shop for long (he didn’t) — the latter because Marius feared for his inner balance and felt he would not be able to write — “It didn’t stop Gekoski, of course, but then he was unstoppable”.  There is much more on Martin and “his big toothless smile”, but then who in our world does not have a good Martin Stone story?  I shall spare you mine (but see photo).

Refer to Drawer: Martin Stone’s exit to Paris.

The accounts of former employers are much more detailed, incredibly frank, sometimes almost brutal.  George Lawson, director of Bertram Rota, who first recruited Marius to the trade, emerges well enough, with some good stories, but Anthony Rota — “a poor judge of character”?  That’s not the Anthony I recall murmuring to me at an ABA Committee meeting — quite correctly — that one of our colleagues across the table was not fit to be in charge of a pencil.  Not the incisive Anthony with whom I interviewed prospective students for a place on the post-graduate diploma course in antiquarian bookselling at SLAIS (School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, London University).  But then, of course, I never worked for Anthony, let alone for fourteen years.  I never saw that side of him.  And no man is a hero to his factotum, they say, or something like it.

The original four partners  at Ulysses are well-caught: Joanna Herald, “with her flashing Egyptian eyes, a stickler for order”; her husband, Peter Ellis, “who beneath his calm liberal exterior might have been a northern mill owner in another age”; Gabriel Beaumont, “bottled chaos”.  And ultimately Peter Jolliffe, “chubby, sweating profusely, wearing a winter coat in June, soft-spoken, polite, a somewhat intergalactic look in his eyes … one of the worst booksellers who ever lived.  One might be tempted to say he always shot himself in the foot but for the fact he always missed.  But then Peter Jolliffe was the greatest bookman of our time”.

Some distinct reservations about that last part, but for most readers, whether booksellers or not, I think this account of Peter Jolliffe will be the most memorable part of the book.  The recounting of a love-hate relationship with an immensely complex character, the complexity made more by his chronic medical condition, is simply compelling.  I knew Peter since he first came trotting into my shop all the way from Oxford with a bag of books I had ordered from his very first catalogue back in the 1970s — it was only later that his prices became vertiginous.  I last saw him at a book-trade party, slumped in his wheelchair, hooked-up to his oxygen bottle, but still with the same cherubic smile he always greeted me with.  That is the Peter I remember, but then — again — I never worked with him.  We all, I suppose, have a public and a private face, and I panic at the thought of what some of my former employees might say about me, given half a chance.  (One is currently threatening to do just that, in a guest post here on the blog).  And then again, what we shall never know, is what his now departed employers thought about Marius as an employee. 

The book-ends of the book are a challenging remark near the start: “My compatriots will not appreciate me saying this: the antiquarian book trade is slowly but surely destroying the antiquarian book trade”.  It is bracketed by a passage towards the end: “I will make good my earlier promise that I’d be back in a frenzy of extreme prejudice … More than the pandemic, more than the economy, more than the general decline of intelligence, more than the internet and its spurious paradise, the species of bookseller I’m about to describe has all but destroyed the book trade” — the kind of bookseller who turns down a book, “because of a few nicks on a dustwrapper he himself professed never to have seen … something catastrophic has happened in the trade; it has been the fetishization of the book as object to the degree that we forget it is, first and foremost, the vehicle of the word”.  

No arguing with that, although I rather felt that the internet-fuelled race for perfect condition had passed its peak some time ago.  There are other things in the book I disagree with too, quite a few, but then expecting booksellers to agree on anything very much has long been a lost cause.  I have read the book twice, almost thrice, and there are ever fresh things in it.  It is unquestionably the best-written account of the modern rare book trade you could hope to find — and parts of it may prove controversial — you will have to buy a copy.

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