The Passing of a Bookseller

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He was still looking for that last volume. If anyone could have found it, he could. That’s how good he was at his trade. As I stood at the graveside on a bright spring day, on that exposed ridge above the Evenlode valley, I supposed that now I would never possess a copy – that the one book for which I had been searching so long had eluded me. Then I felt guilty that I was thinking of myself and not of him. It was, after all, his day.

We had not imagined it would come so soon. The last time I had seen John Stephens, sprawled out on his bed in the Radcliffe Infirmary, he had seemed positively cheerful. As the snow flurried outside, and night very literally fell, his chief concern had been for his wife, Ann. He himself seemed demob happy. The word ‘champagne’, I remembered now, had featured large in the conversation.

He would have been greatly cheered by the turnout for his funeral – college friends like myself, acquaintances from the trade, a large part of the village. He collected friends as well as books and had notched up to see him off several professors, a Scottish judge, a well-known actor, a Times columnist and, suitably enough, an ‘Obituaries’ editor. A good part of the congregation he had actually employed in his shop in Oxford at one time or another. That even included the clergyman who was conducting the service and who now mostly officiated in the Welsh valleys amongst what, he reminded us, were ‘God’s own people’. Of these, by birth, John himself was one.

If John had seemed to live for the day, it now became clear he had shown considerable foresight in choosing a village with a church to die for. Like the countryside around, it had matured with the centuries, most of which had left some mark upon it. Inside, the limewash had been removed to reveal traces of the paintings which had once graced the walls. At the back was a fragment of dragon’s wing – perhaps a vision to threaten those who were inattentive to divine se

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About the contributor

C. J. Wright was Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library until his retirement in 2005.

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