Marius Kociejowski’s A Factotum in the Book Trade has joined my favorite books about books on my bookshelf, among them Helen Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, Elif Bautman’s The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.
Marius Kociejowski, a poet, travel writer, and former bookseller, is a memoirist of the moribund bookstore culture. A Factotum in the Book Trade is a fierce, lively, comical, and at times lyrical memoir of his decades in the antiquarian book trade. He begins at the end of an era, i.e., the present, after his employer of 10 years, Peter Ellis, decides to close the antiquarian bookshop in Cecil Court in London and sell books online.
This is shattering to Kociejowski, who regards the bookshop as a cultural imperative. He muses,
Where’s everybody gone? Secondhand bookshops, once a feature of almost every borough, town and village, continue to close, even in supposedly bookish bookish places like Oxford and Cambridge. When I first settled in London, in 1974, I could walk from my bedsit in Earls Court Square and within half an hour be at one of six or seven bookshops.
He is a keen analyst of the role and influence of bookshops and the meaning of their absence.
There has been an overall failure of imagination, an inability to see consequences. With the collapse of individual enterprises, and with people finding their solution on the internet, it has got so that one area of London looks much like any other, the same wretched chains. Will somebody write the book that’ll describe how the internet has changed the cityscape?
Kociejowski grew up in a small, nearly bookless town in Ontario. Then he moves to London in 197,. He amusingly recounts his job at the Poetry Society, where poets behave badly and administrators embezzle funds. Then he becomes an all-round cataloguer-archivist-buyer-bookseller at prestigious antiquarian bookstores.
He includes fascinating anecdotes about encounters with celebrities like Annie Lennox (whom he doesn’t recognize) when she buys a volume of Edith Sitwell’s poetry to set to music; the strange, obsessive collectors who live in poverty so they can spend all their money on first editions and other rare books; and the strange, sometimes disturbing, things that turn up in writers’ archives.
At the end of the book, after two lockdowns, Kociejowski walks through London. “The city was drained of life, so many shops and cafes familiar to me gone.”
And when he visits Cecil Court and sees the empty Peter Ellis store, he mourns the end of an era.
A Factotum in the Book Trade is poignant, powerful, and very amusing. Read it!