Too Fond of Bibliomemoirs:  “Horace and Me,” “Once Upon a Tome,” “Diary of a Bookseller,” etc.

The quote  “She is too fond of books” describes my affliction.  When I am not browsing at a bookstore, I am reading books and magazines,  trying to stuff all my library books into a Villette totebag, chatting at book group with a friend who reads historical bodice-rippers (Georgette Heyer, Diana Gabaldon), or rejecting a decorative scheme to move all my Penguins to one bookcase, alternating the black and orange indiscriminately.

My husband is an avid reader who says it is pointless to talk about books – sports is more acceptable – and yet he gives paperback dictionaries to his students and once offered a Library of America volume of Mark Twain to the plumber. I  wave all visitors to the giveaway box, where duplicate copies of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and a paperback set of Sue Grafton’s mysteries take a rest before traveling to their destination: the library donation box.   

And I do agree that talking about books can be overdone. When I was a very young woman, I astonished a CEO, or perhaps an owner of a football team, at a party by asserting that all ancient Roman poets were winos. For some reason, I believed I was talking to an English professor. I pray that I didn’t rattle off the names of ancient wines.

Years later I read  Horace and Me, a stunning bibliomemoir by Harry Eyres, a Latinist and oenophile who is especially interested in wine in Horace’s poetry. And his translations of Horace’s odes are brilliant – the best I’ve read.

I am a great fan of bibliomemoirs, and read them almost indiscriminately. You probably have read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, and Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch and Me. But did you know there are several bibliomemoirs by booksellers? That it is, in fact, a genre?  I got hooked on Shaun Bythell’s charming series of Diary of a Bookseller books.   As  the owner of the largest used bookstore in Scotland, he meets many odd customers and is tolerant of the shortcomings of his eccentric staff.  Once, when he was away appraising the books at an estate, his staff spent the day reading old magazines and did not pack up  the Amazon books in time for the post That is what it’s like to own a used bookstore. So it goes.

Marius Kociejowski’s A Factotum in the Book Trade is my favorite of the bookshop memoirs.  Kociejowski is a poet, travel writer, former bookseller, and a historian of the moribund bookstore culture.  This 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.  (You can read the rest of my review here.)

At the moment I am  reading Oliver Darkshire’s Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller.   This crisp, witty book is a memoir of his career at Sotheran’s in Lond0n, an exclusive bookshop that specializes in rare books. This book, which grew out of a Twitter account,  ticks many boxes for me: humor, bookstore anecdotes, descriptions of mad customers, impossibly eccentric but endearing colleagues, the peculiar language of cataloguing at Sotheran’s, and (literally) poisoned books.    

The authors of these bibliomemoirs slip into the bookstore business without a plan, rather than viewing it as a career. When 20-year-old Oliver moved to London, he was desperately seeking a job, but, as he later explains, he had a bad attitude and often fell asleep at the office (undiagnosed narcolepsy).  He writes,

In a particularly dark moment, when I’d drifted into some far corner of the internet on my search, I saw an advertisement for a bookshop seeking an apprentice.  It wasn’t a particularly good advertisement.  The pay was Victorian, the expected duties nebulous, and the whole thing had an air of desperation about it.  More comfortingly, however, no prior experience was necessary…

Readers like me who don’t know much about the antiquarian book trade will be fascinated.  He writes about the  book runners, independent agents who search for valuable old books in remote districts or second=hand bookshop. Then they try to sell them for a profit at bookstores in the city.  Not everything is right for Sotehran’s.

Sotheran’s specializes in rare books, and they are quite picky about what they peddle.  The collectors want rare books, one of a kind if possible, and something as trivial as missing the second plate in The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (“which should show Fanny fainting at some bad news”) can render a book worthless, though it would otherwise be worth thousands of pounds.

On one occasion they acquired a signed edition of a rare James Bond book. Unfortunately, rival booksellers spread a rumor that Fleming’s signature was forged. Sotheran’s had had it authenticated by an expert. Nevertheless, they never found a buyer.

It’s not a cozy business! A fascinating place to work, though.

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