Doing a Runner

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In 2002 Anthony Rota, a fourth-generation bookseller, published his memoirs of the antiquarian trade. He has known it for most of his life whereas I only came into it in 1965 after graduating from Cambridge. I was based in Curzon Street, while his shop was in Savile Row, but both of us might well have used the title of his book, Books in the Blood. In it he recalled some of the deals he had done, as well as two or three that he had notably missed, the many friends he made and the life of a West End bookshop before the era of the Internet.

This involved, much more than it does now, the regular appearance of the book-runner, someone who bought from one shop, knowing that a book was underpriced, and sold it in another, giving himself a reasonable profit in the process. Rota mentioned an expert in his own line, modern first editions, called M. H. Mushlin. We would doubtless know him now by his Christian name, but to me, in the years of my apprenticeship, he was always Mr Mushlin. I can see him in my mind’s eye, a slight, somewhat ferrety figure, always on the lookout for books that we had recently acquired and asking if he could have the keys to our locked cabinet. And I remember one of our more culpable mistakes.

In 1967 Graham Greene decided to leave his set of rooms in Albany and move to the South of France. He had known Heywood Hill’s shop for many years and asked Handy Buchanan, my boss, to choose a handful of books that might be saleable. They arrived next morning and included a copy of Anthony Powell’s Caledonia: A Fragment. For those who don’t know this oddity, it was a poem in the eighteenth-century heroic manner composed on the morning of an England-Scotland football match. It was printed by Desmond Ryan, in an edition of a hundred copies, and given to the Powells as a wedding present. It is bound in tartan paper boards and much of the text is corrected in the author’s hand. The first time you see the correctio

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About the contributor

John Saumarez Smith has been a bookseller in Curzon Street, London, since 1965. He is said to have an encyclopaedic memory for people and their books.

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