Posted By DMB

With the announcement by our landlord that our lease will not be renewed when the current one expires in two years I have decided that it is time for me to largely withdraw from the business.

I have been trying to ease out, unsuccessfully for several years. Unsuccessfully because of our major problems. First, the downsizing by half at the shop, then losing our 6,000 square feet of storage which was moved and reduced to 1,600 square feet. Then, just when I thought everything was rearranged came this. First I offered the entire business for sale now I’m going to try and sell off 60%-80% of my stock and fit into a small office. I plan to leave Debbie and the staff to run it and hopefully devote myself to buying books and other interests, like publishing, scribbling myself, and enjoying the friends who are still with us. I also have quite a few projects, all related to books which I want to fool around with.

We will be having a whole series of sales to reduce our stock and I shall devote myself to that and to some donations of collections I have long been amassing.

Like so many of my friends and clients I’ve long had plans for all the interesting projects for when “I finally have time.” Now, I realize that if there’s to be any time I’ll have to make it.

At present we will devote ourselves to offering entire sections of our stock, en masse, to institutions. Because it is only feasible to sell entire subject areas as a whole, we are unable to offer our private collectors an opportunity (unless, of course, you want to retire and open your own shop). After a suitable time we will revert with the remaining stock to a normal type sale where our regular clients can profit from the opportunity.

But where we can we will offer certain things to clients at once. To that end we are currently offering all our stock of multi-volume sets of authors works at a reduction of 50%. We will be sending out shortly a list of all our sets identifying them and noting the number of volumes and their bindings (re cloth or leather bound).

Anyone who wants better descriptions will get good descriptions and photos.

Shortly thereafter we shall issue a list of collections we have built over the last thirty to fifty years which will also be offered at substantial discounts.

Later, as we can, we shall issue periodic lists of individual items or smaller groups which lend themselves to easy identification or sale.

We intend then, over the next two years, to reduce our stock to more manageable proportions so we can cope with the final move. In the meantime, we earnestly solicit enquires of any sort relating to our stock.

We hope it is obvious why we cannot allow sales of individual parts of subject areas, there is no way we could expend the time to do so. We’re sure our private clients will understand that, but they can be assured that there will be plenty for the private collector before we’re done.

We intend to resort to regular reports of our progress via this Blog as we go.

David Mason




Posted By DMB

I am almost finished moving my 6,000 sq. ft. storage into a new location which, being only 1,500 sq. ft., necessitated a drastic revision of much of the philosophy which has motivated me for the last fifty years. It has been perhaps the most onerous experience, certainly the most painful one, of my career as a bookseller.

The landlord of my storage gave me notice and I have in turn been forced to confront many changes: the errors and miscalculations I’ve made, some innocent, some stupid, some due to the way the world works. Recent changes due to the electronic revolution have reached every obscure level of economics. A combination of those changes, combined with the disappearance of slums in our major cities, have affected booksellers (and lots of other businesses). The world has changed and those of us who based our lives on the old ways have had to adapt. Or die. Bankruptcy has never been an alternative for booksellers, we can’t even afford to go bankrupt, it’s too expensive for booksellers.

But most important, all this mess has necessitated that I recognize and deal with my mortality, something none of us want to do. This crisis caused me to dissolve several collections I’ve worked on for years but, most horrendous, I had to make decisions on my private library, 90% of which has been in storage since we moved from a house to an apartment some years ago. I shall write of this later, the only case I know of where a private reading library has been broken up by the owner while he’s still alive… I don’t mean collections; I mean a private library – like yours. It was very weird and very painful.

All booksellers – I guess all businesses which sell things – need storage. With young booksellers storage means a closet, then a backroom, soon a basement, then – space problems. Inevitable with growth, that leads to a separate premise, called “storage,” or “the warehouse”. These places are of great mystery and intrigue to other booksellers and collectors, for the very words suggest unnoticed or forgotten treasures and they often do contain them. They can hold such things as 350 copies of a first edition salvaged as remainders forty years ago and thought by others to be rare. But more often they contain errors, disappointing purchases that the bookseller throws in there “until later” when they will be sought after and desirable to the world. Later usually means the bookseller’s death, when wiser persons toss the junk in the garbage. But as I have recently found out, when “later” occurs before the bookseller’s demise he finds all his illusions, contradictions, gross errors, and broken dreams facing him. And time and economics demand he deal with them now. Most dealers also have large numbers of defective books, lacking maps, plates, or sets lacking a volume which they pathetically hope to match with missing parts, but almost never do.

