Posted By DMB

I continue my private study of the books in the backdrops of the homes of our public commentators as they inform us on TV. Second in interest, but no less telling is the art they choose to hang on their walls. But I’ll leave that for others to comment on.

The books are as expected, almost always rows of tilted paperbacks and not very many of them. So far, I’ve seen two who made a respectable showing – one very impressive, two shelved rooms full denoting the lifelong serious reader. Our Prime Minister – Mr Dressup – has four small shelves and another four adjoining ones gradually filling and pushing the knickknacks along. If he stays in power much longer, he may fill them eventually, meaning he’ll have around 150 to 200 books in the end. Some thousands less than his father would have had but hardly surprising given what we’ve seen. Still, I voted for him too (“give the kid a chance, why not, maybe I’m wrong…”), so I share the blame.

I’ve been studying how our society uses books for many years – which reveals through the clues how we really feel about them. One day I shall publish here or in my column in CNQ some of the results. Just because you and I have spent our lives immersed in books doesn’t mean the rest of them have.


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It’s become obvious by judicious reading and watching how the pandemic is going to go and it’s not good for me and my age group, especially all of us who smoked all those cigarettes for all those years.

We old ones with other health problems can look forward to very limited freedom until a vaccine is found. Almost all group activities will be about five times as deadly for us until then. The rest of the world will learn to take their chances with much smaller odds for death and even smaller ones for a serious bout of the disease.

Gradually the world will adapt, for humans are marvelously adaptable as history teaches. So innumerable tricks and ploys will emerge, and life will go on.

Many things will change permanently and I’m most interested in what will certainly change permanently in our minds. The psychological consequences of this pandemic will affect everything from our mental equilibrium to the sanity of many. Some events will bring horrible effects, hence horrendous consequences, not yet foreseen. Many of our young will learn that death exists and many others will learn how thin the line is, while us old ones may find were not as philosophical as we pretended to be. I would guess our writers are already speculating in their work on some of those consequences and we can expect to see some of them in books and movies in the next while.

Criminals will change their pleas from child abuse to “the virus made me do it.” After our lengthy lockdowns we will better understand when our incarcerated say, “Don’t you get it? It’s being locked up.” We are learning that the real punishment of being locked in is the loss of freedom. And when we’re allowed out again we will learn the equally horrid lessons which come from constantly monitoring all our actions to not make missteps, something all prisoners do every day.

So, life will be harder in lots of things but no less interesting.

Still, people my age, at least thinking ones, know that much that was not long ago taken for granted is finished for us. At the very least until they find and test completely an effective vaccine we can forget about large crowds. Meaning all sports, theatre, and the arts in general where audiences attend.

Thinking on all this there arises for me what is the greatest advantage for the elderly – I don’t want most of what I’ve obviously lost. I can see much of sports and the arts on TV or video and while it’s filtered experience it’s still got some good points. Watching reruns of Toronto’s two World Series at least stimulates memories of what it was like to actually be in the stands. It’s not the same but then neither are most other memories of our youth.

What I think I will miss most is talk. The long leisurely talks with friends in restaurants, over food and wine watching the small dramas of the world around us. The loss of all that hurts a lot to think of. The greater loss for me is book venues and the buying of books. I’ll never run out of books to read but for one such as I, who well knows the true significance of buying books, it is painful to contemplate that.

But aside from that it seems not so bad. My greatest pleasure now, in isolation, aside from reading and cleaning up old messes which long offended me, is thinking. So much so that I no longer refer to my status as isolation, now I call it solitude. Which allows me to call myself a philosopher.

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“You don’t need to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

                                                                                                                        Ray Bradbury

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Posted By DMB

Last Saturday at a Queen’s Park demonstration – large, with a profusion of signs demanding Government action – I saw what has to be the most radical demand I’ve ever seen – and I go back to the sixties.

The large hand-painted sign read “I WANT A HAIRCUT”.

