Posted By DMB

On June 15, 1967, I bought my first two books as a bookseller, later selling one on the Ward’s Island ferry, completing my first, and probably most successful day as a bookseller.

My account of that first day excerpted from my memoir The Pope’s Bookbinder (Biblioasis, 2013), can be found on our website at


Posted By DMB

Another common misconception that I have heard many times over the years is the erroneous regular accusation that booksellers raise prices on their books before a bookfair. My own regular response to this canard is as follows. You live in this city, you frequent the bookshops, you very probably have seen books in various shops that you covet. Maybe you have coveted them for a long time, but have resisted due to price – or other reasons. Imagine this: you visit a booth at a fair, see a book which you know was recently priced at 1/3 or ½ of its price at the fair; or afterwards, the next time you are in that shop, you see the same book back at half or a third the price you saw at the fair. My questions are these: would you then continue to frequent a bookshop when you had this clear evidence that the dealer was a sleazebag or a gouging crook? And further, would you not refuse to even attend any bookfair ever again, assuming, reasonably, that all the dealers were also doing that and all were sleazy crooks as well? Would you not more probably conclude that the entire trade is made up of rogues and scoundrels, and desist from bookcollecting entirely? I expect I would. One would have to conclude that any person who did believe all these things would indeed be a fool – at least if they did not immediately dismiss all used and rare bookshops.

I could go on with quite a few more examples of common assumptions which, if true, would also be compelling proof that these same booksellers universally believe that you and all their other customers, are stupid. And, since there is a finite pool of potential collectors in any society, if any of those things true, we dealers would be effectively committing business suicide. Yet every bookseller receives many hints these things are common assumptions. Perhaps it is a justified assumption since we live in a society where we all are afraid to call a plumber or an electrician or take our car in for repairs. And where the 6 O’clock news broadcast tells us daily about innocent citizens cheated on their roofing or their furnace.

What bugs booksellers is that no one ever makes these accusations directly to us, so we could defend ourselves. For myself I have a hundred retorts for such things, but have never had a chance to use any of them.

The crooked bookseller? Yes? Well, show me a wealthy one. Why have all the used bookstores disappeared? Why didn’t they buy a building with all that money they stole instead of always renting and getting kicked out, because they couldn’t pay the rents that normal businesses do?

There are lots of what I call stupid bookstore assumptions, so many that I’m compiling another pamphlet to point them out. Stay tuned! 

Posted By DMB

As some of our customers know our annual sales for the last 3 years or so have been motivated by our need to drastically reduce our stock by October 2017, at which time we must relinquish half our retail space to our beloved landlord. It is for this reason that we offered our entire stock priced at $150.00 and less at 70% off. The traditional sales in the used and rare trade have always been 50% off, excepting when firms are closing or moving. Final sales have generally started at 50% and finished at 90% off with the detritus being free or shipped to the Goodwill. At 70% off a very high percentage of our stock will be sold at a loss.

We know of no other examples of a carefully built and weeded antiquarian stock such as ours where such draconian discounts have applied during the entire week long sale period. Our system of from $150 to $400 at half price and over $400 at 30% off is the more usual systems used by booksellers.

But more pertinent, and perhaps generally unknown outside the trade, is the fact that when used bookstores have sales they are authentic sales. Every day we see advertisements in the media or in store windows offering fantastic savings “up to 70% off” or whatever. Investigation reveals that those high levels exist for only a small percentage of the stock, in small amounts which are quickly sold. Some businesses buy cheap goods as sale loss leaders, others manufacture cheap (and often shoddy) goods specifically for sales. It is understood that these ploys are simply legitimate business practices. But very few people realize that the sales conducted by used bookstores are, and always have been, true sales: the book that was $100 yesterday is $50 today. But the real significance in used book sales is that the offerings are unique, one of a kind. There are usually no replacements and the book you buy could often be a sleeper – a bargain – at its full price. The reason you get it at half price is that the dealer needs money or space and he is sacrificing his treasures for that reason. There is nothing phony going on.

It seems to also be a common belief outside the trade that many dealers raise their prices before sales. I can only say that in 50 years as a bookseller I have never seen a single case of that. If it were tried one would need 6 months extra work just to prepare.

Now, with 6 months to go we have been offering entire subject sections of our stock for sale as lots, at very desirable prices. So far, we have sold our entire stock of children’s books, very painful for me, since children’s books had become my most pleasurable area and I have been buying heavily in children’s books for several years. This is, of course, another of the many reasons booksellers die broke. I make a large and very necessary sale and immediately begin whining about my terrible loss. But that’s the double-edged sword that booksellers must deal with. We love what we must sell. My father, the banker, had lots to say about that.

