Tuesday, January 13, 2015

`Those Little Bookshops and Their Secret Zones'

Marius Kociejowski, born in Canada of a Polish father and an English mother, is a poet living in London. I recommend two of his books in prose -- The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool: A Syrian Journey (Sutton, 2004) and The Pigeon Wars of Damascus (Biblioasis, 2010) – while awaiting the arrival of his latest, The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons and Other Prose (Biblioasis, 2014), reviewed here by Michael Dirda.  Kociejowski’s selected poems are available in So Dance the Lords of Language: Poems 1975-2001 (Porcupine’s Quill, 2003). Here is an excerpt from “A Factotum in the Book Trade,” which serves as the introduction to The Pebble Chance: 

“When I settled in London, in 1974, there were second-hand bookshops everywhere. One could walk from Earls Court to Notting Hill Gate, which is only a bit over a mile, and take in six or seven. They are all gone. One could step into even the smallest shop and there was always the sense of an inner sanctum to which only the elect had admittance. This is important to note. At that point, and it would still be the case later, a bookseller was deeply ensconced in a culture of secrecy. One simply did not speak of the inner workings of the trade. Now, of course, the guts are all over the place. One may poke through them at one's leisure. There are no more secrets: one speaks openly, shamelessly, of one's gains and one's losses. Anyway, to go back to those little bookshops and their secret zones, all the books one most desired were in those cubbyholes, just beyond one's reach, or so one imagined. Money was not the key to them nor could a smile move the misanthropic hearts of those crotchety old men in their small dark shops. (What man of feeling though, would not choose the misanthrope over the indiscriminate lover of his own species?) Selling a book was never uppermost in their thoughts, and indeed there was much pleasure to be had in not selling a book to someone thought undeserving of it. It was a great shame when booksellers began to have to sell books in order to survive.” 

I remember an old friend, now dead, who ran a second-hand bookstore for more than twenty years. The place survived, barely, on the money he made catering to several narrow slices of the market – those seeking books about fishing, hunting and woodcraft, and about early European exploration of the eastern United States. He had a Ph.D. in anthropology, and in a sense he was studying several overlapping and flourishing subcultures. From him I bought Joseph Mitchell’s first four books and several of A.J. Liebling’s, among many others, and yet he was not much of a reader. Theodore Dalrymple writes about the world Kociejowski and I remember in “Of Bibliophilia and Biblioclasm” and “Why Second-Hand Bookshops Are Just My Type.” In the latter he writes: 

Second-hand booksellers are not in it for the money, of course: it is probably easier to make a good living on social security. The booksellers love books, though not necessarily their purchasers, and in their way are learned men. When they have been in the trade for many years they know everything about books except, possibly, their content.”

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