Fighting the good fight

“Most booksellers’ memoirs”, writes Gary Goodman, a veteran of thirty-five years in the trade, “are about finding a pamphlet by Edgar Allan Poe at the bottom of a coal chute and selling it for a half a million dollars.” Really? Unlike Goodman, I’m not yet tired of reading about the sort of bibliophiles who wear head torches so they can probe the dingiest corners of junk stores and attics, hoping to unearth a copy of, say, Poe’s Tamerlane and Other Poems. But in any case he’s less of an outlier than he thinks – poignant on the slow death of the independent bookshop, genially bemused by customers’ foibles, excited by rare finds and understandably grumpy about the depredations of the internet.

Goodman stumbled into the business in 1982, when without much forethought he acquired a secondhand bookshop in St Paul, Minnesota. Its location, Arcade Street, on the city’s East Side, felt dismal and the site was scarcely bigger than a walk-in wardrobe. The owner wanted $25,000, but quickly talked himself down to less than a tenth of that. Goodman knew little about books, yet the opportunity seemed preferable to the job he had at the time, working the night shift at a mental hospital where some of the patients had recently planned to nix his authority (terminally) by whacking him over the head with a sock full of belt buckles. At first Goodman’s inventory consisted of some 4,000 barely salable volumes. When he put two boxes of his cheapest stock outside to entice browsers, he instead attracted a dog that urinated on the books.

Soon the owner of the nearby liquor store complained that Goodman was lowering the tone of the neighborhood – this from a man who thought nothing of peddling litre bottles of wine for less than a dollar. Yet Goodman plowed on, earning a crust by hunting down curios for collectors. Later he opened a shop in Stillwater, an at-the-time sleepy town twenty miles away. By the first half of the 1990s it had become “a kind of utopian bookselling community”, and his customers included Sam Shepard, Robert Bly, Larry McMurtry and Garrison Keillor. But then online sales platforms took off and “the secondhand book business was like being in a war zone, with everyone around you either dead or dying”.

Goodman’s years “fighting the good fight” have brought him into contact with plenty of eccentrics. Some will be well known to bibliophiles: Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed King of Hay-on-Wye, compounds Goodman’s grim impression of British food by serving him “cold soup and a mysterious meat pie”. Among the unfamiliar ones are a book scout who keeps clean by sluicing himself in public toilets, an obsessive hoarder who serves him a Danish fish dish that smells like turpentine, and a lover of militaria whose brutal travel schedule makes “no time for frivolities like bathroom breaks”. Occasionally the oddballs are morally unsavored too, the worst being Stephen Blumberg, a native of St Paul who in a long career as a thief filched 23,600 books, claiming in his defence that he’d wished to protect them from the rapacious claws of other owners . When he called in at Arcade Street, he didn’t bother having a proper look around to see if any of the books were worth stealing; with characteristic dry humour, Goodman reports being “mildly insulted”.

Less entrepreneurial than Goodman, but more romantic, is Marius Kociejowski, a Canadian-born poet and travel writer with a special interest in Syria. A bookseller for half a century, he has encountered a great many strange and rare items. Bizarre or awkward customers have been almost as numerous. There’s the rabbi who sells him a leather-bound Koran and astounds the local scaffolders by performing the Muslim call to prayer. The actor Johnny Depp buys a second edition of Finnegans Wake “while trying incredibly hard not to be recognised… with predictably comic results”. And Philip Larkin, when quoted £200 for a copy of his first book, The North Shipresponds, “What, for that piece of rubbish!”

A Factotum in the Book Trade is a chronicle of misunderstandings. By accident Kociejowski attends what he believes is the funeral of Anthony Rota, the Covent Garden bookseller known as the Pope of Long Acre, only to discover it’s a memorial service – “a peculiar jumble of Young Conservative nostalgia and evangelical happy-clappiness” – though he’s still reprimanded for not wearing a tie. More embarrassingly, while working in Rota’s shop he hears a customer seeking The Women’s RoomMarilyn French’s novel of feminist awakening, but as she mentions the title and not the author, he simply ushers her in the direction of the loo.

Kociejowski is, of course, no more a factotum than Goodman is “the last bookseller”, and this memoir, at once erudite and gossipy, is full of curious information – the word “curious” being one of his favorites. There are snapshots of writers: the “wholly inscrutable” Javier Marías (“The characters in his novels are not so much observed as spied upon”), the “boyish” and “snobby” Bruce Chatwin (“not unduly handicapped by a desire for truth”), Geoffrey Hill being “absolutely himself” and stipulating that the pallbearers at his funeral wear pink socks, and Christopher Logue, who arrives to give a reading armed with a bouquet of flowers and the instruction that “when I have finished … you are to present me with these.” Now and then something startling happens. The author is sent to buy a beautifully bound copy of Great Expectations, “suitable for presentation purposes”; the order comes from 10 Downing Street, and this item of portable property is duly conveyed to Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit.

Notwithstanding his fondness for wry vignettes and fruity anecdotes, Kociejowski is eloquent about the magic of books, their bindings and associations. “A personal library must … be a pantheon of good intentions”, he declares. “My set of Turgenev lacks a volume”, and this “in some obscure way makes me feel incomplete. I only have to look at it for my soul to wince. I know, too, that if I ever do find the missing volume it will be an impostor with identical features.” When he recalls that the Vancouver bookseller Bill Hoffer had a Russian teacher from Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, he explains that he includes the detail “mainly for its exotic perfumes”. One of his most treasured possessions is a first edition of Joseph Conrad’s novel Almayer’s Folly; on page 110 an “e” is absent from the word “generosity”, an error fixed for the second printing. Conrad is among the authors he collects, as are Baudelaire, Byron and Henry Green: “Sometimes I entertain the notion my books will continue, together, without me.”

Kociejowski shares many of Goodman’s peeves, on the whole articulating them with more verve. Book collectors “are mostly to be avoided or else kept at a prophylactic distance”, since they “lack social graces and have alarming food regimes”. Unsurprisingly he is no fan of the internet, “a forum for idiots selling to other idiots”, but concedes that it has “forced the bookseller’s hand so that it is now incumbent on him to become a bit more realistic on the matter of what constitutes scarcity”. Musing on the bleak prospects for his trade, he concludes that “Rare books will continue to be sold, at auction or over the tops of walnut tables, but we are about to be robbed of the mystery and serendipity of the old bookshop”. As for London, his home since 1974, he now finds it “drained of life”. The temper of a city is “measurable through its smaller enterprises”, and the decline of its independent booksellers is a sign of a more pernicious cultural atrophy.

Henry Hitchings is the editor of Browse: Love letters to bookshops around the world2016

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