I am becoming inured to the plight of a secondhand bookseller in the Age of Kindle and believe that, like the Death of the Author, the Demise of the Bookshop remains pending. This optimism flies in the face of certain facts. Across the UK hundreds of bookshops have closed in the last decade. In 2014, for the first time in over twenty years, the PBFA Edinburgh Festival Book Fair did not take place.
No mobile phone for internet access, no instant comparison of prices, in not so far off days booksellers and collectors on the prowl had to build up a cache of “points”. (Who now knows by heart the precise selection of creatures on the endpapers of Jemima Puddleduck that show it’s a “first issue”?) The Scottish book trade has numbered many scholarly booksellers whose joy it was to delve into the history of printing and publishing, memorising the crucial details that distinguish collectable books. Such knowledge gives an edge at auction or on the hunt.
Not having the best memory for such things, and being prone to panicking when on the spot, I’ve had to depend on instinct. One of my bookshop “finds” was the very ordinary looking Histoires Extraordinaires (1856) by Edgar Allan Poe, translated by Charles Baudelaire. That was in McNaughtan’s Bookshop back when it was run by John ‘the Henty King’ McNaughtan and his wife Marjorie, an authority on early children’s book. Amazing booksellers though they were, this was one that got away.
As a bookseller I’ve made plenty of bloomers, but I try not to lose sleep over them. After all, you learn by your mistakes – though in this field, you might never get the chance again to apply the knowledge.