Robert Milne Williamson.

Bits from an old book shop online

. (page 3 of 6)
Online LibraryRobert Milne WilliamsonBits from an old book shop → online text (page 3 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and an infinite variety of items to dis-
course upon. Take the collecting of books
for children. Some of the early produc-
tions intended for juveniles are quaint and
interesting. The illustrations, if ugly,
are at least graphic, and tell their story
plainly. All books for children which
have survived for a century are of interest
and value. Amongst minor books very
early school books arc always worth pre-
serving, but they must be early to be of

Dr Watts, the author of "Let dogs
delight to bark and bite," issued his
"Divine Songs" in 1715, a copy of which
was lately sold for £155. The first
editions of " Alice in Wonderland " and
"Alice through the Looking-Glass " are
valuable, and as time passes will become
more so.

It is pleasant and good to know that to-
day, when the output of new books seems
unlimited, we value and love and appreciate
in a fuller and deeper degree than ever
the memories of, and the books written
by, the men and women who gifted to
English literature the immortal fruits of
their genius.



In all ages the greatest, best, and most
lovable men have been lovers of books.
All who own to the gentle thraldom of
the influence of old books can claim kin-
ship with many great spirits of the past,
and nearer our own times with such
charming souls as Charles Lamb, Thomas
De Quincey, Sir Walter Scott, John Hill
Burton, and William Ewart Gladstone.

Every true book lover desires to be the
possessor of the books he loves. As years
go by he adds ever fresh favourites to his
collection, and every book added is a new
source of delight. The pleasure of having
a library of one's very own, however
small that library may be, is a pleasure
pure and unallo} T ed.

The lover of flowers finds keen delight
in preparing the ground, sowing the seeds,
and tending the young plants long ere his
labours have found fruition in the lovely
colours of the rose or hyacinth ; and the
lover of books has rare joy in poking
about amongst the old bookshops, think-


ing about and searching for the books of
his choice, long before his labour has been
crowned with the purchase and study of
the desired volumes. One may have a
desire to add, say, a Moxon edition of
Keats or some choice Pickering to his
library, and may spend many happy days
in many a nook and corner before one
really carries the volume home in

Half the pleasure would be gone from
the art of book hunting if one had nothing
to do but simply order one's agent to pro-
cure the special books and editions one
required. The pleasure consists in the
uncertainty about being able to obtain
what one wants : the difficulties to be
overcome lend added spice to the pursuit.
When a volume is purchased at the ex-
pense of some indulgence, how precious
the book becomes.

Those who make a hobby of collecting
and preserving anything that is curious
and interesting are worthy of praise. The
desire to collect begins when, as children,
we hoard buttons, beads, or marbles, and
as children of a larger growth wo collect
picture postcards or postage stamps. "We
have collectors of book plates, china, quaint
furniture, church tokens, engravings, anti-
quities, pictures, clocks, guns, swords,
antique silver, old keys, miniature por-
traits, violins, and curios of every kind.
The collector of books is, we think, the


prince of all collectors. His work is a
work which never can be completed, his
collection can never be perfected : and
the delights of collecting books can be
indulged in by almost anyone.

Some book hunters devote their ener-
gies to the collection of books of a special
class. The "first edition" enthusiast is
well known. No other edition of an
author's works is considered worthy of a
place in this hobby rider's library. He
knows every detail as to date, illustra-
tions, number of pages, and size of an
" editio princeps." His keenest joy is to
hunt in out-of-the-way and unlikely places
and pick up for pence the volumes he
knows are worth pounds. Privately
printed books are collected by some.
When the author's name is inscribed on
the book, the owner has a twofold reason
for congratulation.

A customer I know has managed to
collect over five hundred volumes on the
subject of angling. He has three times
that number to hunt up before he is the
happy owner of every work on the subject
published. One would think that books
on arithmetic would not hold supreme
sway over a collector's ambition, but I
remember an old gentleman who, every
time he came to the shop, asked if I had
anything new in his line, and his line was
always "arithmetic." Locally printed
books are also much prized. One man


may have Dundee on his brain, another
Birmingham, or York, or Kirkcaldy, and
be ever on the hunt for books printed or
published in his favoured town.

