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BITS FROM
AN OLD BOOK SHOP



BITS FROM
AN OLD BOOK SHOP



R. M. WILLIAMSON



LONDON :
SIMPKIN, MARSHALL, HAMILTON, KENT & Co., Ltd.

EDINBURGH AND GLASGOW :
JOHN MENZIES & CO.

1904.






3^

Wt



TO ALL LOVERS OF BOOKS






CONTENTS.



I. THE PLEASURES OF BOOK-
SELLING .
II. HOW I BECAME A BOOK-
SELLER .

III. THE LITTLE RED FLAG.

IV. LOVERS OF BOOKS

V. AMENITIES OF BOOKBUYING
VI. THE VALUE OF OLD BOOKS
VII. THE GENTLE ART OF BOOK
HUNTING .
VIII. UNDER THE HAMMER .
IX. THE IDEAL BOOKSELLER
X. SHADES OF THE OLD BOOK

SELLERS .
XL THE TWOrENNY BOX .
XII. ECCENTRIC CUSTOMERS.

XIII. SUCCESSFUL BOOKS

XIV. A PENNY A NIGHT
XV. THE PAINS AND PLEASURES

OF BEING AN AUTHOR .



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36
43

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64

70
86
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97
105

112



BITS FROM AN OLD
BOOK SHOP.



i.

THE PLEASURES OF BOOK-
SELLING.

Buying and selling old books is a most
delightful occupation. Let poets sing of
the pleasures of hope, the pleasures of the
imagination, the pleasures of memory, or
essayists write of the pleasures of litera-
ture, 'tis mine to praise the pleasures of
bookselling.

The bookseller lives in a bygone world.
He is daily in close communion with the
good and wise of all ages ; he has Shake-
speare, Milton, Dante, Homer, as his com-
panions, and he is ever and anon coming
across some rare treasure, and being
introduced to new friends.

The pleasures of hope, imagination,
memory, and literature arc all his. He



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is cheered by the hope of meeting a
Caxton printed book, or a first folio
Shakespeare, or a Kilmarnock Burns ;
the delights of imagination are his as he
soars on the wings of fancy with some
poet or story-teller; the sweet memories
of past intellectual pleasures are ever with
him, and all literature, past and present,
is his to enjoy.

A second-hand bookseller's shop is as
unlike any other class of shop as one's
own home is unlike a hired lodging.
When you go to a linen draper's place of
business you are expected to buy some-
thing. You cannot try on a new silk tie,
or a pair of gloves, and then leave the
place without purchasing; neither can
you go to a greengrocer's and taste the
fruits without spending money ; but one
may go to a bookseller's store, and ex-
amine every book in the place, read a bit
out of one volume, look at the pictures in
another, admire the binding of a third,
and finish by having a friendly gossip
with the bookseller, and never be asked
to spend a penny.

The bookseller who understands his
business never shows any anxiety to sell
his treasures ; he acts as if it were a
matter of perfect indifference to him
whether he sells his books or not. His
chief aim is to make his visitors feel at
home in his shop, and having induced the
customers to look at his wares, he leaves



AN OLD BOOK SHOI\ 11

the books themselves to complete the
transactions.

In front of the windows outside his
shop, the dealer arranges his cheaper
books on stalls, so that the passer-by may
be tempted. One box is filled with penny
books, another with twopenny, and so on,
up to volumes at one shilling each ; at
the door of the shop a polite invitation to
step inside and look round the shelves is
exhibited.

In looking over the books on the stalls
outside, one comes across all kinds of
oddities. Side by side with " Drelincourt
on Death" lies "How to Live Long";
and on the top of an odd volume of " Ten
Thousand a Year" reclines " How to Live
on Sixpence a Day." " The Blessings of
Sorrow " may be met in the same box
with " How to be Happy " ; while such
works as "Joe Miller's Jest Book,"
"Baxter's Call to the Unconverted,"
" The Maiden's Dream Book and Fortune
Teller," "Dr Begg on the Organ Ques-
tion," "Card Tricks," "The Confession of
Faith," "Buffalo Bill," "Blair's Sermons,"
"The Female Detective," "Advice to
Young Men," lie higgledy-piggledy in
the threepenny box.

It is surprising the number of books
which are sold through being exposed on
these outside stalls. Many of them would
never sell in the ordinary way of business.
They are not good enough to catalogue,



12 BITS FROM

and would have to be disposed of to the
rag merchant, and finish their career as
papier-mache.