I just dumped in the sales bins 200 copies of a small book of poetry that the author has spent many years searching out and destroying, another poet so embarrassed with an early book that he wants to obliterate it. These books – if the author is any good – can and do become quite valuable given enough time. I knew this writer as a young dealer when I put them away. What I didn’t understand was that 40 years isn’t really very long in book collecting. Now, there’s further torture for the poor author in his quest to destroy his youthful apprentice work. I, of course, have lost all my projected gain.

It is a horrible situation to be brought face to face with, the physical evidence of a lifetime of cruel blows – the physical challenge alone would be overwhelming to all but a Churchill. Or a bookseller who has fifty years of proof that he must deal with whatever they throw at him because no one else will; a man who knows, as does the alcoholic who hits bottom, that he must save himself. And only he can.

My storage contained: Excess stock caused by two downsizings reducing store space. These were good books judged less desirable for show in the shop; general overstock, meaning multiple copies of good books (“You must never hold a book in contempt just because you have more than one copy of it,” Bernard Amtmann). In my case this also contained the largest miscalculation of my entire career, multiple copies of mint remainders of literary first editions bought as remainders very cheaply over forty years, meant to provide my “pension”. Books I paid 50¢ or $2.00 for forty years ago are still perfect first editions now priced at $45.00 to $75.00 but rendered unsaleable by the Internet where we find one hundred and fifty copies of these books, priced by my professional colleagues at the same prices as mine, but by countless other copies priced down to $5.00 and $10.00 by amateurs and the ignorant fools endemic to the Internet. It’s a cesspool for the unwary and not just with the cheap books. So, all my carefully amassed books are worthless. For a change, not due to my own errors but because of “progress”, another unforeseen result of the Internet’s universality. And it’s not just me, as collectors are learning as they attempt to sell books worth less than $100.00 or $200.00 dollars only to find people like me don’t want almost all of them.

At our downsizing a couple of years ago when we cut our space in half, I ended up giving away some 3,000 or so books to a colleague for they were unsaleable to the young dealers. Now, not only have my lovely books been swallowed by the maw, but so has my colleague. She had the best used bookstore in Toronto, adjacent to the University. Every University in the world has used bookstores beside them but the University of Toronto kicked her out to make room for a café so their students can relax over coffee. Nowhere to buy cheap books, to learn a bit about what faces them. Nor does the University of Toronto show any signs that they comprehend the nature of their sin against everything they’re supposed to stand for. Without books, what point is there to a university?

I will have much more to say about my move, now six months in, another to go, and a year or two rearranging the mess I’ve created.


I want to finish by passing on, as do all small people both in business and private citizens, some praise for the people who moved me.

All of us are scared to buy a used car, or call a plumber, or roofer (or a used bookseller), for fear of being gouged, robbed, or otherwise mistreated due to our ignorance. Guys like me do everything by word of mouth, recommendations by friends. We also like to pass on the names of the good ones.

The company that moved me I discovered by accident. They parked beside our Thornhill storage, my assistant, Norm, noticed them, we called them, were impressed by the way they presented themselves and gave them a try. They are a father/son business (Bob and Mike) and move everything. They were super, they came, gave me an hourly rate and did five huge moves (a 30’ cube van). They did it quickly, extremely efficiently, so well that I did not need to go to the destination after the first trip, they deposited all five huge loads neatly, carefully, leaving us aisles and spaces so we could navigate to make space for the next load. They were also careful, no doubt due to moving houses being their prime specialty.

Anyway, they operate as GENERAL MOVING, email address phone number is 416-876-6550. I can’t emphasize enough how important they were. When they took over the move it removed all my worries about all that aspect of the move. Which left me free to worry about the other 200 problems I faced.

More to come.

Posted By DMB

Michael Thompson. Another old friend and mentor gone. Died Friday August 10 in Los Angeles. His wife Kathleen, who’d read more of the literature of ghosts than anyone I ever met, died last year. He is survived by a daughter and granddaughters and Carol Sandberg. All his friends in the trade will be hoping that his business partner Carol Sandberg will be continuing to operate the business.

Michael was my first close friend in the American trade. He convinced me to make my first major buying trip to California, put me up at his home, took me everywhere and introduced me and vouched for me in the trade. And over many years scouting with him taught me plenty. On top of that we had wonderful times together because in those days we could both still drink. Much laughter and outrageous shenanigans accompanied our trips. And lots of mutual buying and selling of books, often 35,000 feet above the earth. I’ll have much more to say about my old friend – in print – in the future.

Michael was a wonderful seller of books. Over the years I was to learn that this was because he believed in those books. I bought a lot of books from him, both drunk and sober, but never bought one I regretted. Maybe that’s a fitting epitaph for a great bookseller. Me, I will remember his friendship. Our condolences here to Carol Sandberg, his daughter (we had a great celebration the day she was born) and his granddaughters.

He was a good bookseller – the highest praise I can give. RIP.