I knew a gentleman who was perpetu-
ally looking out for poets. He would not
look at such common poets as Longfellow,
Wordsworth, Tennyson, or Byron. Poets
who are found "in every gentleman's
library " were absent from my friend the
poet hunter's shelves. There was, how-
ever, scarcely a minor poet who did not
find an honoured resting-place in his col-
lection. One might look in vain in books
on English Literature for the names of
the poets whose productions he prized.
The very fact of their having been for-
gotten, and overshadowed by the popular
authors, gave them in his eyes a unique
value and importance.

The collector of works on occult science
is usually one who himself believes in
spiritualism. Some collectors do not read
the books they gather together with so
much labour, but the pryer into the
hidden things of the past and future is
a student who eagerly reads everything
he can get treating on the wonders and
mysteries that lie behind the sheath of
this flesh. A believer in spiritualism is
slow to speak, on subjects so dear to his
inner self, to an unbeliever ; but if he sees
that one approaches the unknown with a
spirit of inquiry and sympathy, he will


confide in you, and give you a glimpse
into a region strange and weird and
wonderful ; where, amidst much that is
vague and delusive, one sees and hears
things which no man can explain.

A well-known Edinburgh bookseller has
been for many years collecting books on
hymnology. He is now recognised as an
authority on this most interesting and
important subject.

A bookseller in Peterhead has a splen-
did collection of old ballad literature, and
has gathered together a unique and valu-
able collection of editions of the Psalter.

The "duodecimo" collector is he who
buys only the smallest editions. Many of
the Greek and Latin classics were issued
in the choicest of daintily-bound vellum
volumes. Old French and Italian works,
with quaint illustrations and charming
bindings, are to be found in tiny editions.
In English we have Pickering's diamond
classics, and the reprints of Dove, Con-
stable, and others. The love for " wee "
books has gained fresh impetus by the
issue of popular works printed on India
paper, and such editions as The "World's
Classics, The Century Library, The Temple
Classics, minister to the taste for minia-
ture libraries.

The usual crown 8vo book is, however,
the favourite size of volume, the large,
cumbersome folio of the Elizabethan and
later periods having almost become ex-


tinct. Books are seldom published in
folio now, unless they contain illustra-
tions which require special size. The
ancient folio volumes of sermons bound
in everlasting leather are becoming rarer,
in libraries as well as in book shops, but
their rarity seldom increases their value.

The interest connected with books is so
many-sided that it appeals to well nigh
every class of men. There are collectors
of nearly as many varieties as there are
types of humanity. Chess and golf have
each their devotees, who collect every
book they can find on their favourite
pastime. Golf has its crack players, but
it also has its poets ; as for chess and
draughts, there exists quite a library of
books on the art of playing these games,
and of printed records of the many battles
fought by past masters on the board.

The gentle art of book hunting is an
art well worth learning. Some say that
the pleasure enjoyed by the angler is not
so much the joy of catching fish, as the
delight of wandering amidst lovely scenery,
and breathing the fresh ozone of the coun-
try. Is it not equally true that the book
hunter finds his sweetest happiness while
looking for the books he desires, even
though he never finds them'?



One of the most interesting places in a
large city is the interior of the premises
where the auctioneer's hammer holds
sway. Drawn to one of the rooms hy
the clear voice of the salesman, and the
tap ! tap ! ! of the hammer, one finds that
a sale of a very special kind is in progress.
There is a pungent smell of spirits in the
room, and an array of bottles behind the
rostrum, which show that wines, whiskies
and brandies are being disposed of.

Little glasses are being handed round,
containing samples of the lot to be sold,
and quite an air of festive enjoyment is
in the place. The company assembled
seem to be of a comfortable well-to-do
class ; indeed, judging from the gloss on
their hats, their finger rings and watch
chains, there may be millionaires amongst
them. Clarets, burgundies, ports, cham-
pagnes and rare old whiskies arc disposed
of at so much per dozen, and as sample
bottles of each new blend is opened, eager
hands are held out to the attendants for a
taste. 00


How some of the worthies manage to
sample, say, a dozen varieties, including
some rare vintage of Burgundy, a Talisker
blend of whisky, and a Benedictine or
Chartreuse liqueur, without ill effects
seems wonderful. The real buyers evid-
ently know the blends and qualities of
the goods, for they scarcely taste them,
and those who sample must give a bid
now and again to keep up appearances.

