In King’s Bookshop, in Callander, there’s some gilt writing on the shop window that boasts ‘It’s why you’re here!’. While this might not be the truth for some tourists passing by, it’s certainly the case for me that the only reason I want to go to Callander is to visit that bookshop. The same sentiment applies (or applied, rather) to George Ramsden‘s elegantly cluttered bookshop in Fossgate, York. On the extremely rare occasions I found myself in York, I was always heading for George’s ‘Stone Trough Books‘ – it was why I was there. The other bookshops in York are all rather predictable in terms of dull stock and bullish pricing, but George always seemed to come up with the goods, the better books with fascinating provenance and ex-libris plates, and his pricing was a very personal and emotional thing – not merely dictated by the internet.
The very lamentable fact is that George took his own life in April this year after enduring bipolar depression for a long time. I was never a friend of his (I only found out about his death, now in November, by accident), but on the handful of visits I’d made to his shop in recent years, he remembered me and with each visit, our conversations got longer, more revealing and meaningful. He reprimanded me in jest once for never having read anything by Anthony Powell, nor caring for anything written by Powell.
The most upsetting thought is that my last visit to the shop was just in March this year and he outwardly seemed much the same as before, same old tweedy jacket and threadbare (probably Jermyn St) double-cuff but uncufflinked shirt. I spent my usual hour or so in the shop but struggled (for once) to find much to buy until George recalled that he had a signed copy of a Sydney Goodsir Smith book in a cabinet downstairs. It turned out to be a spectacularly drunken, funny and effusive inscription, so I bought the book on the spot. George seemed a bit surprised at how pleased the book had made me, as if it had found its most sympathetic ’emptor’. When I left he made sure that he had my contact details noted correctly, because he was working on a new catalogue. This catalogue was finished two days before his death and has been published by London bookseller James Fergusson as a memento of Ramsden, who took inordinate time and care in making some beautiful book catalogues, such as one of AJA Symons, which is an essential addition to any Symons or Corvo collection. It was from George that I bought a copy of the first edition of Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, signed in beautiful cursive hand by the author. I was already an inveterate bibliophile before I read it, but it triggered my interest in collecting Corvo, as it must have done for legions of readers.
But the fact that at the time of my final visit he must have been struggling with immense burdens was not apparent to me. He seemed subdued and a little terse (a cliche, but ‘still waters running deep’ is the impression I got), but then he always had been (with me, at least). I’ve read a few obituaries for George and I’m struck by how many describe him as rather gruff or forbidding, and that his shop was some sort of ‘anti-bookshop’. I don’t recognise these depictions of him or his shop. The relationship between bookseller and customer is always a professional and financial one, but there are a small band of truly great booksellers who make you feel like an acquaintance, simply by remembering your name and your interests and engaging in some bookish talk with you. George was certainly in that latter camp. His death diminishes an already endangered world where secondhand or antiquarian booksellers care about something other than merely profit margins and still soldier on, trying to eke out a subsistence existence in order to be close to what they love. I think that’s it – that’s what distinguishes an average bookseller from a great one – the love of literature and the love of the book. George Ramsden was imbued with these very qualities, and I will very much miss him and his shop.
He can be seen here (though, regrettably, largely unheard), in his natural habitat, in the first fifteen minutes of this interesting (if rather self-important!) short documentary called ‘An American Bookman in England‘.