Posted By DMB

I started this blog to avoid multiple recountings to friends and clients of my recent health problems, then discovered it was possible to publicly vent all sorts of opinions and spleen, thereby clearing out my reservoir of frustrations and resentments. I enjoyed this, but not using all those social media devices myself – I’m on Facebook, but don’t really know how to use it, so don’t – I was unaware that some people were actually reading my tirades. This lead to comments when lapses lengthened the time between postings, which in turn seemed to demand more commitment from me. So, I shall try for more frequent postings. But I think if I’m to use precious time – now after my recent experiences far more valuable than such mundane things as money – than it should be treated according to its relative importance.

This does not mean that I will try to curb my excessive prose style, now too deeply flawed to be correctable, nor my constant meandering, but I will at least attempt to focus on things of more importance than my own petty prejudices. I will try and focus on at least some aspects of the book world which are relevant to all book people whether readers, collectors, or dealers.


A huge scandal relating to institutional theft and the book trade is currently evolving and the trade is full of gossip, hearsay and accusations. But in my circle mostly great shock, for the bookseller involved is a man of good reputation who many established dealers, including myself, considered highly professional and dealt with regularly. That, in part, is a component of the problem for many of us. We in the trade automatically extend to members of our worldwide trade organization, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), not just the normal trade courtesies – i.e. discounts, automatic shipping, and complete guarantees which need not even be stated – the certainty that what a colleague offers will be perfectly described as to bibliography and completeness. But more important will be the unspoken guarantee that the material offered will be honestly acquired with direct provenance provable and available.

There are many cases of stolen or otherwise fraudulent books being returned through a line of dealers each absorbing loss because, dealing with humans, error and fraud are always going to be possible. But our trade organization tries to anticipate this by stringent rules which mostly work pretty well.

So yes, we police ourselves and while anyone who’s been around a long time (I served many years in various functions in the Canadian association) knows this, the public doesn’t, necessarily, and will reach their own conclusions.

Already, on a website where many comments on this episode are being aired many people are doing two things which say more about them and the state of democracy in North America, than about the problems.

Many comments imply, or state, that the dealer is obviously guilty based on the assumption which old dealers like me know as widespread, that all booksellers are sleazy crooks who would love to, and often do, buy stolen books.

The second point is worse for it shows clearly that a large proportion of our fellow citizens do not really believe nor even understand the concept of innocent until proof of guilt is seen. This is scary because it indicates that the rule of law and hence democracy is in danger. Already several people, dealers, collectors, and librarians, have said things to me that indicate that in their minds both participants are guilty and worse, that we are only learning this because they were caught. Implicit in all those comments was the understanding that this goes on all the time. As it happens I’ve been discussing this by email with several dealers – one, an old friend who also has 50 years in the trade is as upset as I am, so much so that we’ve had a number of lengthy long-distance phone conversations.

The point I’m making is no group will be as upset as we booksellers. And the reason should be obvious: The librarians and collectors don’t lose directly; we do. Our reputations are at stake and whether outsiders know it, or even think about it, we live by our reputations.

Sadly it no longer matters whether our colleague is innocent or not, he’s ruined, probably for life.

Look at all this “Me Too” movement. No matter how worthy and overdue is the retribution for those sleazy people who used their power and prestige to prey on helpless people, those people have also been ruined – for life – with no trial, no certain proof, just accusations. Just like the McCarthy era. If you’re too young to remember that go to the books and read about the Soviet era and the Cultural Revolution to see the horrors which occur when the mob mentality takes over.

So some of us in the booktrade are very concerned by many of the implications in this case, a case which is a long way from over and one which hurts the trade greatly by its inevitable damage to the trust and confidence amongst book people which for some will be irretrievably damaged.

Posted By DMB

I’d be willing to bet that you don’t know a lot of used booksellers whose cleaning ladies have the Order of Canada. Well, mine does. She was just up in Ottawa where our delightful new Governor General pinned it on her. Her name is Linda McKnight (my cleaning lady, that is, not the Governor General) and before she became the cleaning lady at David Mason Books she was a literary agent for about 30 years and before that an editor, editor-in-chief, and then the President of McClelland & Stewart. The closest analogy I can come up with was an American colleague who often boasted that his book packer was the only shipper anywhere in the booktrade who owned a copy of the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species (today a $150,000 book but then only worth around $35,000 or so).