A sale of books may be going on in
another saloon at the same time as the
wines are being sold. Here the atmo-
sphere, instead of being permeated with
the spirit of wines, has the musty odour
of ancient leather. The devotees who
have come to the literary shrine are quite
a contrast to the worshippers of Bacchus
in the adjoining room. The book lovers
may not have the well-fed jovial form of
the epicures, but they show more variety
of individuality. At a book sale some
quaint and interesting characters are to
be met. Retired shopkeepers troubled
with the book-accumulating hobby, book-
sellers, — young, middle-aged, and anti-
quated, — divinity students, poets, literary
men, elbow each other, all drawn, as moths
to a candle, to the silent casquets of men's
brains called books.

There is an odd, old-world individual
who never misses a book sale. He knows
everybody, speaks to everybody, shakes
hands with everybody, cracks puns and


jokes with everybody, and offers every-
body a pinch of snuff. Literary people
are, as a rule, undemonstrative, and are
not over-robust in appearance ; but this
little man is as unlike the ideal book sale
haunter as Princes Street is unlike the
Canongate. He has a round, ruddy, moon
face, graced with an everlastingly good-
natured smile, and is attired in a rough
suit of light tweeds.

Another character attends every book
sale, but never buys a book or makes a
bid. He takes an intense interest in all
that is going on, knows a bargain, and
sarcastically congratulates the fortunate
dealer who secures a book under its value.
He interrupts the auctioneer at all times
with audible remarks, and constantly mixes
himself up with matters with which he has
no personal interest.

The man who detects imperfections in
books is also sure to be present. He
waits until a valuable work is offered for
sale, and just as the auctioneer raises the
hammer, he points out, with a peculiarly
rasping voice, that a certain plate is foxed,
or that the book is faulty. Another
worthy has an original way of making
a bid. He just opens and shuts his
mouth by way of assent. Many and
varied are the devices resorted to by
'cute dealers to keep their brothers in
the trade from thinking they are bidding.
A wink of the eye, a facile twitch, a


movement of a finger, are enough for the

Long practice makes a man as sharp as
a needle in detecting a bargain, and often
men with very little real literary taste or
culture make most successful booksellers.
It is not necessary for a bookseller to
know very much about the literary merits
of the books he sells. He may never have
read a line of Buskin, and yet be able to
tell the money value of every edition of
his works. Charles Dickens, the immortal
story-teller, may be to him only Charles
Dickens, the author of certain books, the
early editions of which bring princely
prices. A bookseller of this type, who
has no love or taste for literature, is like
a man who buys and sells houses and cares
nothing for the living men and women
who inhabit them. The binding, the
illustrations, the date, the mechanical
peculiarities, and the commercial value of
the books are the only things that interest
him ; he knows nothing and cares nothing
for the immortal soul which lives and
breathes in the pages of the book he
handles so lightly.

Clergymen, from the nature of their
profession, are attracted by books, and
at every book sale one or two parsons are
usually present. One day a well-fed,
happy -faced, mild-looking ,reverend gentle-
man entered the saleroom, and, taking a
seat, looked around with much interest.


He was evidently a country clergyman,
and had been drawn to the sale more from
curiosity than from any intention of pur-
chasing. He was one of those old-world
men who have an exaggerated idea as to the
value of books. He had a great love for the
Puritan divines, and held such worthies as
Owen, Baxter, and Boston in high esteem.

The books being sold were theological,
and he felt amazed when he saw some of
his favourite authors being sold at what
seemed to him ridiculously low prices.
He got quite excited and began to bid.
A huge folio set of Tillotson's Works was
knocked down at his bid, and he had the
volumes placed on a seat beside him.
Next, Boston's "Body of Divinity," in
three volumes, was purchased, and placed
on top of Tillotson. By the time a set of
twenty octavo volumes of reprints of old
divines was added to his store, he had got
into the spirit of the thing, and became
an eager and reckless bidder. He would
not let a bargain pass him, and when, at
the close of the sale, he had come to his
senses, and stood beside a great pile of
books with his account in his hand and an
empty purse, he looked very unlike the
trim, jolly parson who had entered that
room two hours before.

