Recently I found myself queuing up, alongside about 500 other people, for the first day of the annual bibliophilic feeding frenzy cum rugby scrum that is Edinburgh’s Christian Aid Book Sale. If you ever want to see un-Christian behaviour, go there!
But in all seriousness, the event is something of a high point for the book collector. On previous years I have come away with some impressive finds and often not for that much money. It depends what you are looking for, I collect Scottish literary rarities of the 20th century, so my competition is not that great. However, this year, the finds were decidedly thin on the ground and what was there was often bullishly priced. Feeling deflated, I went around all the bookshops of Edinburgh and found even less than nothing. Then I looked forward to a trip to London for a day where I could also take in some of my favourite bookshops. The day came, I walked about 25000 steps going from bookshop to bookshop, and came away with more or less nothing – a few back issues of old literary magazines, a couple of Mohamed Mrabet first editions (a Moroccan writer I like to collect) and a signed copy of a collection of poems by the Dutch artist / poet (and member of Cobra) Lucebert.
Compared to previous hauls, it was a very poor show. As far as book collectors go, I’m really a bottom feeder, I want something good on the cheap but sometimes in desperation settle for mediocre stuff. But even mediocre stuff seems to be getting scarce. I know that recently I was boasting about finding the George Ogilvie annotated copy of MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle and while that was a great bargain, it was also still a lot of money. Perhaps all this discussion of money cheapens the books in question, but how else am I to get them, to have them, to read them (yes, I read my books)?
When I was growing up and regularly visiting charity shops, I don’t think it’s nostalgia speaking when I say that they were filled with interesting things often going for a song, but charity shops (and car boot sales for that matter) had a certain stigma attached to them that they’ve since lost. This is strange and ironic considering that charity shops now hardly ever have anything worth having in them and are so expensive it’s often nearly the same price to buy the item new, and everyone seems to want to be in them, you cannot budge for all the ‘bargain’ hunters they attract. But what’s happened to the bargains, where did they go? The internet has given everyone a shot of the most superficial knowledge and we all think we’re experts – everything is researchable and hardly anything misses the eyes of others now.
Being a book collector, a quasi-mythic figure from the past who is often in my thoughts while I’m out hunting for bargains is Martin Stone, a much feted, if rather louche, pioneering rock guitarist cum book scout who, like John Gawsworth before him, was rumoured to have ‘magnetic’ or magic figures that attached themselves to the most amazing books. I never did meet Stone, who died of a rare form of cancer in France in 2016, but I read of his piratical, goliardic, Villonesque exploits in accounts by bookseller/writers like Iain Sinclair who fictionalises Stone in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. He also features prominently in this extremely rare, and oft-though lost, film by Chris Petit called ‘The Cardinal and the Corpse’. (If you’ve never seen this film, I really urge you to follow the link to watch it on Youtube while it’s still available – I wish I’d never seen it so I could see it all over again). This film is about subterranean or long neglected writers of London who are not remembered in traditional, canonical accounts of the literature of the city and it is largely framed within the wheeling and dealing of itinerant booksellers and scouts as they trawl off-beat London for treasures to flog.
In the film (from 1992), which boasts a whole cast of amazing monsters like Derek Raymond, Martin Stone comes across as very jaded with the whole art of bookselling and collecting. He says, towards the end in a show-down with disgraced book-scout Drifield, that he is no longer interested in anything that isn’t utterly unique and one-off. He claims that all the rare books have dried up and there’s hardly anything left to uncover or discover. It’s a glum note at odds with the general ethos of the rest of the film, but if he was saying this in 1992, then what are our chances now? There must surely be nothing left to find?
Fast forward to sometime in the 2000s and we find Martin Stone living in France and featuring in this documentary on bibliomania and the rare book trade of Paris. He’s still very much an active bookscout and seems to have rediscovered his love for the calling. He claims that what he is doing is a service for culture – he is helping, book by book, to safeguard literary heritage, because ‘If I make you pay 300 euros for a book, chances are you’re going to look after it’. He considers an expensive book, once bought by the collector, to be ‘protected’ for all time. This is an admirable, if quixotic view.
I was recently in touch with a retired bookseller, talking about my lack of finds at the Christian Aid Booksale, and I said that one of the things I was glad to buy was a nice copy of Abraham Adams’ rather scarce Another Little Drink with a letter from the author tipped in. (Abraham Adams was the pseudonym of librarian, writer and bookseller John Broom and this book is one of the most fascinating accounts of alcoholism and the drinking culture of literary Edinburgh during the Scottish renaissance). We both agreed that so few people would even recognise the book (let alone read it), and my retired bookseller friend claimed that for every copy of the book he’d sold in his long career (a handful), he had to explain at length to the buyer the importance of the book he was proposing they should invest in. Booksellers are not always just out to turn a quick buck, but are like Martin Stone in his later years, performing an important function as a cultural broker. Pricing an obscure book is a political statement, it’s about putting across your opinion, you are saying this book is rare and fascinating and as such deserves to be valuable, or at least more highly valued.
I’ll keep looking, but it’s getting harder and harder to find that bargain amongst all the pulp.