However, a lady friend gave me a solution to that problem when I told her I was having difficulty getting rid of clothes I never wore. “It’s an excuse to buy new ones,” she said.

This weekend there is a paper show and I will be buying heavily to replace my beloved children’s books.


Posted By DMB

The booktrade has lost one of its greats recently, and tributes from all over the world are being published. Barney Rosenthal came from famous bookselling families on both sides. Born in Munich, the family moved to Florence on the rise of the Nazis where his mother’s family, the Olschkis, were as prominent as his father’s family had been in Germany.

The Rosenthals ended up all over the world as booksellers. Barney escaped Mussolini as well in 1938, went to New York, served in the U.S. forces in World War Two, and moved permanently to San Francisco, and then Berkeley, where he has just died at 97 years of age, loved and admired by all who knew him.

The first time I met Barney Rosenthal I was a young beginner with not much more going for me than curiosity and a passion for books. On that first occasion Barney treated me like I was an admired and valued colleague. And on every subsequent time we met he treated me like an old friend. I never met him that I didn’t learn something from him. Those lessons were mainly about how to be a better bookseller and a better person and it’s those lessons I most remember.

I’m quite proud that many years ago I did sell him a book for his famous project on early annotated books. I had acquired a piece of 16th century theology of probably no importance, but it was heavily annotated in the margins. It had been sitting in my office since I didn’t know what to do with it or even where to start. Barney came in on a Toronto visit, mentioned his interest and I pulled it out.  I couldn’t read the annotations, nor the Latin the book was written in, and I hadn’t a clue as to its value. I pulled a price from the air and hoped Barney would find it acceptable; he graciously thanked me and bought it. It was a measure of the regard that I already held Barney in that I hoped it was a sleeper. And, of course, it had to be, for Barney had invented the subject of interest. The mark of the great collector – and the best dealers – is to focus on an area previously ignored and to amass an orderly collection based on that idea. The very focus enhances the value of the collection and hence its components. So, in the way of booksellers, I can shamelessly boast that I helped Barney build his collection.

For many years I have described Barney to people who never met him as a man for whom a modern first edition was a 17th century book. Except for his extensive reference library that would be mostly true.

But how I’ve always preferred to describe him, is simply to say of him that he was the most respected man in the booktrade.

Some years ago, a prominent dealer wrote an anonymous satire on the trade. Every person in the book was a cunning, rapacious scoundrel – except the hero (and the beautiful lady whose love he justly captured). The hero, the only admirable person in the book was widely reported to be based on Barney Rosenthal. Everyone who knew Barney believed it was him and cheered when he won the prize (a book, of course) and the beautiful lady.

The most respected man in the booktrade, indeed.

Posted By DMB

My old friend and long-time client Russ Musgrove, who I don’t see much of since he retired from the TTC (yes, those delays in bus service you suffer are probably because he isn’t there anymore), comments that he will be reading Klein’s Travels with Epicurus. He won’t be sorry. I’ve now given away 20+ copies and read it twice myself. I’ve even given copies to some of the doctors who are trying to keep me alive–at least until I can catch up on my backlog of unread books. Those doctors who are too young to need Epicurean wisdom yet, are advised to look on it like they look on preventive medicine.

Russ Musgrove built the greatest Mordecai Richler collection I’ve yet seen, which I brokered the sale of so he could pay for his daughter’s university education. Even though I sold the collections and earned a commission I was upset because I wanted to buy the Richler collection for myself but couldn’t afford it. I often think that Russ might have given his daughter a better education by giving her Richler’s works rather than sending her to university.

It’s curious that of my recent Books of the Month two others have been related to medicine, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Laws of Medicine and Oliver Sacks’s magnificent autobiography On the Move, which demonstrates conclusively that Sacks, for all his quirks and eccentricities, was a great physician. The Sacks’s book also contains an antiquarian bookseller, the inimitable Eric Korn, Sacks’s oldest friend and a bookseller who many of the visitors to earlier Toronto bookfairs (indeed, most major North American bookfairs) will have encountered. If Sacks was somewhat eccentric, Korn was seriously eccentric, but an extremely knowledgeable bookseller who we all consulted on anything related to Darwin.