Now and again a lady appears at a
book sale, but she is shy and seldom bids.
The presence of so many men with their
hats on seems to subdue her.


As the auctioneer sells each lot he calls
out the number and names the book ; now
and again he comes across a word which
he evidently cannot pronounce, when he
quietly overcomes the ditliculty by nam-
ing the number only. Some auctioneers
are quite proud of their French pronun-
ciation, but they stick at the German.

At a book sale one day a Bible was put
up, the intrinsic value of which was not
over 10s. There must have been a his-
tory connected with that Bible, for there
were two ladies present, each desiring
very much to become its possessor. The
bids began at a few shillings and went
gradually up to £10. There were only
the two competitors. From the expres-
sion on the faces of the two ladies, it was
evident that there would be a bitter
struggle for the precious volume, but the
spectators were not prepared for such a
strange exhibition of personal spite or
determination as that which followed.
To the amazement of the auctioneer, as
well as audience, the price went quickly
up to £100, but neither lady would yield ;
and at last, the bids being slower and
more reluctantly given, the Bible was
knocked down to one of the ladies for
■£200. Who could understand the feel-
ings of those women, or know what was
the secret family skeleton which prompted
such seeming foolishness 1

At the end of each day's sale there is


usually a large quantity of books sold in
lots. These are not considered sufficiently
valuable for separate cataloguing, but
sometimes prizes are to be picked up
amongst them. A sixteenth century book
on old lace was purchased in 1893
amongst one of these lots for 6s, and
afterwards sold to Mr Quaritch of London
for £36.

At a book sale, a youth who was clever
with his pen bought for a shilling a small
lot, amongst which was a volume on the
plough, published in 1785. On the fly-
leaf he wrote an exact facsimile of the
autograph of Robert Burns, poet, and
sold the book to a bookseller for one
pound. The volume appeared later in
the dealer's catalogue as a Burns relic,
price £10. Where is the precious rarity
now 1

In these job lots the mixture is some-
times very curious. In one lot I bought
a little work called " White on Baking "
along with another volume entitled
" Bread from Heaven." A novel, such as
"Jack Sheppard," may be tied up with
the "Pilgrim's Progress " or the "Anxious
Enquirer." Sometimes one finds a collec-
tion of penny novelettes along with a lot
of Spurgeon's Sermons, and yellow-backed
novels side by side with black-coated
books on theology.

When looking over a sale catalogue
one wonders if all the books contained in


it will find purchasers — the variety is so
infinite, and some of the books seem so
worthless. Yet at every book sale every
book finds some one waiting to buy it.
One of the peculiarities of these sales is
that every one who buys a book congratu-
lates himself on the fact that he has got a
bargain. I do not refer to booksellers —
they never buy unless they get bargains ;
but I mean the general public. A man
never owns that he has paid too high for
a book — it would be casting a slur on his
judgment — but whatever the price may
have been, he shows his treasure to his
friends, and boasts how cheap he got it.

An hour or two spent in an auction
saloon is time well spent. There lies an
interest in everything that is being sold,
whether the goods be cigars, whiskies,
pictures, furniture, antiquities, or books,
and the student of mankind can find no
better field wherein to follow his favourite



If one's environment and daily occupa-
tion have an influence on one's character,
the man who buys and sells books should
in the nature of things reflect in his life
the atmosphere of the world of literature
by which he is surrounded. Meeting with
all sorts and conditions of men and women
in search for diverse varieties of books, he
must needs be a many-sided man, able to
converse on every topic that turns up,
from the choice of a picture book for a
little child to recommending a volume of
sermons to a budding divine.

