“Where is the American collector who wore a miner’s lamp on his forehead so as to enable him to penetrate the darker cavities of the bookshops he visited?” demands Marius Kociejowski during the course of his eccentric, meandering new memoir, A Factotum in the Book Trade. “Where,” he goes on,
is the man who collected Stefan and Franciszka Themerson’s Gaberbocchus Press titles? . . . Where is the man who collected virtually every edition of The Natural History of Selbourne by Reverend Gilbert White? Where is everybody? Am I deluding myself in thinking collectors are no longer as colorful as they once were?
And what about the bookshops themselves? Where have they all gone? Anyone who enjoys rooting about in secondhand and antiquarian bookshops will have noticed that in the last few decades such emporia have been vanishing at an alarming rate. Several times recently, while walking the streets of New York, I’ve looked forward to visiting some favorite hole-in-the-wall book trove only to discover that it’s morphed into a Starbucks or a Jamba Juice. Kociejowski, a native of Canada who spent most of his working life in London and has recently retired from the trade, assures us that this is happening in England too—“even in supposedly bookish places like Oxford and Cambridge.” The question is: when they have all gone, will life still be worth living?
It’s easy to blame the internet and Amazon, AbeBooks, Alibris, and their like for this new aspect of urban decline, but the rot goes deeper. covid-19 is not to blame either: it has simply provided, Kociejowski points out, the coup de grâce. The changes are more profound if less obvious. “The character of a city is measurable through its smaller enterprises,” he argues, and the urban fabric has everywhere undergone radical changes:
Town and city are no longer the organic growths they once were. They have begun to operate on a purely functional level that has little to do with what actually brings grace into our lives. You eviscerate a habitat of its culture and the species it supports will find it increasingly difficult to survive or else they’ll mutate into something else. . . . 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.
Too, too true, and the same can be said of Paris, New York, and countless other urban centers. And he doesn’t even delve into another factor in this transformation: the astronomical rents commanded in city centers. In such a habitat, the businesses with the smallest profit margins—and what margins could be narrower than those of the secondhand-book trade?—will inevitably be the first to bite the dust.
Kociejowski is a shamelessly cranky guide to the trade as he experienced it in Ottawa and, from 1974 to the present day, in London. His book is a collection of stand-alone essays, some far more fascinating than others, and he evinces no particular interest in rendering his text user-friendly. He gossips away about an array of odd book-trade characters as though they were household names, and it is left to the reader, if he or she is interested, to google these people.
“The England of 1974 was more eccentric than it is now, and freer,” Kociejowski recalls—an opinion his near-contemporary Terry Gilliam, another North American who immigrated to England in that era in search of artistic and intellectual liberty, has recently echoed in a most heartfelt manner. “I rather ache for those times,” Kociejowski continues,
when the gifted amateur was leagues ahead of the professional and when things were make-do. This is when the English are at their best. All this would soon change with the Thatcherite notion of value for money. When seen in those terms, the arts have no value.
A few years’ work at the Poetry Society in Earls Court Square during the 1970s intensified the dyspeptic side of his nature: “The spectacle of poets rushing towards some imaginary finishing line was unpleasant to observe. Never had I seen so many knives in so many backs.” But things got worse, of course, decades later with the arrival of “[w]oke culture, cancel culture, political correctness, positive discrimination, diversity (for some), sloganizing and idle thinking,” all of which feed the greedy maw of arts administration while starving the poetic imagination. And the grotesque professionalization of the poetry community in recent years has robbed the vocation of much of its remaining dignity: “now you have poets with their damnable CVs milking the system for all it’s worth when, really, the system ought to be anathema.”
A poet himself (he has produced four volumes of poetry), Kociejowski soon quit the depressing scene of arts administration and recommends that his readers do likewise: “My advice to anyone who genuinely loves the arts—whether it be visual, music or literature—is to avoid any organisation that purports to be serving their furtherance.” He moved on to the rare-book trade, where he was content, despite having a family to support, to serve as a humble factotum: “The tough business end of things has been for others to administrate. I envy them not.” His first job, where he remained for fourteen years, was at Bertram Rota, a prominent antiquarian bookshop, “one of the last old establishments, dynastic and oxygenless, with a hierarchy that could be more or less described as Victorian.” During his tenure it was run by Bertram Rota’s son Anthony, a character who brings out a very acidic side to Kociejowski’s personality. But then, so do all his other bosses.
Kociejowski started out working with fine-press books but found such volumes “a bit jejune, as objects more in love with themselves than with their contents,” so he moved on to the cataloguing of literary archives, far more congenial work. “All archives,” he says,
are unique. They are in each instance, representative of the workings of the authorial mind. . . . There is a curious psychology in writers of a certain breed that they allow themselves to include something of a deeply private and objectionable nature in their archives, almost as if it were a deliberate attempt at self-exposure.
Even more interesting than the workings of the authorial mind, at least in this narrative, are the workings of that of the collector. Kociejowski, while he personally possesses several thousand volumes, does not classify himself as a collector; that is a rarer and stranger bird. He counts himself as a bibliophile, while the bibliomane is something more extreme, “perhaps a bit too crazed to love,” and he quotes a friend on “the loneliness of the collector, solipsistic, self-isolating, narcissistic.” He describes quite a few of these bibliomanes in some of the more entertaining portions of the book, but the picture is not entirely a happy one; there is a whiff of never-fulfilled obsession in so many of these people that I began to wonder whether or not they are “on the spectrum.” (When I say “people” I should more properly say “men”; Kociejowski points out that few women are collectors, as they “tend on the whole to be more sensible, the words on the page being more important for them than the covers keeping the page in place.”)
In fact he bemoans the
fetishization of the book as object to the degree that we forget that it is, first and foremost, the vehicle of the word. And human nature being what it is, where fetishization occurs pleasure is diminished or, rather, it is only a poor facsimile of pleasure.
The happiest collectors, in his long experience, are those who deal in the lowest stakes, finding the longed-for volumes for sale at a pound or two.
I realize that everything I’ve said about this book makes it sound like a pleasant ramble through an entertaining, offbeat career. And it is that, to some extent. But from the very first chapter I sensed that this screed was something more primal: a bitter lament for a culture, I would even say a civilization, that is now on its deathbed. “[T]he book trade is so fragile—so susceptible to the world’s turbulence, and to the vicissitudes of what is or is not in fashion.” Yes. But of course it’s not just the book trade; it’s our mental world itself. The disappearance of antiquarian bookshops (and even modern chain bookshops) can obviously be blamed on internet sales, but there is a more profound shift driving the trend: the rapid transformation of our world from a culture of the word to one of the image. In the early years of Kociejowski’s career, he notes, “the populace [was] more literate in the wider sense of the word”—surely one of the great understatements. What will the next century bring? Kociejowski, like many older people these days, doesn’t seem entirely sorry that he won’t be around to find out.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 2, on page 72
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