Stock in Trade

Customers often ask where all my books come from. I usually say that people just bring them in through the front door, but this is not strictly true. I go to fetch many of them: the trick is trying to work out from a phone call which houses are worth visiting. ‘I’ve got far too many to bring round, you’ll need to come and see me’ sounds hopeful, as does, ‘There are shelves and shelves, I wouldn’t know where to start counting!’ Sometimes these things are not decided rationally: I have been known to get out the car after a threat to throw them all in the bin or a querulous voice on the other end of the phone saying ‘But they’re already on the trolley! What will I do if you can’t come and look at them?’

This is what I can seldom bring myself to ask, but should: Are they really magazines masquerading as books? Have they ever been kept in a garage, or anywhere else damp? Exactly what do you mean by old? Have any other dealers seen them yet?

What proportion is paperback, book club or Reader’s Digest? Have you returned all loans to previous owners? Have they been nibbled by dogs, cats, mice or gerbils? (A vendor once claimed that his biography of Napier must be worth twice as much as usual because of the scarcity value of having a chunk bitten out of it by his parrot.)

Hope triumphs over experience too often as I leap into the car, wondering if I will recognise the spot (you can’t miss it) half a mile before I get to the significant village where I should turn left down the dirt track. Often I arrive to see wonderful books arranged in shelves and what I am to be offered in boxes on the floor. These come from parents, children who have been given an ultimatum to clear ‘or else’, or, in one instance, the long dead first wife of the newly dead husband. I try not to covet the shelved books. I also try not to judge by first impressions, for even in a house where the only other books were 1950′s school text-books, there was a scarce golf book. Where most of the books turned out to be copies of the People’s Friend Annual and The Friendship Book of Francis Gay I have found plays that are unobtainable new. Best of all, where the bin was threatened, were rows of books on conservation, a first collected Scott in enviable condition, and many childhood treasures. ‘I really only need one book, and that’s the Good Book,’ said the wife. The husband was ninety-nine and had worked in museums. He had donated most of his professional books to a library when he retired at sixty-five, but had then been asked to set up another institution and the books had simply accumulated. I made the mistake of asking him what he thought about repatriating objects. ‘Never’ he said. ‘We cared for them: they would have crumbled or been sold if we hadn’t intervened. When I left the Museum, I called the staff and told them they must never, never clean the Elgin Marbles.’ Exhausted by this diatribe, he went to bed. I filled the car full of things I knew scholars would love, and went back to tell him so. ‘Thank you for saying that kind thing,’ he said, as a tear rolled on to the pillow. I would have been too much in awe of his achievements to ask him anything had I looked him up in Who’s Who before, rather than after the trip, but I regret not finding out more about the Elgin Marbles.

I have come back from a flat whose tenant was slowly pickling himself, his double stacked books and his bust of Lenin in the rankest tobacco smoke; I have driven across the East Neuk to inspect a house ‘full of leather bound books,’ which turned out to be Readers Digest condensed; and there was the house whose owner had been so put out by my inability to come at once that she didn’t phone to tell me that she had then contacted another dealer. Do people call in a second plumber to make sure that the first one hasn’t left any taps dripping, or a second dentist to see if the first one has left any holes? Booksellers do not charge a call-out fee, so a few people are quite happy to persuade themselves that since the first took four hundred books for £2X, the second will be happy to remove the remaining two hundred for £X.

I am never informed that another dealer has been before me, but it is obvious at a glance, the only other explanation being that their owner’s criterion for collection was that they should be totally unsaleable. At first I think something can be salvaged to cover my petrol, but this spectacular book on birds has all the plates cut out, and this interesting tome on Secret Societies bears a House of Commons Library label. Sandra, our local auctioneer, following in the footsteps of a nationally known auction house, found a golf pamphlet by local author Hay Fleming that they had left behind, which she sold for over £7000, but that has never happened to me.

The sort of house call that no bookseller likes is the free valuation. Nothing prevents people calling out a bookseller to look at their books and then not proceeding. Only later do I hear on the grapevine that a wife is assessing her husband’s assets prior to divorce, or someone has promised a friend all his books at ten per cent more than my bid. Why do people sell? Relatives die, people move into smaller houses, a current vendor has been feeding books into the Quarto for a year prior to emigrating to Australia. Some of the bleaker reasons I do not want to probe, but as I trip over the empty vodka bottles, wish I could inscribe the cheque ‘For Electricity Bill Only.’

The Quarto bookshop, 8 Golf Place, St Andrews. Books on anything under the sun, but especially Scottish and Golf books. Tel:01334 474 616

Copyright Margaret Squires 2005.


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