Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Pope's Bookbinder

David Mason loves books.  He believes that preserving books is a sign of our civilization, and destroying or ignoring them is a sign of the collapse of civilized society.  He feels this very strongly.  David Mason feels strongly about everything, as we see in his interesting memoir The Pope's Bookbinder.

While I share Mason's passion for books and enjoyed the insight into how the rare and antiquarian book business was conducted, I did find Mason's personality rather tedious over the course of the book.  He was clearly a bitter and vindictive opponent for those who opposed him, launching both legal threats and public vituperation.  While it would be fascinating to talk about books with him, I can't imagine actually liking him very much, and over 500 pages is a long time to spend with someone you don't really like.

The biggest thing I learned about antiquarian bookselling was duh obvious once you think of it.  Since you can't just order in the inventory for a new store, you have to collect for quite a while before you have the stock to open a store.  Some people do this in their homes until they reach critical mass, others start as sub-stores within bigger stores.  Booksellers can be quite generous in mentoring newcomers, and it helps that often the sub-store might have a different speciality than the main store, eliminating competition.

The book rambles on with many delightful anecdotes about people and books so it has the air of Mason just sitting there telling you stories.  It's rather loosely connected in chapters.  I was surprised to read it actually had an editor, as it's full of redundancies, references to people who haven't been introduced yet, and grammatical errors.

"Hm", you might say as you read this review.  "She really hated the book.  How did she ever get to the end?"  Well, for one, I find it almost impossible to not finish a book I've started.  Secondly, I have to admit that sniping anecdotes and acid descriptions of people can be entertaining to read when you aren't the target.  And lastly, I kept thinking I might bump into a mention of my friend Mark Seltzer in the book.

Mark was a delightful guy I worked with many years ago at I.P. Sharp.  Mark was a talented programmer, but he and his wife Marilyn Chan (also in technology) would work just long enough to support an extended exotic trip somewhere in the world.  Mark probably wrung more flights out of the Aeroplan program than anyone else on the planet; he's even quoted in this New York Times article about how to be clever about airline points.  Mark's other - related - passion was collecting old and rare travel books.  I remember him describing a meandering six-month trip through Africa, where he and Marilyn carried only a back pack each.  When I suggested that wasn't much space for clothes for six months, Mark retorted that the backpack was more than half full of travel guides. Such were Mark's priorities.

One day back in the early 80s, Mark and I spend a day walking along Queen Street from University to Spadina, where the Toronto antiquarian book stores were concentrated.  Mark knew all the booksellers and had chats with everyone and that day is still a marvellous highlight of my life experiences.  I'm guessing Mason's store was one of those we visited, and I thought Mark might appear in the pages of this book.  Mark seldom left a store without buying something, which explained why every wall in his and Marilyn's home was covered with book shelves.

But the piece de resistance was his basement.  As you walked past a world map with stick pins for the incredible number of places they'd visited, you entered a mesmerizing world.  The floor was covered with shelving units that you could barely walk between without turning sideways.  Filled with fascinating old books about travel and travel guides.  I could have spent days in there browsing.

Being a technology guy, Mark was one of the early adopters of e-commerce and had started to sell and trade his books online from that basement back in the 90s.  One day, Mark told me he finally had the stock assembled to open his own antiquarian book store and become a full-time bookseller.  I was overjoyed for him.  However, barely a couple of months later that dream was shattered when Marilyn and Mark were lost in a sudden storm while kayaking on Pond Inlet, one of their favourite places.  They were travelling with other friends Rosemary Waterston and Phil King, and the harrowing story of their last days is here.

I often think of Mark and remember what a fascinating, smart, generous person he was and mourn his passing.  And I wonder what happened to that fabulous collection of books.  After reading The Pope's Bookbinder, I have a greater appreciation of the destiny of such collections, and I hope he had thoughtfully willed those books to a place that would appropriately care for them.

Just as Mark and Marilyn were lost in the sudden Arctic storm near Pond Inlet, antiquarian bookselling is doubtless doomed by the storm of electronic books.  Mason describes how used book stores form the base of the pyramid for the rare book business - the place where 'scouts' find 'sleepers' of great value.  With the disappearance of used book stores as so many move to e-books, it's hard to see how this little patch of nirvana - at least to book lovers - is going to survive.

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