 
Posted By DMB

We are all adapting in our own ways to this modern plague, learning daily new tricks to outwit boredom. Those of us who read books have a huge edge these days and we have been transformed from curious nerds into people who have barely time to chat on the phone with our desperately bored friends who’s houses are empty of books. They still don’t understand. But we continue what we always have done reading, reading, and rereading. I myself am rereading the entire oeuvre of my favourite authors from 20 to 40 years ago.

My cousin Liz Warrener, a retired librarian, tells me she and her book club are reading the whole of Jane Austen and are currently having heated online arguments about Northanger Abbey.

I wear the same clothes for a week getting seedier every day. Instead of grooming myself for the world I’m reading different chapters of eight history texts over coffee.

I write less, but longer emails to various friends world-wide, to my mind the greatest benefit of our new electronic reality (except for ease of research for us book people). I walk around the block every day. The world seems more peaceful, if more distant, and I’ve been watching more free movies many of which I didn’t know existed.

While baseball didn’t announce another spring, I’ve had complete replays of both the World Series from 92 and 93 bringing back wonderful memories. And even last year’s triumph of the Raptors has been shown in full.

My friend Eric X, ensconced in an undisclosed location, in a house full of books, clocks, and old musical instruments (he’s still leery of book thieves even though I tell him that he’s safe from thieves, because even if they stole his books they’d have nowhere to sell them – except maybe to me – and he knows I would never stoop so low as to buy his stolen treasures. Some are so important and unique that I’d have to keep them myself – I couldn’t sell them for fear of being caught. Why would I buy his copy of Stevenson’s Treasure Island which was Long John Silver’s own copy – it really is, Long John was modelled on Stevenson’s friend W.H. Henley and Eric X’s copy is the very one which Stevenson inscribed to Henley. It’s unsaleable on the open market, perfectly safe I assure Eric.) I mention Mr. X here for the following anecdote: When the horrible plague first descended and we were ordered to stay at home Eric said to his wife, “Gee, we’ll be completely isolated,” whereupon Mrs X replied, “Eric, you’ve been isolated for years.” Eric realized his status wasn’t changing at all. He’s been at home reading ever since he retired. Another gift for us life-long readers!

I’ve been sorting old papers (another blog on that, later) and books. I’ve already found so many books I didn’t remember I’d bought that I have enough new reading for a long time. Along with the recent development where my old man’s natural reduction in memory has caused me to forget what I’ve read – almost before I’ve finished the book I’m reading, has also rendered my entire thriller / mystery section into unread books. This means that I’m safe for a very long time.

Still, I do miss baseball and fiddling around with flowers and plants. And chatting with the neighbours. And playing with my books in the store. But it will pass.

Last note: I now watch once a week Gary Oldman’s magnificent portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour just to remind myself how bad it can get. We’re a long way yet from that. Also, the sports channel, desperate to fill space keeps playing Field of Dreams. I’ve seen it 5 or 6 times in the last month (instead of my usual once a year). We will prevail.

 
Posted By DMB

The plague, having imposed isolation, now includes our TV news people demonstrating the décor of their homes, which I’ve been studying in my ongoing social study of how our society uses books.

Commentators like to use books as a backdrop so we see a section, mostly containing paperbacks on Ikea shelves, the worst modern aberration invented to store our sacred relics. Outsized for books, they have almost everything wrong with them relating to the storage of books. I have come to loathe them. They insult the books most, just as we would feel insulted if we were forced to wear clothes in sizes much too large and in styles which made us feel ugly and distorted out of all proportion.

When I moved my huge storage last year I had lots of extra shelves (very expensive to build especially for young new dealers) and I tried to give some away. I had a dozen or so of those Ikea monstrosities which I had stupidly accepted for free over the years when I bought the books they contained. They are too heavy to move easily due to the weight of that obscene pressed board and the shelves are too deep – for no sensible reason – and ludicrously spaced (as though standard book size was uniformly 18” tall, and prone to chipping easily, making them even uglier. In all, the wrong size, too heavy, ugly white, when books demand the deep shades of browns that lend dignity – an obscenity and an insult to the true booklover. I couldn’t give any of these shelves away so I took to leaving them outside the doors of my storage every day, along with other useful things no longer wanted. Everything free was taken, except the Ikea shelves, which I ended up throwing into the garbage bin. The lesson is that even the garbage scroungers have a greater aesthetic sense than our cultural guides.

