A Factotum in the Book Trade : A memoir by Marius Kociejowski

Love the smell of old books? : Keep it to yourself : I love the smell of old books. More than once, I've said those seven words aloud after entering a used/and or rare bookstore. It's a mistake I won't make again.

In his dyspeptic new memoir, ''A Factotum in the Book Trade,'' Marius Kociejowski, who has worked in some of London's best antiquarian bookstores, turns into a kebab when he writes :

There is a breed of Homo sapiens that will walk inside, take a deep breath, and say, ''Mmm, I just love the smell of old books.'' They are to be get rid of as quickly as possible, with whatever violence it takes.

I have heard the line a thousand times and never, never have I sold a book to any of those people.

Barely recovered from that puncture, I ran heading into Kociejowski's next skewer :

Also one must be ruthless with those who ask, ''What is the most expensive you've got here?'' Often it is the make of the species trying to impress the female.

I winced, having posed that question. Now doubly impaled, I stopped to examine my wounds and gather my wits.

I do buy used books, and I've been married a long time, so I decided to acquit myself of these charges on technical grounds, fending off the journalist Heywood's remark that '' a technical objection is the first refuge of the scoundrel.''

I was grateful, however, that i easily passed Kociejowski's third test of bookstore patrons:

There is even more objectionable subspecies who with their mobile phones like to photograph each other holding an open book although very rarely are their eyes ever fixed on the page. The punishment for them cannot be too severe.

To the gallows with those monsters. Many good memoirs have been written by antiquarian booksellers. The best of these, recently, is William S. Reese's  ''Collectors, Booksellers and Libraries; Essays on Americanists and the rare Book Market '' [2018] a restless book under a sleepy title.

[Reese died that same year; his holdings are still being dispersed. His Herman Melville collection, up for auction in September at Christie's, contains the finest book I can imagine owning : Melville's heavily annotated copy of Dante's '' The Divine Comedy '' ]

'' A Factotum in the Book Trade '' is memorable because a] it's well written, and b] it's close in touch with the books. Kociejowski, now in his early 70s, never owned his own shop. He struggled financially while raising a family on an employee's earnings.

He simply loved the work because, he writes, ''the book trade is a floating world for people of intelligence unsuited for anything else.''

A bonus is that he's funny. When he told a young woman, a former book seller, that he was working on this memoir, she said to him :

''Go on, young people love reading about old white men selling books.''

That kind of comment, in London, is what's known as taking the piss.

Used book dealers, in my experience, tend to be darkly witty. The Scotsman Shaun Bythell wrote, in his memoir '' The Diary of a Bookseller'' [2018] : I am putting a mental jigsaw together of what a hobbit looks like, based on a composite of every customer I have ever sold a copy to.''

Kocieejowski has published books of travel writing, essays and poems, yet he is ''a chronic giggler at poetry reading and indeed, not so long ago, trying to suppress my merriment. I burst a blood vessel in my nose.''

Some other things about him : He grew up in rural Ontario; he has never owned a comb or a mobile phone, though he does own a letterpress; the game of chess broke his heart; the English poet Geoffrey Hill, a longtime friend, dedicated a book to him. He once a woman's heart with his ''imitation of a henshouse at night.''

He's right about what a good book should feel like. '' I want dirt; I want chaos; I want above all, mystery,'' he writes. ''I want to be able to step into a place and have sense there I'll find a book, as yet unknown to me, which to some degree will change my life.''

I know that sort of store - it's the sort where you wish, browsing, you had a miner's lamp strapped to your forehead.

He recalls several important female collectors, including Wendy Rintoul and Valerie Eliot [ the second wife of T.S. Eliot ], and booksellers, notably Marguerite Cohn and Veronica Watts.

He notes that female collectors are rarer because, sensibly, the world on the page tend to be more important to women than ''the covers keeping the page in place.''

Like the kinds of bookstores Kociejowski admires, his book has a lot of nooks and crannies. Diversions spill into subsidiary diversions. With its looped intestines, this is not a book for everyone.

But it's an account of a life well, happily and grouchily lived. ''I'm not a little proud,'' he writes, ''in declaring my instincts have served me well.''

The World Students Society thanks author Dwight Garner.


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