I’m a sucker for books about bookshops and publishing, with an embarrassing number of books on this subject, even some of that tacky sub-genre about books where someone inherits an unlikely bookshop and a customer falls in love with them. Sadly these are all in rural areas of France or Germany, in America or Australia and sometimes the bookshop is on a barge, not downtown Nottingham, but I can dream.
The Bookseller’s Tale is more of the weird and definitely wonderful stories attached to bookselling, not least Martin Latham’s own story, though he is slightly coy perhaps about the bulk of career being at Waterstones as such. Of course he mentions it, but not much. But it is Canterbury Waterstones, and our publishing wing owes him a favour as he used to promote our old New London Editions books, our reprints of forgotten books from the 1960s, which we must return to sometime. His tales of the supernatural within the bookshop make me jealous.
His Tale is, however, not just one of anecdotes. On page 74 the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wanders into the book, as does Walter Benjamin. This in a chapter devoted to the early book peddlers who sold books door to door and from barrows. Here you can discover the origin of the word chapbook, a type of pamphlet loved by poets, which were sold by chapmen – hawkers basically.
From there we move to ancient libraries, the ur-libraries he suggests, not least as perhaps the original library was at Ur. Here we also find the old libraries of the Islamic world where “what’s written in Cairo is published in Beirut, but read in Baghdad.”
The author is not exactly absent from the text and a flavour of his own practice is found with him saying that his favourite question to ask at interview – for a bookseller, mind – was “Who would win a fight in a pub car park between a vampire and a werewolf?” There are of course parts of Nottingham where this happens every Saturday night so some Nottinghamians would have direct experience to offer here.
His chapter on marginalia is fun, giving lots of examples of historic and literary scibblings in the margins of books. Meant for posterity or for personal record? It varies.
As a bookseller I like to think of myself as being in a profession, within a trade that has to be learned. After decades in the business I’m still learning, slower perhaps than I should be so I would have had little chance of being a bookseller in Renaissance Venice where you had to serve a five year apprentice and pass an exam covering nature, philosophy and several languages. No mention of vampires there though, but perhaps Renaissance Venice was short of car parks. It wasn’t easy in bookselling at certain times, with the 1492 “Bonfire of the vanities” in Florence and in Venice itself the Doge was told by the Pope in 1562 that all books had to be checked by the Inquisitor before going on sale. He was opposed by one Friar Paolo Sarpi who found ways round the various bans and burnings. There’s a statue to him in Venice, holding a book.
Moving towards modern times Latham waxes lyrical about Book Row in New York where there were perhaps more books on sale within walking distance than anywhere in the world, ever. Sadly, gentrification brought that to an end. In this chapter the author makes a rare slip, suggesting that one bookseller, the socialist Leon Kramer, “founded the world’s first Yiddish newspaper” from his bookshop. No, Yiddish newspapers started about two hundred years before that and in the year Kramer arrived in America the Yiddish Forverts was selling 120,000 copies daily in the same city.
There are so many bits of this most readable book that I want to quote, but space does not permit. But there’s a nice piece of bookselling nostalgia when he refers to “checking the microfiche (5 x 4 inch celluloid sheets listing books in print which we viewed like holiday slides on a device which most customers called ‘the computer’, although it was just a monitor-shaped box with a light bulb inside).” Booksellers of my vintage thought this was cool and modern.