Linda phoned me one day and told she was retiring and coming to volunteer with me. She didn’t tell me then that she intended to be the cleaning lady, that came later. After she’d been here a bit and had settled in with her own desk, one day I suggested that she might find it fun to try and learn to do some minor repairs on books, something we do regularly to both keep defects from getting worse and to make the books look prettier. Just generally treating them like we do to our children. “I’m not doing any of that,” said Linda. She often talks like that to me. I was thinking of asking her if there was anything else that she would like to do, when she said loudly and aggressively, “I’m the cleaning lady around here. I’m not interested in all that literary crap. I told you that.” She was also appointed head of the ephemera department which she pretty soon got entirely organized. But she got bored because she only ever had one person come in as a potential client. So she doesn’t get a lot of action. Then one day a man came in and she made her first sale, and a pretty good one too. She stopped saying we should just give it all away after that.  

But she’s always tidying and straightening the displays of ephemera, books and prints. She’s put all of that in order and started looking around for other messes to clean up. We have to go up the hall now to wash dishes. There was a small pile waiting once and when she looked at it then looked dangerously at me I tried to explain that I was the company dishwasher and I would be doing them soon. Five minutes later they were done and then she spent a while glaring at me without saying anything. After some time, she started looking around again for other problems which offended her sense of cleanliness and decency. She chose me, deciding I was the main obstacle to the sense of order which she thinks proper to a bookstore. She started asking questions about what things were and why were they where they were. She soon decided that this store was incompetently arranged, and I was the one responsible for what she considered offensive chaos. That’s when she started pushing me around. 

Linda pushes me around a lot. She seems to enjoy it and I thought of asking (very meekly) if she did that to everyone and was it because she had enjoyed pushing people around from when she was the President of McClelland & Stewart. But then I noticed that I’m the only one she pushes around in my bookstore, everybody else she gets on wonderfully with and chats with and laughs with (often at me, I’ve noticed too). So, I didn’t ask. Later, I thought I’d like to ask her if that’s why she went from being a president to an agent, because I knew that’s what agents do. They push around publishers to get all that money from the publishing house so their writer clients can get rich. But by then I was too worried what might happen, so instead I went back to my dishwashing.

Now, I’m thinking they’ll soon be raising Linda up to the next level in the Order of Canada, this time for her services in cleaning up the traditionally seedy and dusty used book stores in Canada. Certainly we now have perhaps the cleanest bookshop ever seen around here.

As a cleaning lady Linda doesn’t work all that quickly, possibly because of all the time she devotes to pushing me around. I was hoping it might diminish some when we finished our downsizing move, which was very stressful but is now largely accomplished. The stress was largely due to me having to somehow dispose of half my store. Not an easy task for a man who has spent fifty years working on the principle that buying books would save my life and provide for my old age, a sort of insurance and pension in one. Linda’s solution for all books and furniture during the move was simple “Get rid of it!” Into the garbage or off to storage became her solution for everything.

Recently I acquired a bumper sticker created by some genius which perfectly encapsulates the philosophy I’ve used during my entire so-called career. I affixed it to a wall of the store instead of my car, based on the belief that the general public driving behind me might not get the point, whereas the kinds of people who come into my store will likely understand the philosophy behind it better. It reads, “THE ONE WHO DIES WITH THE MOST BOOKS WINS”. A wonderful slogan. Since I’ve always worked on that principle this demonstrates why I had so much stress with the downsizing. But in fact that was multiplied ten-fold by my cleaning lady, Linda McKnight, CM. It appears that simply cleaning is only a small part of the Linda McKnight, CM’s cleaning philosophy. The main thrust for her is to, and I quote, “Dump it. Out with it.” She says that a lot.

Pointing at a closed bankers box she will say “What’s that?”

“It’s books. Or it’s ephemera.”

“Get rid of it. We have to get rid of this junk.”

“Linda,” I would explain (meekly), “I do want to get rid of it, that’s why I bought it. I’m a bookseller. I plan to sell it.”

“And that pile of old magazines, those boxes of old sheet music, what about them?”

“Well, they’re for sale too. That’s what we try and do here. Buy these things and sell them and make a living. You should like magazines and sheet music, it doesn’t take up as much space.”

“You haven’t sold a bloody one of them since I’ve been here, not one. Get rid of it. It’s all crap.”

“But Linda those things are valuable that’s why I bought them. We’re going to do very well with them eventually. It just takes time.”

“We need to get rid of all this stuff now. If you won’t throw it out, take it to storage.”

That became the next mantra, “Take it to storage, we need to get it out of here.”

“But Linda (even more meekly), if it’s in storage we can’t sell it.”

“They won’t buy it anyway. It’s just junk. You’re a hoarder – you need help and I’m here to provide it.” The fact that Debra Dearlove, and all the other staff wholeheartedly agreed, supporting General McKnight, CM with great enthusiasm, didn’t make it easier.

“I’ve trained myself for fifty years to recognize gold amongst the chaff and now you all want me to get rid of it.”