To arrange this interesting medley of
literature requires no small amount of
experience and art. The bookseller in
the morning is like an expert angler
going forth for a day's sport. As the
fisher chooses his flies, so the bookseller
his books. How carefully he studies the
prices to be affixed to the various volumes,
how he avoids frightening his customers
away by ticketing the more expensive
ones too obtrusively. When a book
seems too high-priced, he usually apolo-
gises by writing " scarce " or " out of
print" on the ticket. The penny and
twopenny books are like so many worms
on a hook, by whose means the adroit
dealer draws his customer inside the
shop.

The bibliomaniac's fever usually com-
mences at the bookstall. Of all kinds of
human weaknesses, the craze for collect-
ing old books is the most excuseable.
During the early phases of the disease,
the book-lover is content to purchase
only books which he reads. Next he
buys books which he means to read ; and
as his store accumulates, he hopes to read
his purchases ; but by-and-by he takes
home books in beautiful bindings and of
early date, but printed in extinct lan-
guages which he cannot read.



AN OLD BOOK SHOP. 13

The bookseller is a student of men as
well as of books, and lie knows well how
to entrap his victims to his palace of de-
lights. The dealer in fancy goods keeps
his shop bright with paint and gilding,
but the old bookseller knows better.
Paint and gold would frighten his cus-
tomers away ; dust and dinginess have a
peculiar attraction and an indescribable
charm for book buyers ; and a second-
hand book shop should have an air of
antiquity about it, so as to be in keeping
with the leather-bound and vellum-
covered books.

The bookseller himself must possess a
certain old-world dignity about him, in
harmony with his trade. When he an-
swers his customers' queries, he should
speak with an air of authority and wis-
dom ; he should be wise enough to express
an opinion on everything connected with
literature ; be able to quote Shakespeare,
Burns, or Carlyle, and discuss the writ-
ings of a Darwin, Tyndall, or Ruskin.

It is not in keeping with his profession
for a bookseller to be too young ; or if he
has the misfortune to be young he should
appear old, and be antique in his conver-
sation and ways.

A bookseller should be able to tell a
variety of good stories about people pick-
ing up bargajns at bookstalls — such as the
anecdote about the man who got a first
edition of Shelley's " Queen Mab " for 2d,



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or the legend of the fortunate fellow who
bought Caxton's " Game of Chesse " for 6d,
or the more modern tale about the Irish
worthy who found a Mazarin Bible in a
huckster's shop in a back street in Dublin.

These appetising stories are as fuel to the
fire of the bibliomaniac's fever, and bring
fresh visitors to the bookstalls. It is so
delightful to think that in looking over
an old bookstall one may come across for
2d a book worth its weight in gold.

In Sir Noel Paton's allegorical picture,
"The Pursuit of Pleasure," the votaries
are charmed to their doom by a beautiful
female ; the bibliomaniac is fascinated by
the hope of obtaining some rare prize from
an ignorant dealer, and in searching for
his rarity he cannot resist purchasing
other books which he hopes will go up in
value in the future. But the bookseller
lives for the present, not for the future ;
and as long as he sells his books he is
satisfied.

Have you ever watched a skilful and
experienced bookseller selling a book ? A
customer, in looking round the shelves,
conies across a volume he would like to
possess, but he fears his limited purse
may not admit of its purchase. He takes
the work to the dealer and asks the price.
Does the bookseller immediately give his
victim a direct answer by naming the sum
at which he values the book 1 Nay, but
carefully taking the coveted treasure in



AN OLD BOOK SHOP. 15

his hand, he dusts it with his coat sleeves,
looks admiringly on the outside binding,
opens the volume, examines the plates
carefully, descants on the exquisite print-
ing, praises the binding, and talks
learnedly on the rarity of the edition ;
quotes the extravagant prices it has
brought at certain sales ; and seems by
his manner to hesitate as to whether he
should sell the book or not. This makes
the would-be purchaser more anxious to
obtain it; and at last, when the seller
has adroitly made the work appear to be
far more valuable and rare than it really
is, he names his price, with the result that
his customer carries the book away re-
joicing, and boasts to his friends how he
obtained for such a small sum a treasure
of such great value.

This is one of the greatest pleasures of
a bookseller's career, the pleasure of sell-
ing cheap, and giving all his customers
the best of value.

Booksellers are constantly giving their
patrons extraordinary bargains. In Lon-
don recently a copy of an early edition
of Keats' Poems, originally bought from
a dealer for 2s was sold for £140, and a
first edition of Burns' Poems bought in
Edinburgh for Is 6d brought £350.