Eric travelled to bookfairs with Jeff Towns proprietor of Dylan’s Bookstore in Swansea, Wales, which at one time had the greatest street address in the annals of the booktrade, Salubrious Passage. We other dealers wondered how Jeff managed to deal with Eric–most of the rest of us found Eric extremely stimulating, but in small doses–and often referred to Jeff as Eric’s “minder”. In the obits on Eric’s passing a couple of years ago their professional relationship was described wonderfully–something like what follows: “Jeff made sure Eric got to the cities and countries he was supposed to, and in return Jeff received a liberal education in the Arts and Sciences.” A wonderful description. Eric wrote a column in the TLS for years which was so popular they later made a book of some of the columns–a book which is now extremely difficult to find because no one who owns one, including me, will part with their copy. Eric’s first wife was a Canadian and his second wife a Russian. They would often be seen at bookfairs having marital spats–usually over grammar and syntax–in Russian, a language that Eric seemed to have learned at an advanced age.

All this self-indulgent silliness is because I have to fill the blog and since my health is pretty good right now I don’t need to waste any space writing about it and I don’t, contrary to all those reports we read, wait ages to see doctors. So, for my American friends I must add, you may think we’re commies but our health system is wonderful.  Especially when you yourself need it.

Posted By DMB

The “Book of the Month” for this month is Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein (Penguin). A marvelous mediation on old age wherein we learn that Epicurus was not an Epicurean. He believed in simplicity in food and drink. And that what was important was not what you ate but who you ate with. He also believed that old age was not to be avoided – by pretending that seventy was the new fifty, but that it should be embraced as not only an important stage in life but the most important age. For only the old can dismiss all the pointless vanities and stupid ambitions which drove us in our youth. And embrace the important things, which are companionship, conversation over food and drink with friends and simply embracing the beauties of life which are there for all if we only slow down and look. All obvious, even trite – except Klein makes it fascinating, so much so that I read a page and think for half an hour before going on. And finishing it once, and having bought a dozen copies for friends, I’ve started it again.

A word to the wise – from Epicurus, one of the truly wise ones.

Posted By DMB

      The Blog has fallen behind, probably because I’m doing so well with my “rare” disease. I’m told it can even be cured, although probably not wholly. I shall probably retain some of my Byronic limp, but I don’t much care anymore because it’s been singularly unsuccessful anyway. Young women holding doors and cars stopping to let me cross the road is more disconcerting than flattering.

      Even if I’m cured of the “rare” disease I still have COPD underneath, so I’m contemplating changing my persona from Byronesque to Laurentian. I shall cough tragically and sigh romantically, implying that consumption is threatening and there’s not much time. If it worked for Keats and Lawrence it might work for me.

     I’m back at work six or seven hours a day and starting to plan both our downsizing and the party we will be having to celebrate fifty years as a bookseller which occurs next June. Perceptive people will note that I didn’t phrase it “fifty years in business”. That is because bookselling isn’t really a business – it’s a pretend business at best. We will have half the space at more rent, the real reason all the used bookstores worldwide have disappeared: high rents in what used to be slums. Only the French – as usual – comprehend the importance of culture in a county and are subsidizing an area of Paris so bookstores will continue to provide access to the records of our civilization. So, we must find a way to reduce our stock by half (not to mention a huge reference library accumulated over fifty years). It’s very painful for me because for all of my so-called career I thought that if I bought good books I could live off them in my old age. Now here I am with wonderful books and no place to keep them. They were to be my pension and now, instead of relaxing I have to deal with major problems. But, in case anyone thinks I feel sorry for myself that would be an error. I’m still having a wonderful time and my major fear is not the problems I have to solve, but that my precious books might go to unworthy people.

     I have, with only Don Stewart of McLeod’s in Vancouver as a rival, the best general antiquarian stock in Canada and no one cares. Governments bail out wealthy corporations to protect jobs and the economy but it would never occur to them that our souls need culture or there’s no point to being wealthy.

     I’ve offered entire sections to some institutions here and offered my entire stock to the Government of China. Since China must be preparing for their takeover of the world by training Chinese students with higher education and the stock of any good antiquarian shop would be a perfect base for any special collections department of a university library, I thought they could be interested in acquiring an entire library.

     Since the Trudeau government seems to have spent a fortune attempting to initiate business opportunities in China for Canadian business, perhaps I’ll call Justin.