Posted By DMB

Basking in Linda McKnight CM’s shadow the staff became unruly, openly challenging my vision. So every day I had to solve a hundred problems of disposal, constantly harassed on all flanks. Only my deep convictions of the value of my artifacts kept some slight balance while I rescued what I could. It got so that I hardly dared go out, or even to the washroom, without precious things disappearing while I was gone.

One day I returned to find two of my precious 8’ x 4’ shelves, built myself years ago using the famous Mason System – where I could build a shelf in 20 minutes, an accomplishment still not equaled in the intervening 50 years – blatantly destroyed. All through this crucial period I was assailed constantly by what I had believed to be loyal cohorts. I became openly ridiculed and told that I would never manage to “get rid of all that crap” by our deadline.

But I did. I made it with a couple of days to spare, at the cost it must be admitted, of some of my favourite shelves and fixtures, and quite a few wonderful books which will one day be extremely valuable and which Debra Dearlove will certainly lose thousands of dollars on. Well, I warned her. Others will profit from my foresight and it serves her right.

But at least the pressure of deadlines is off, although not without a certain amount of suffering. Our storage is jammed, there are unsightly boxes and pictures around the store but I’m hoping to sort at my pace now. But don’t think I’ve won anything. My esteemed cleaning lady Linda McKnight, CM has begun her next campaign.

“Next is that desk of yours. It’s disgusting, papers everywhere, with rotting fruit underneath it. Books everywhere, no order you can’t find anything. No sane person could work there. The first of January we’re starting on it. Out with it all, we’re getting rid of. It’s all crap.”

Posted By DMB

Best advice from a doctor I’ve had in all 0f these three-five years of health problems came from Dr. Uno.

Thinking of going with Dr. Dos as he left his final post-graduate training and begins on his own – switching Rheumatologists – I thought I should first discuss it with Dr. Uno, my lung doctor. I seldom saw Dr. Tres, the head of Rheumatology, I would meet with Dr. Dos and see Dr. Tres at the end for five minutes. I liked Dr. Dos a lot, we connected well personally, shared a similar sense of humour and further, I sort of liked the idea of being his first patient. But he was going to a different independent hospital and we had learned something of the consulting connections between doctors in connected fields in all our hospitals which now includes Dr. Quatro, who is treating one of my ears. He also consults with the other ones I see. I thought it prudent to ask Dr. Uno for advice.

Dr. Uno said, “Choose what makes you most comfortable.” But here’s what to know about doctors, “In a doctor you should look for ten years’ experience. And you shouldn’t want one who has fifty years’ experience.” I laughed. “Why are you laughing?” he asked.

“Because precisely the same would be true of antiquarian bookselling, Doctor. Before they have ten years’ experience no matter how good a bookseller may become they are still just essentially used booksellers. But I’m laughing because I’ve just finished fifty years as a bookseller and the parallel with me I’d say is precisely the same as well. I don’t care about most of it anymore. The only enthusiasm which has never lessened and never will, is that I still love to buy books. I still do it with the same curiosity, passion, and anticipation that I did on day one.

“But most of the rest I leave to my wife.” I’ve lost the ambition I had as a young man and what’s left is taking me in different directions. These new areas, mostly coming from my incessant reading (the only other passion that has shown no lessening of intensity since I was five years old). And my recent passions for scribbling, and lecturing young booksellers (and rightly so, in spite of my awareness that they largely see me as an old pompous bore. I believe this is my moral obligation).

That moral obligation I feel to pass it on begins with giving out books with the candy to kids on Halloween. It occurs to me here that this would be a major difference between me and the late Peter Howard of Serendipity Books, a bookseller who I much admired, but found excessively humourless. Peter would have approved and might have given out books to the kids too, but he might have forgotten to give them candy too. I wish he was here, so I could accuse him of that. I once found out that his specialties in university were English literature and Biblical studies. It’s not surprising that the nickname bestowed on him by the ever-prescient Franklin Gilliam of Brick Row was “The Ayatollah”. Ever after that I felt I understood him. Told him that once too. He didn’t answer, just got that weird look he had, where you could tell he was thinking that he might hate what you were saying but he was giving your accusation the courtesy of thinking about it. Few do that, to his credit. But still when I find myself thinking of Peter after his death, I keep trying to remember him ever exhibiting a sense of humour. And I can’t.

Sorry I digress. Back to the doctor: Along with my bookselling ambitions, my arrogance has also diminished – except for when one encounters that percentage of humanity generally classified as assholes, a group that never diminishes and where the old finetuned arrogance is not only needed, but is permissible to enjoy. I get to do that once or so a week now. That can be very pleasurable, especially when you’ve spent fifty years dealing with assholes, which hones my natural talent. But mostly it no longer bothers me, most of those assholes are petty and irrelevant (except to themselves – and I guess to their underlings who they get away with bullying).

