“Will the day come when there will be no more antiquarian bookshops?” asks the poet, essayist and bookseller Marius Kociejowski in his new memoir “A fact in the book trade”. He suspects such a day won’t come, but worryingly he’s not sure. London, his adopted home and a major antiquarian center, is the home of many of Kociejowski’s haunts – including his former employer, the famous Bertram Rota shop, a pioneer in the first edition modern book trade and “one of the last of the old establishments, dynastic and oxygenless , with a hierarchy that could more or less be described as Victorian” – have already fallen victim to rising rents and shifting winds. Kociejowski doesn’t like the fancy, well-stocked bookstores that have sometimes taken their place. “I want chaos; Above all, I want mysticism,” he writes. The very best bookstores, precisely because of the dustiness of their back shelves and even the crankyness of their attendants, promise that “somewhere in one of their nooks and crannies lies a book that will so subtly alter one’s existence.” With every store that closes, a little of that life-changing power is lost and the world sucks “more of the chance that feeds the human spirit.”
Kociejowski writes from the “tingly underbelly” of the book trade as a factotum rather than a bookseller, having always been too busy writing to ever run a business. His memoirs are a representative piece, a core sample of the rich and partly vanished world of the book trade in England from the late 1970s to the present. As Larry McMurtry puts it in his excellent (and informative) memoir as a bookseller, Books, “the antiquarian book trade is an anecdotal culture,” rich in lore from the great and eccentric sellers and collectors who animate the book trade. Kociejowski writes that “the diversity of human nature is more on display in a bookstore” than anywhere else, adding, “I think that’s about books, what they are, what they release in us and what they do become when we make them. They are magnets for our desires.”
The bookseller’s memoir is in part a chronicle of his accomplishments, deals closed, rarities uncovered – or, in the case of the long-suffering Shaun Bythell, owner of the largest second-hand book shop in Scotland, the monotonous frustrations and occasional joys of running a large bookshop. As Kociejowski recounts some of the highlights of his bookseller’s career (like cataloging James Joyce’s personal library or briefly working at the quaint but venerable Maggs Bros., the Queen’s antiquarian bookshop), he mostly remembers the characters he met . “I firmly believe that being surrounded by books has a lot to do with flushing out people’s inner workings,” he writes.
Some of them are famous, like Philip Larkin, who, as a Hull University librarian, bought an expensive copy of his own first book, The North Ship, as too expensive for “the Piece of junk.” Kociejowski tells us how he offended Graham Greene by not recognizing him at first sight and how he once offered his friend Bruce Chatwin (“pinball, even though he was”) a chosen line of poetry for “On the Black Hill” how he allied himself with Patti Smith through Robert Louis Stevenson and sold a second issue of Finnegans Wake to Johnny Depp of all people, who “made an incredible effort not to be recognised, and did so with predictably comical results”. But more valuable are the memories of the anonymous eccentrics, crackpots, bibliomaniacs and ordinary people who love books simply and idiosyncratically “Where is the American collector who wore a miner’s lamp on his forehead to penetrate the darker caves of the bookstores he frequented Where is the man who came in and asked not for books but for the old bus and tram tickets that one often finds in them? Where is the M ann, who collected practically every issue of ? The Natural History of Selborne by Reverend Gilbert White? Where is Everyone?” Kociejowski’s tone, though mostly ironic, borders on lamentation. “I can’t help feeling that something has disappeared from the life of the trade,” he writes.
Like many memoirs, A Factotum in the Book Trade is a nostalgic book, regretting the disappearance of the book trade – especially antiquarian books, but also new titles – as a reliable if never very lucrative profession. The Internet dealt a huge blow, creating a huge domestic market for used books and undercutting the low end of the bread-and-butter used book market. Amazon, in turn, pushed down prices for new books. And then there are rising rents that have devastated small businesses of all kinds. What dies with every bookstore is not only a precious haven for books and book people, but also “a book full of stories” like Kociejowski’s, a book full of characters, about the great passions that heat our little lives. The fact that bookstores were allowed to close, writes Kociejowski, represents “a general failure of the imagination, an inability to see the consequences.”
As Kociejowski mourns the bookstore’s past, Jeff Deutsch, director of Chicago’s legendary Seminary Co-op Bookstores, reflects on its future in his new book, In Praise of Good Bookstores. “This book is not a eulogy,” writes Deutsch. “We can’t let that happen.” Stripped of Kociejowski’s charming twilight saltiness, Deutsch’s tone is a serious, even idealistic, consideration of what we gain from a good bookstore and what we risk losing when we fail the imagination—and the economy – not overcome allowed so many bookstores to close.
You may have heard that we’re witnessing a renaissance of the independent bookstore, but the situation is far from rosy. When Deutsch started his book retailing career (and Amazon was founded) in 1994, there were around seven thousand independent bookstores in the US; That number had dropped to just around 2,500 in 2019. Although hundreds of bookstores have opened in the last two years, fewer and fewer bookstores only sell books, Deutsch notes. Because books have relatively low profit margins, particularly titles published by independent or academic publishers, bookstores have increasingly had to abandon their core business to sell so-called “sideline businesses” such as coffee, stationery, candles and, most appallingly for German, socks. (That was Amazon’s founding model, by the way: use books to eventually convert customers to other, more profitable items.) Think about what happened at the Strand, where a coffee shop recently belonged to some bookshelves on the first floor, and where you find yourself can’t adjust your glasses without stumbling upon Strand branded merch. Even if you don’t mind socks with quotes on them — or the fact that The Strand will sell you, say, a foot of “Ember Orange” books for a hundred and thirty-five dollars — it’s not hard to see how desperate it is to survive a bookstore can exhaust its less quantifiable wealth and literary ambiance.
For Deutsch, being a good or “reputable” bookstore—the embodiment of the “highest standards” of the book trade—isn’t really about selling anything. It’s about creating a space in which a visitor can sink into “the slow time of turning the pages”, that state between concentration and distraction that one feels when reading the spines of books on a shelf, opening one here or there, but only dips in for a page or two before continuing. “Selling books has always been one of the least interesting services offered by bookstores,” writes Deutsch. “The value always lies and always has, at least in the good and reputable bookshops, in the experience of being in the midst of books – an experience that is offered to everyone who enters the room with curiosity and time.” The good bookshop, according to Deutsch , is what Gaston Bachelard called a “happy space” whose real boundaries and character are much more than its physical dimensions and whose purpose is more profound. It’s also the kind of institution, like a good bar or restaurant, that gives depth and substance to a community, but which, once lost, survives only in the sighs and sighs of living memory. (The first location of Larry McMurtry’s bookstore in Georgetown now has an upscale clothing store and “beauty salon.”) Some of us, especially millennials who grew up on Borders and Barnes & Noble and grew up in the Amazon era, have maybe never done even knew such a place.
Germany’s ideal bookshop is like an English park, carefully tended to look perfectly natural and a little lopsided. “Browsing” itself is an agricultural term, he points out in one of his book’s many digressions, often entertaining but sometimes a bit cheesy, about the culture and language of bibliophilia: It’s what cows do in a field , and that has just begun to be used to describe reading habits in the nineteenth century. “Books, like the leaves and shrubs known as browsage, provide ruminant readers with their nutrients,” says Deutsch in his most purple hue. “What an unprecedented activity it is to be curious and receptive browsing a bookstore while intellectually ruminating!” This isn’t the cheap, fast-food browsing of the scroll, but rather something more meditative, nourishing.