For the bibliophiles among us, here's a new book about the book trade itself.
A FACTOTUM IN THE BOOK TRADE
By Marius Kociejowski
349 pages. Biblioasis. $18.95.
I love the smell of old books. More than once, I've said those seven words aloud after entering a used and/or rare bookstore. It's a mistake I won't make again.
In his dyspeptic new memoir,
A Factotum in the Book Trade, Marius Kociejowski, who has worked in some of London's best antiquarian bookstores, turns me into a kebab when he writes:
There is a breed of Homo sapiens that will walk inside, take a deep breath, and say,
Mmm, I just love the smell of old books. They are to be got rid of as quickly as possible, with whatever violence it takes. I have heard the line a thousand times and never, never have I sold a book to any one of those people.
Many good memoirs have been written by antiquarian booksellers. The best of these, recently, is William S. Reese's
Collectors, Booksellers, and Libraries: Essays on Americanists and the Rare Book Market (2018), a restless book under a sleepy title.
A Factotum in the Book Trade is memorable because a) it's well-written, and b) it's close in touch with the books. Kociejowski, now in his early 70s, never owned his own shop. He struggled financially while raising a family on an employee's earnings. He simply loved the work because, he writes,
the book trade is a floating world for people of intelligence unsuited for anything else.
Used book dealers, in my experience, tend to be darkly witty. The Scotsman Shaun Bythell wrote, in his memoir
The Diary of a Bookseller (2018):
I am putting a mental jigsaw together of what a hobbit looks like, based on a composite of every customer I have ever sold a copy to.
He's right about what a good bookstore should feel like.
I want dirt; I want chaos; I want, above all, mystery, he writes.
I want to be able to step into a place and have the sense that there I'll find a book, as yet unknown to me, which to some degree will change my life.
I know that sort of store — it's the sort where you wish, browsing, you had a miner's lamp strapped to your forehead.
These kinds of bookstores are rapidly vanishing, Kociejowski laments, victims of the internet and now Covid. He loathes these new
jumped-up bookshops that masquerade as art galleries with nice little walnut tables.
He talks a bit about famous customers he's served, including Patti Smith, who shares his fondness for Robert Louis Stevenson's essays. Philip Larkin would come in, looking for first editions of his own books. He sold a copy of
Finnegans Wake to Johnny Depp, who was
trying incredibly hard not to be recognized and with predictably comic results.
He observes that librarians seem to hate books, eager as they are to perforate and stamp them. He is taught by a good bookseller how to polish books:
Use your fingers, it is the softest leather you can ever find.
Truth be told, I hate the smell of old books. At least the musty smell of poorly stored books. But I enjoy the company of books, and of the fusty bibliophiles who buy, sell, collect and read them.
To read the complete article, see:
Love the Smell of Old Books? This Bookseller Would Like You to Leave.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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