But, I still enjoy talking with the nice ones, the enthusiasts – no matter how ignorant –  and the curious. And especially the young ones – those I still spend a lot of time with and they more than make up for the rude boorish assholes who all small business people have to deal with.

And I still love what has always been one of my greatest pleasures: to sit in my shop, preferably alone, and just look around, to look at my books. What I have created by my vision out of my passion these fifty years, what has been the core of it all (excepting always, what’s inside those books). When I do this, everything becomes clear. I am, and was born to be a bookseller. Like all real booksellers I have done it as I should have, my way – what suited me, what pleased me.  I never wanted to be one of the kind who aimed to sell the million-dollar books, I just wanted to be a real bookseller, selling the valuable five-dollar books too. That’s why it’s so painful now that I can no longer afford to give space to them.

It is changing now in front of my eyes and I am attempting to come to terms with that, I think reasonably successfully; or at least a bit better every day. Debra has mostly taken over and she is in the process of molding it into conformity with the kind of bookstore she envisions and will soon have. And necessarily so. Even after thirty years working and being taught by me she is a different kind of bookseller than I am. As she should be.

I’m trying to adjust my mindset to a new reality, which is my knowledge that most of the most admirable bookselling firms I’ve known in my time simply evaporated when the founders died. Even the few exceptions (rare) where spouses who’d worked alongside or children took over, or valued employees inherited. These places survived but inevitably changed with new owners. Just as mine is doing now.

So, even as I see my imprint fade, beginning to merge with what will be a very different David Mason Books, I still have the pleasure of knowing what I started will continue. And that is no small pleasure. And I sit amongst my books absorbing the memories they bring back. I’ve been saying goodbye to many colleagues, clients, and old friends also in the last few years as well. The sadness is not bitter, but sweet. Just as my business is changing in front of my eyes so is the world and while there is much of the new I despise that’s how the world works, as it should.

Posted By DMB

“Every bookshop is a condensed version of the world.”
                                Jorge Carrion, Bookshops. A Reader’s History

When a used bookstore has the kind of sale I had in our recent downsizing, where everything must go, it will work pretty much like this: after weeding the books one must keep, the sale starts at 50% off retail, sometimes now with the way things are, 60%. After an interval of a couple of weeks or a month, depending on deadlines, the discount rises: 60% to 70% to 80% to 90% over whatever period one has. Then the slush will be packed up and donated to the Sally Ann or some charity sale. Maybe even the university sales if one is pressed for time or just lazy; or, if one doesn’t recognize those sales as the natural predators of the book trade, as I do. The university sales get all their books free – it’s a good cause, think donors – and they are housed and the sale is run in free premises paid for by the taxpayers – including any bookseller who makes enough to pay taxes. They are managed and run by alumni volunteers and university library staff, all funded by the taxpayer and the figures we hear floating through the grapevine here tell us they are taking in between $75,000 and $150,000 each, every year. Multiply that by four or five and you’ll get some idea what the University sucks from the livelihood of the booktrade here every year. Then you needn`t wonder where all the used bookstores have gone. Steve Temple the most bitter of the whining booksellers, would probably say something like this: “Not money from the livelihood of the trade, but food from the mouths of the bookseller’s children.” For years Temple would rant “One day Toronto will have no bookstores and it will serve them right!” he would bitterly prophesize. Turns out Temple called it right. Now there’s hardly any used bookstores left in Toronto, proving Temple’s perceived whining was in fact prescient.

I, of course, am no longer, nor have I been for almost fifteen years, a used bookstore. I am a big fancy antiquarian dealer with expensive books in an isolated office. There’s nothing wrong or sinful about this, it’s just that I always only wanted to be a bookseller. I wanted a store that had all those lovely old rare books but also those cheap $5 and $10 books which are equally lovely inside. Books every civilized store needs to carry, but which simple economics won’t let me any longer sell. Ironies abound: success stole my dream of the perfect used bookstore; my insistence on staying in the central downtown meant my shelves couldn’t afford to hold the books they were built for.  Shelves I taught myself to build in spite of no technical skills, built well too. Lovely shelves, made for the books they bore with such dignity. Later, I bought old valuable glass-doored 18th and 19th century cabinets and filled them with valuable treasures, but it was always the 4’ x 8’ stained #2 pine ones I stopped to caress. And re-stained the nicks and scratches. For they were the ones which told the story.

The bitterness you sense here is real, but my bitterness is not the chagrin of the downtrodden who has been exploited and robbed of his proper share of the pie, mine is based on the knowledge, honed over fifty years, of just how important bookstores are to any culture that pretends to be civilized. And now the used bookshops are mostly gone as you will find out when you try and dispose of your unwanted books. Be prepared to give them away; but you will be ill-prepared for the worst part. Which will be finding someone who will even take them, even for free.