Posted By DMB
I have been seeing all sorts of quite impressive doctors who tell me I have a rare disease called vasculitis which affects the sensitive blood vessels, such as those in the lungs and the feet – hence the “dropped foot” – which I am still attempting to pass off as a romantic Byronesque limp, hinting at mystery and the promise of a deeply intriguing person. So far it has been quite unsuccessful, except that young women hold doors open for me and look faintly sympathetic. Someone suggested an eye patch might help, so I’ll try that next. However, all the doctors agreed it is quite appropriate that a rare book dealer should acquire a rare disease. I was a bit skeptical that their concept of rare might not measure up to the antiquarian trade’s view of rarity. I was forced to question them closely, in case they might be confusing the “rare” with the lesser “excessively scarce” or the mere “extremely scarce”. Since all antiquarian book people are aware that many over-enthusiastic sellers of books are prone to over-describe rarity – at least for their own books – I was afraid the doctors might be doing the same. So, this is doctor’s “rare”, not rare book “rare”.
“And now for something completely different…”
Reading a wonderfully eccentric travel book by Paul Theroux called The Kingdom by the Sea about traveling in England in 1982 during the Falklands War, I encountered this quote he got in a pub about the war,
“The Argies. They say they’ll eat the sheep, when there’s nothing else left. That’s not fair, eating the sheep. They have no right. The Falklands may belong to Argentina, but those are British sheep.” Could there be a better example of that English sensibility which gave us the immortal Monty Python? Theroux’s book is one of the weirdest travel books I ever read – all sorts of stuff like the above for Anglophiles.
Posted By DMB

Today Debbie sold a collection of the works of Marie Corelli which I’ve been building for forty years vindicating another of my theories and helping some with the business transition we are in the middle of. Marie Corelli, the most famous writer of her period (even though you never read her) and one of the weirdest literary personalities in all literature, will get a bookish essay soon. Deb had been negotiating with an institution for a year (the usual reasons, not interest or passion, but money). She and the librarian she dealt with ought to be proud and very pleased with themselves. The book world and its followers still go on.

And to finish Canada lost one of its great hockey legends, Gordie Howe, a man who inspired several generations of young hockey players and seems to have also been a lovely man.

But for me, more important than all the rest of my triumphant personal happenings we watched them bury a truly great man last week. Muhammad Ali was a true hero in the classical sense. He superseded greatly all his component parts. When we are very close to an event or great person we can miss how they will appear in a hundred or two hundred years. But booksellers have much practice. His true moral greatness for me lies in the events of the sixties. Here is a man who had everything: fame, beauty, celebrity, plus being the most exciting heavyweight boxer seen in living memory. He had adulation, wealth, everything. This man had everything our society considers the most important things in life. And he threw it all away on a matter of moral principle. He refused to do what his conscience told him he mustn’t do. He could have slipped out of draft status in a hundred different and easy ways. He could have gone and made himself a public soldier-patriot as Presley did, while he spent a pleasant couple of years. But he wouldn’t go along. He not only refused, he lost everything he’d already earned, he defied then further. He threw away everything. I would urge school teachers to have their students google back to the newspapers of the time to demonstrate what it really cost him. He said no, he wouldn’t play. He wouldn’t bend. Such men (and women) are the ones who change the world. The journalists, especially the sports journalists of the time crucified him.

Our young have been shown a true hero. And for me, on a great personal day, I found that event the greatest.

"Of course real readers read for excitement."
​Michael Dirda.


These blogs will not continue as long – I simply couldn’t help it.

Posted By DMB
The downside to adapting to my new regime has so far been having to cancel recent social occasions I really wanted to attend. George Jonas’s memorial, my niece’s graduation from Massey, the Munk Institute, a dinner with some dear old friends and their family who we only see every few years or so since they retired west, and several short visits from visiting collectors.

The upside is that Debbie, Halina, and Norm have the store running smoothly and I have time to write all those emails to friends and colleagues, I’ve been meaning to do but didn’t. I’m also buying some nice things and can pretty easily arrange buying within the Toronto area.

The paper edition of The Pope’s Bookbinder has been issued with an added chapter, details and information can be found by clicking here. Biblioasis, as usual, has made a beautiful book.
The romantic Byronesque limp is still not working very well and no one seemed to think I was mysterious. The ankle, while completely painless doesn’t do what it used to do. So the limp is still more a lurch. It needs some practicing. I took my father’s old Irish walking stick but it was too long – not much help walking, but still a serious weapon for beating off perils if needed.

“The proper study of mankind is books.”
Aldous Huxley

A note by McLuhan I saw in a letter to Claude Bissell, found many years ago in Bissell’s papers, “Did you know that the North American goes out to be alone and stays in to be social? And that for the European it’s the exact opposite.” Bissell continues, “He [McLuhan] had the renaissance humanist’s belief in the power of literature to illuminate life and conduct.”



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