The other day I sold a copy of
Thackeray's "Samuel Titmarsh," 1849,
for 8s. A month later I had the pleasure
of seeing the very same book sold by



16 BITS FROM AN OLD BOOK SHOP.

auction for .£4, 15s. The dealer who
bought the book from me at 8s sent it
right off to the saleroom, and whilst
pocketing his profit chuckled at having
caught the old bookseller napping.

The pleasure of benefiting humanity is
a pleasure the bookseller possesses in no
small degree. In purchasing books from
people who are weary of them, or have no
further use for them, he rescues literature
from lying idly aside, or from being de-
stroyed by moths or damp ; and in re-sell-
ing these books to fresh readers, he gives
forgotten authors a new lease of life,
helps to keep the immortal spirit of
learning alive, and gives anew to men the
delights of knowing the great minds of
the past









II.

HOW I BECAME A BOOK-
SELLER.

When I was a schoolboy I had two
ambitions — one was to become a book-
seller, the other to be a showman.

The old town of Selkirk is built on a
braeside, surrounded by hills, and from
various points one can see the classic glen
of Yarrow, the wilder but less known
vale of Ettrick, and far away in the mist
the peaks of the hills which overshadow
the silvery Tweed.

In Selkirk there was a bookseller's shop,
into the windows of which we boys gazed
with admiring wonder every day. The
bookseller who owned the shop was an
old gentleman of mild aspect, whose
dress, manners, and tone of voice were in
our eyes the perfection of respectability.
We thought him a far greater and
wealthier man than the minister, and
the doctor was a nobody compared to
him. He seemed to spend his time
writing, reading, and meditating. We
never saw him cleaning the windows,
sweeping the floor, or dusting the shop.



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He was dressed in black, and was always
so tidy and neat, that he seemed as if
fresh out of a bandbox.

When we ventured within the precincts
of the establishment a young man ap-
peared from some back region to attend
to our modest wants, but our ideal book-
seller never rose from his chair or deigned
to look our way. Once a carriage and
pair drove up to the shop door, and we
saw, to our wonder, the gentlemanly pro-
prietor himself emerge from the premises,
head uncovered, and with a stately bow
and respectful smile, open the carriage
door, while a lovely being of aristocratic
bearing lightly stepped down and entered
the shop. This fair lady was the daughter
of a wealthy nobleman who had an estate
in the county ; and as we flattened our
faces against the window pane, we could
see our model bookseller behind the
counter, with a beaming and respectful
expression, attending to the lady.

When we boys planned our future voca-
tions in life, we one and all decided to be
booksellers. We did not mean to be
young men selling halfpenny-worths of
slate pencils, or penny bottles of ink, to
little boys, but we meant to be full-fledged
booksellers right off. How jolly it would
be to sit on a chair doing nothing all day,
to have no lessons to learn, or no master's
tawse to fear ; to have an unlimited supply
of stories to read, a young man to do all



AN OLD BOOK SHOP. 19

the work, and the privilege of talking to
and smiling at a real nobleman's daughter !

Selkirk Fair was to us schoolboys the
great event of the year. The memory of
that great day even now fills me with
pleasure. On the clay previous to the
Fair, we went miles along the Galashiels
road to meet the show people. We
watched the formation of the processions
and followed with eager delight the
triumphal march of the band into the
town. How we loved and adored the
beautiful lady with golden hair, who sat
on one of the cars enthroned as a queen,
with her feet on a real living lion's head.

Our parents took us to the Fair, and
treated us to big cakes of gingerbread,
wrapped up in green and yellow tissue
paper. "We were allowed to drink lemon-
ade and ginger beer, and to eat pies and
tarts innumerable. We strutted about
the Fair thinking ourselves men, and
were deliriously happy. The gaudy tinsel
to us was real gold, the hurdy-gurdy's
broken notes was the grandest of music,
the dancing girls seemed angels, and the
entrance to the shows was like the gates
of Paradise.

One of the showmen was our hero. He
was the greatest, grandest, biggest and
most wonderful man we had ever beheld ;
the bookseller was a nonentity compared
to him.

" Walk hup ! walk hup ! ladies and



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gentlemen," he shouted to us, and as we
boys paid our pennies and walked up the
golden stairs we felt awfully proud to be
called "gentlemen" by such a splendid-
looking man.

His beard was the biggest and blackest
beard we had ever seen, his voice was the
loudest voice we had ever heard, he was
the tallest man we had ever looked up to,
and he was the most gorgeously-arrayed
individual we had ever beheld. He wore
a crimson coat, yellow vest, and bright
blue trousers, and on his massive head
was a tall white hat. His fingers were
covered with rings, and a heavy gold chain
was round his neck.