The university sales are, of course, despite my accusations, not the only culprits: soaring rents, no slums – the traditional place in all North American cities for used bookstores – and several other contributing factors have all caused the demise of what one famous writer describes as the cultural measure of any civilized country – its used bookshops. This writer stated that the degree of civilization of any country could be measured by the number of used bookshops it could sustain. I’ve always loved that quote, it sustains me.  

My latest move (surely this time, my last!) was only across the hall, since we had to relinquish one of our two large suites, so we could pay more for the remaining one. But it turned into the worst of all my six moves, a horror show. This was because it necessitated getting rid of half my stock, an excruciatingly painful situation for a man who has spent fifty years believing that in buying books he was buying security, his pension. Not to mention also saving civilization, as the writer said.

Before the sale, I pictured in my mind the crowds of impecunious young readers streaming in to enhance their young libraries with carefully chosen really important books from a fifty year, carefully curated, stock; along with the smarter of the half-dozen young dealers who I keep an eye on, mentoring, lecturing, passing it on as I can – who should, as I had done in the early days, begged and borrowed whatever money they could to grasp one of the rare opportunities to quickly enhance their lifelong stocks with something significant – that they wouldn’t otherwise have been financially able to absorb in a lump.

I had already decided which ones I would offer better deals to, offer shelves to cheap, quietly and privately offer extended credit to (contrary to the usual convention of cash and carry). In other words, I was to curate the dissolution of my beloved stock as carefully as I had cultivated it as I built it. Always, in the back o my mind, I remembered the terrible things I had heard about Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books after he died. With two daughters neither of whom knew or cared about books, his stock had been decimated, dumped. Some rescued by old friends and colleagues to continue some scheme or plan. It was through some of these friends that I heard some of the horrible stories; I’m sure there are lots of others of which I’m unaware. But what happened was that the greatest, most important stock of modern literature in America (probably the world) went up in smoke. Peter had said things before he died. He understood and accepted that this was how the trade works; the books, as long as they go back into the flow (“You must enter the stream,” says Jim Harrison) will survive, even flourish for the next wave of canny scouts, but still…

I also agree with that view as the true basis of the collecting philosophy, but it still pains one to notice on your shelf some ludicrously obscure item and find yourself thinking every time, “Who will recognize what that really is?”

But in the end, you have to believe that some will. The world doesn’t stop with us. 

Posted By DMB

It mostly didn’t work like that. The world has changed, and I got a taste of how extreme the changes in what I thought I knew all about have affected my world.

First, the passionate young collectors didn’t pour in because they no longer exist in my experience. This to my mind is the crucial and most disturbing aspect of the disappearance of the city’s used bookstores. For without used bookstores how do young natural collectors learn they are collectors? It is in used bookstores where, by buying general used books for reading, that beginners start to educate themselves to build a significant library. All collectors begin there too. Without those natural schools the young have no territory to learn. And no guides to lead them, for that is the social function of the missing used booksellers.

What I did get were the usual bargain hunters who only ever came to my yearly sales and now only asked why the books were only 50% off when at the last sale they had been 70% off. These people never mattered to the trade, so this was neither unexpected or bothersome. But the missing young dealers who should have been there to enhance their own futures, that did bother me. Three or four showed up, bought a few books and left.

Some of my regulars came and during all this we sold several quite large sections of various genre sections to a few institutions. We sold our entire children’s section to an institutional client, a sale which was necessary and happy in that it was one of our oldest and best clients, but painful in that children’s books has become my favorite area and one in which I have been buying heavily for quite a while. With the major discount it meant that I lost not only my entire favorite section but sold a large percentage of it at what I had probably paid for it (now you can see why booksellers have a reputation as incessant whiners, nothing pleases them). But at least it was one of our favorite institutions who is delighted with their coup and will continue to pursue the subject so in the end everyone will benefit.

But the sale didn’t improve with the increased discount scale; it degenerated. I had several older regulars who were in most days, smart collectors who plucked out real sleepers at 70, 80, and finally 90% off. At 90% off I started buying my own books my disillusionment and despair now severe.

At one point I got so irritated at the lack of perception by my customers, especially the young dealers that I started rating the books I bought myself. It went like this – at 90% off retail. I retained:

$250.00 books = 28 at $25.00 each
$200.00 ‘’        36 at $20.00
$150.00 ‘’        62 at $15.00
$100.00 or less = 293 at $10.00 or less each.

These figures differ from the October 13, 2017 blog because before I made my final decision I again looked at my books carefully and added books I had ignored the first time. Of course, with the increases maybe I’m just admitting I also have lost the “scout’s eye” on which all real booksellers depend.