A bookseller is the custodian and dis-
penser of that which is more precious
than silver or gold. The food he distri-
butes goes not to the building up of men's
bodies, but provides for the nurture of the
mind and the formation of the immortal
soul. The commodities sold by other
merchants serve but for the needs of this
changing life, but undying thoughts in
great books are for all etcrnitj^. What
kind of a man, then, should he be whose



daily business life is passed in buying and
selling such treasures 1

The ideal bookseller requires to be a
sort of all-round man, not too much de-
voted to any one fad or science, but pos-
sessed of a knowledge and love of all.
He must not be too great a lover of books,
else he would buy, but never sell. A
man of a strong theological cast of mind,
who was a " stickit minister," once
started as a bookseller. He filled his shop
with tomes of ancient theology and vol-
umes of leather-bound sermons, and sat
down to wait for customers. He was for
a while quite happy, reading instead of
selling his stock. He was annoyed by
people coming into his shop, asking for
such books as " Maria Monk," "The
Imperial Dream Book," " The Com-
plete Letter Writer," "Lady Lovesick's
Choice," or "Buffalo Bill's Life," and
when he politely recommended "Blair's
Sermons " or " Angel James' Guide to
Immortality," his would-be customers
smiled and walked away. He was a
failure as a bookseller.

A bookseller, who was far from being
" ideal," named Don Vincente, had a shop
in Barcelona fifty years ago. His love for
books became madness of a most extra-
ordinary and terrible kind. When he
sold a rare manuscript or book, he fol-
lowed his customer and secretly stabbed
him to death. He never took money


from his victims, but murdered them for
the sole purpose of regaining the books
he had so recently sold.

I knew a bookseller who was always
very despondent, and, indeed, almost
cried whenever he had sold a rare book.
I have known him take a volume which
he prized home, and sleep with it under
his pillow. His, however, was a gentle and
harmless bibliomania compared to the hor-
rible madness of the Spanish bookseller.

A bookseller may write poetry, but a
poet whose soul is given up wholly to the
muse makes a poor bookseller. Imagine
the poet bookseller at his desk writing
"Verses to Her I Love," or "A Sonnet to
the Moon," interrupted by a boy asking
for "Deadwood Dick, the Daring Detec-
tive's " latest ; or conceive him having to
descend from the lofty heights of Parnas-
sus to sell a twopenny bundle of old
magazines. Alas for the unfortunate
poet who must needs earn his livelihood
by selling books. Think of a genius
when the poetic frenzy comes over him,
when the spirits of Shakespeare and Burns
inspire him to walk about his shop, recit-
ing aloud his poems to an unsympathetic
customer, who asks not for poetry but for
a second-hand copy of Adam Smith's
"Wealth of Nations."

Robert Nichol, the Scottish poet, who
died before he was thirty, tried book-
selling, but was a failure. Indeed, if he


had succeeded as a bookseller, he would
have had to kill the poet, and change his
nature. He was a lover of books and of
literature, but it needs more than that to
succeed as a bookseller. One must of
necessity bo a lover of hard cash as well.
Think of the young poet Robert Nichol
in his book shop in Perth. He had a
lending library, and we may be sure it
contained copies of the poets which no one
asked for. Is there not something path-
etic in the thought of the writer of im-
mortal poems being engaged day by day
selling newspapers or weekly London
journals, dealing out pennyworths of
trashy literature or lending novels at a
penny a night 1

In "Tho Scots' Magazine," 1803, just a
century ago, a letter appears on the
"Edinburgh Booksellers." The writer
had tried half-a-dozen shops for a new
book but failed to obtain it, and accused
the booksellers of neglect of their busi-
ness. The same complaint has been made
in the present day time after time.

Too much is expected from provincial
booksellers. A tradesman's first duty is
to make his business pay, and if ho fills
his shop with books which are not wanted
on the chance of some odd customer
appearing he might soon be bankrupt.

At the same time an intelligent dealer
should have a pretty good idea as to the
books which sell, and stock accordingly.


There is only one way by which a really
good book shop could be established in
every provincial town of, say, over ten
thousand inhabitants, and that way would
be to endow or subsidise the small book-
seller, so as to enable him to sell at the
same prices as the shops in the cities.

Publishers give the best terms to large
buyers, and this has the effect of central-
ising the trade.

One would like to see a model book
shop and an ideal bookseller in every
town, but the tendency is all the other
way. How can the little man, who re-
quires maybe only two copies of a six
shilling book, and has to pay 4s 2d a
copy, compete with his giant competitor,
who can purchase, say, twenty -five or fifty

1 3 5 6

Online LibraryRobert Milne WilliamsonBits from an old book shop → online text (page 3 of 6)