Oh, how I wished to be a showman, to
be the owner of a circus, a steam-driven
musical box, a performing donkey, and to
be the master of a clown ; to wear grand
coloured attire, a diamond pin, a white
hat, and to carry a gold-mounted whip;
to live in a caravan, and to be evermore
attending fairs ! But, alas ! for my ambi-
tion, my practical father apprenticed me
when I left school to Mr Bell the tailor.

A tailor I would have been to this day
if it had not been for buttonholes. I
managed to stitch on the buttons, but
could not make a proper buttonhole, and
one day my master lost his temper and
struck me across the knuckles with his
scissors. I ran home crying, and nothing
would induce me to go near that tailor's






AN OLD BOOK SHOP. 21

shop again. Even now when I revisit my
native place I cross over to the other side
of the street.

The worthy man who taught me how to
buy and sell old books is now away from
his old book shop, and his stock has been
scattered by the auctioneer's hammer.
He was very frugal, and, indeed, miserly.
He amassed a small fortune, but lost it by
publishing a newspaper, and the worry of
it killed him.

There are in Edinburgh five successful
booksellers who were originally employed
by this father of bibliopoles.

About twenty-five years ago the late
Mr Samuel Hunter built a block of shops,
with houses above, on Leith Walk, almost
on the site where William Chambers
began business half a century earlier. I
ventured to rent one of the smallest of
the new shops (No. 325), and on a certain
Saturday in December 1878 drew down
the shutters for the first time.

A two shilling copy of " Adam Bede "
was the first book I sold. The gentleman
who bought it was named Adam Black.
He is still an occasional customer; I always
like to see him looking over the books.

During the afternoon I bought from a
man a copy of Barclay's Dictionary for
Is 6d ; I sold it half an hour after for
2s Gd, and thought how pleasant and
profitable a thing it was to be a book-
seller.



22 BITS FROM AN OLD BOOK SHOP.

How happy I felt on that Saturday
night after closing. I had drawn nearly
four pounds, and thought I was going to
be a second Nelson or Chambers. I think
the beginnings of things are always the
most interesting. The early struggles,
the overcoming of difficulties, the first
blows in the battle of life, are in books of
biography the most fascinating pages.
One looks back to the first day's experi-
ence in a new enterprise as to a red-letter
day which can never be forgotten. There
is the uncertainty, the alternating hopes
and fears, of it all, and the day crowned
with a promise of future success.

Mansie Waugh, the night before he
opened his shop in Dalkeith, went out to
view his sign by candle light. In Leith
Walk I did not need a candle, but I would
not like to tell how often I viewed the
sign over my shop from the other side of
the Walk, both before and after I began
business as a bookseller.



III.

THE LITTLE RED FLAG.

In passing along the streets of a large city
one often sees a little red flag, attached to
a short stick, hanging from the entrance
to a common stair, at the gate of a villa,
or over a shop door. No part of the town
seems to be free from the display of this
signal. It usually begins to flutter in the
air before eleven in the forenoon, and
mysteriously vanishes before tea-time.
This symbol never appears on Sundays
nor general holidays, but with these ex-
ceptions it is to be seen daily in one part
of the city or another. It invades the
most aristocratic neighbourhoods. It has
been seen in the Koyal Terrace, in Princes
Street, Moray Place, and in the Cowgate.
Wherever the red flag goes it is fol-
lowed by a motley crowd of humanity.
The same type of men and women are to
be seen day after day, gathering like vul-
tures at the houses marked with this
bright coloured device. Curiosity may
lead one to inquire into the meaning of
the invasion of the red banner, and fol-

23



24 BITS FROM

lowing some broker into the place one
finds that there is to be an auction sale in
the house. There arises in the heart a
feeling of regretful sadness when one sees
the household treasures, the "lares and
penates " of a family exposed to the rude
gaze of every passer-by.

It is cruel and heartrending to a sensi-
tive spirit to see the eager crowd of
would-be purchasers examining the goods
which are to be disposed of. One ferret-
eyed dealer tries the legs of a table to see
if it is firm ; another inserts his knife into
an old arm-chair to find if it is stuffed
with straw or hair, a third taps a mirror,
and makes faces at it, so as to discover
the thickness of the glass. A young lady
tries the tone of the pianoforte with a bar
of "There is a happy land," while a stout
old dame examines some china cups,
knocking them against each other to see
if they are sound. A sharp-looking man
is carefully measuring the shelves of a
book-case, and an individual, with the
peculiar knack of his trade, is examining
the books.