Notes about our broadcaster’s libraries will be added to my long ongoing study of how our society really views books (not how they think they do) which I shall eventually publish, at least in part.

With our business shut and me locked up for two months now I have been absorbed with sorting old messes, trying to establish the order I’ve been planning to impose for several years. This has resulted in a couple of remarkable results.

First is, naturally, finding all sorts of books I forgot I owned which has resulted in much reading of the browsing sort – pamphlets, articles – ones I hadn’t read and ones I’d read and kept for eventual rereading – which I now did. All these things caused much searching for other details mentioned in other books, which meant I spent much of every day reading in every direction. Great fun of the sort which ends with everything messy, the day has disappeared and your mind is swirling with ideas and you had a great time.

And the second thing is that by all this sorting and searching I also sorted to file all the emails I’ve printed out. Afterwards I realized I had in fact relived and reappraised the last ten years of my life. I’ve had renewed conversations forgotten, and encountered people who’d disappeared. I sent overdue emails to neglected friends and colleagues, even phoned some and start again lapsed dialogues. All in all it’s been – again – a wonderful example of things and people discarded or misplaced by time and our modern obsession, with getting more of everything while ignoring and enjoying what we already have.

I’m looking at the world and many things in it differently and I’m sure that lots of other people are doing the same.

We all know this pandemic is changing everything, some things irrevocably, but it’s now clear to me that some of these things will be to the good – to our great profit – if we are wise enough to see. For all of us the first trick is to say alive. But for many small businesses including us booksellers, the next is to survive. I will speak more of this in my next blog.

We have sold nothing in two months, not surprising. Books are seen as a luxury by our society it seems. In all the news items I’ve seen about amusing ourselves in isolation I saw not one suggestion about reading until finally a morning talk show host exclaimed, “I might just crack a couple of books. Reading, you know.” Only someone who hasn’t read a book within his memory would talk like that, but his was the only mention I’ve heard. None of my friends who I talk with has experienced the slightest boredom, nor has mentioned any activity – except sorting and clearing old messes like me. Readers are never bored because they have thousands of worlds to enter and explore.

 
Posted By DMB

For years I’ve been making notes for use in various writings, or just for my own amusement, or sometimes just so I won’t forget anecdotes from books I’ve been reading. Many of them have neither use nor relevance to any project I’m working on so it occurs to me that I should put them in this blog with the hope that they might amuse others as well.

It had never occurred to me that this blog might have readers but just in the last month 3 people admonished me that I hadn’t added anything in ages and when was I going to.

So, here’s the first couple completely devoid of any book relevance.


“Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on the weekend.” Woody Allen
 

Making Amends

A long time ago I took my mother out to dinner in a fancy restaurant which had developed a good reputation as one of the best for cuisine minceur. It was at the height of the cuisine minceur craze, but I chose that restaurant not because of that, but because it was owned by a good friend and drinking buddy of mine. I knew my friend, who was also the Chef, would fuss over my mother because I knew he also had a middle-class no-nonsense mother who would also not understand, nor approve of fancy, expensive restaurants. And also, and more important, because at the very early hour we went, I knew he would still be relatively sober.

My mother enjoyed herself but mostly because her son and his friend fussed over her. She was of a generation which almost never went to a restaurant unless it was for a cup of tea after a shopping expedition. I think she didn’t approve of the fashionable décor in spite of the rave reviews his restaurant had been getting in the Toronto newspapers.

Afterwards she said, “It’s was nice enough, but this silly friend of yours didn’t cook his vegetables long enough. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him that. Why wouldn’t his own mother tell him?”

After I got her home, happy but bemused, I returned to my friend’s restaurant where we shared another bottle of wine discussing matters of great importance, such as trying to make amends to aged mothers for all those years of worry and grief we had caused them.

 
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.

Yours,
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 info@generalmoving.ca 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.”

 

 

 

 
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