Where were any people with the eye? I kept all those books, all books I had pulled off the shelf not knowing their prices but because their aspect meant I would have checked them in any store. I was left disillusioned, not just at the public but at the young dealers.

I’ve been amassing more evidence ever since, the details I now see that I overlooked earlier, ten times as depressing as they had been. I now see that the state of the trade is so much worse than I had imagined. Just by studying the missing stores I had concluded things, but I now see that the trade is even changed from the days when I started. Since Debra is now mostly in charge perhaps my increasing disillusionment is not so relevant, but as I see more and more of the newer and younger dealers who ignore or simply aren’t aware of what I always thought was central to all book collecting and dealing, I came to realize that not only will my business in the near future be very different to what I built over 50 years, it’s only relevance to me will soon be the name. In spite of the fact that it will be run by someone who I trained for 30 years.

So, I can only guess at how other businesses will be affected.

I shall have much more to say later on these subjects for the implication seems to expand daily.

And the end of my sale. After a depressing couple of weeks at 90% off, rescuing my own very good books, I had to decide how to end it with some 4 or 5 thousand good books remaining. I thought of sending out a last notice announcing free books (I was getting very close to my legal deadline) but it was too depressing. I knew what to expect. All those pure bargain hunters who never considered actually buying a book would stream in when they were free. The last time I’d done that on Queen Street, I’d had colleagues up the street phoning me to complain that people were bringing them my free books to sell them (this after begging free bags from me to carry them). I decided these people were not getting my books. I called a few of the young dealers who had come to the sale and told them to come in for free books. (One young dealer who I called didn’t return my call and missed out entirely. I wonder if he ever wonders why I called him.)

The young dealers arrived and took bags of free books and I felt better they were going to real book people. Then I called an old friend long in the trade who I suspected might be having difficult times in the current situation and gave them the remaining 3,000 to 4,000 books. These were still very good books, it should be understood – for years I’d had no room for dross or cheap used books. Many were modern first editions in the $45.00 to $70.00 range, bound French books, much Canadian literature, now in the doldrums, and modern but interesting general literature – like the pretty leather Collins Classics, leather Everymans, and pretty gift type books, handsome full leather odd volumes from 18th century sets and such things.

I found my instincts were right. After the initial pain at seeing so many very good books go out the door, I found I felt really good. Not only had I saved my books from unworthy people, I had helped some friends. But mostly I had respected the books. And as always, I soon forgot those books and started buying more. For the flow never stops and the surprises and pleasures of the new discoveries never ends. Which is what bookselling has always been and always will be.

NOTE: Please forgive the repetition between this blog and the October 13, 2017 one. I’d like to give a reasonable explanation, but the truth is that I’d forgotten I’d written the previous blog. I never look at my website, it’s true, but still… This from a man who when young considered himself to have the best memory of any bookseller in Canada. To add to that I must explain that the difference between the figures in the two blogs was that I found another stock of previously pulled books which I’d also forgotten. Perhaps it is better that Debra is taking over. You will note I’m sure that the sentiments in both blogs are the same. 

Posted By DMB

A friend recently asked me when I would add anything new to my Blog which made me realize that at least one person was looking occasionally. I had forgotten that some people actually read such things; in my enthusiasm for writing whatever I wanted on a blog originally started to inform a few friends and clients about my general state of health, I had abandoned that motive and was having fun spouting my opinions. Obviously, I am a computer illiterate – in fact Norm does everything – I just scribble it and he puts it up. I’d forgotten blogs are to read.

First my absence: I’ve had more health stuff, much of it involving over two months in hospital, a very humbling experience which taught me several unpleasant lessons. I went in for an oxygen flareup but while there they discovered at least three new diseases, one of which necessitated a major operation. This in turn caused me to need to arrange my affairs, the most compelling part of which was that Debra Dearlove and I finally married after a perhaps too short engagement of only thirty years. Naturally Debra will not be changing her name – who would change a name like that – nor will she – as she made plain – obey – in fact that wasn’t even in the ceremony. On top of that she’s taken to informing people that marriage, at least so far, isn’t all that great. Not only am I a dud but she doesn’t recommend honeymoons conducted in a series of hospital rooms with the only views other hospital windows instead of beaches and sea.

But I’m out now and making the comeback. Starting back slowly to do some work and have a life again. My biggest problem right now is functioning under the 2 hours of oxygen limit which my tank provides. Which means that anywhere I go is limited by that time limit which added to travel time constricts me. But I expect to learn the tricks to get around that as well.

The worst, for a bookman, was missing the recent Old Paper Show. I spent all that day sulking and grinding my teeth at the thought of all my books being bought by my competitors, books which rightly should have been mine. But soon I’ll be back out there again teaching those people how to do it properly.

Now back to ranting.




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