Nothing is sacred to the dealer. Into
every room and nook and corner of the
house, from kitchen to attic, the eager
bargain-hunters penetrate ; everything is
minutely examined, cupboards arc ran-
sacked, drawers of cabinets are pulled
out, locks and keys are tried, feather beds
are tossed about, wardrobes are opened



AN OLD BOOK SHOP. 25

and garments inspected — nothing within
reach is left untouched. The broker has
no memories linked with the goods on
view, he has no sentiment connected with
the household gods, no love for the old
arm-chair, nor the family Bible, no desire
to keep as a treasure the grandfather's
clock. Ho loves the furniture only for
the money it will bring ; his one desire is
to obtain a bargain. The dealer lives and
flourishes and fattens on the ruin and
decay of cherished memories.

A home is a sacred place ; the pictures
on the walls may not be of much mone-
tary value, but they are hallowed by
memories of those dear ones who placed
them there ; the books may be old and
shabby, they may not be first editions,
but were they not treasured and read and
re-read by our fathers'? Every little
knick-knack in a home twines itself
around one's heart as one remembers some
incident which connects it with the past.
How bitter then it must be to have one's
rooms invaded by a crowd of unsym-
pathetic strangers, who care nothing for
the precious associations linked with every
bit of furniture, and how cruel to see so
many hard-faced men and women examin-
ing with greedy eyes and careless hands
the treasured idols of one's home.

The auctioneer, with his glossy silk
hat and genial air of importance, appears,
followed by his clerk, with pen, ink, sale
B



26 BITS FROM

roll, and cash bag. The sale is conducted
with a quiet business-like method. Every
article must be sold, and it is wonderful
how everything finds a purchaser.

If there is a garden connected with the
house the sale commences outside, when
flower-pots, plants, and garden utensils
are sold. The kitchen is the next scene
of operations. A sweeping brush, pretty
well done, is knocked down for three-
pence, a cracked kettle and three tea-
pots — two wanting lids — bring sixpence,
a large lot of pots of jam, an umbrella
stand, and a gas cooking stove, are put up
as a lot, and after a spirited competition
are disposed of for two and fivepence.
As the sale proceeds from room to room,
there is a good deal of crushing and hust-
ling among the crowd. How the rooms
hold so many people is a mystery, and
how the porter manages to pilot his way
amongst the people and hold up the
various articles for sale is a wonder.

A good proportion of the fair sex follow
the profession of brokers. Evidently they
thrive by their trade, if one may judge
from their well-fed, contented looks, and
from the amount of costly finery with
which their ample persons are adorned.
It is curious to see so many women of the
same type drawn together by an auction
sale, and although they outbid each other,
and are eager after bargains, they seem
all to be quite friendly amongst them-
selves.



AN OLD BOOK SHOP. 27

Sometimes a newly-married, very young
man appears at one of these sales, and
purchases a lot of things he doesn't know
anything ahout, and for which he may
have no earthly use. In my early married
days I bought what the auctioneer de-
scribed as a "magnificent pendant gasa-
lier," and a perambulator, in which I
wheeled it home. The gasalier was
absolutely useless. I employed a plumber
to get it fixed, and when that was done
the gas would not come through the pipes,
as they were hopelessly plugged up, so
the old-fashioned gas jet had to be refixed
up, and a scavenger tipped to take the
gasalier away. The perambulator cost six
shillings, but one of the wheels broke the
first day we took baby out, and we had to
pay half a crown for a cab to take the
child and the carriage home.

As a rule articles of rarity, or of
special value, are not sold in these house
sales, but are removed to the central
rooms for special catalogue sale, but now
and again a valuable picture, or bit of
furniture, is overlooked and disposed of
in a house. Bargains in this way are
sometimes obtained, but if two or three
experts see a valuable antique, or a paint-
ing by some celebrated artist, the com-
petition for possession becomes keen, and
the uninitiated crowd arc amazed to see a
cabinet, or an oil painting, sell for as many
pounds as they expected it would bring
pence. 2 b



§8 BITS FROfti

At one of these house sales I discovered
in a bedroom a poor, forlorn cat. No one
would have thought of offering grimalkin
for sale, but maj^be she had been the
fondled pet of some child, and her
neglected aspect and frightened look was
touching. I have seen birds in cages,
cocks and hens, dogs, and even a pet
monkey, disposed of by auction.

The auctioneer is usually the most
good-natured of men ; he keeps his com-
pany in the best of humour by his jokes ;
he never vents his wit at the expense of


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