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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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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 corrections, you think, as I did on this occasion, that you have a unique copy – helped in this case by a presentation inscription ‘To Graham from Tony’ – but all copies are similarly corrected: Powell gave them away over a period of more than fifty years and still had a small cache left in 1990. Mr Buchanan had never seen a copy in circulation and none had been sold at auction. He paid Graham Greene £5 for it and put it in our cabinet for £7 10s. Within twenty-four hours Mr Mushlin had taken it out and, claiming his normal discount, paid us £6 15s. Three months passed, until a morning arrived when our post included a letter from the previous owner. It began ‘Dear Handy, Are you a fool or a knave?’ and proceeded to complain bitterly over the current Rota catalogue offering his copy of Caledonia for £75. To which Handy could only admit to his foolishness: the shop had not made a great profit out of the book, but he should perhaps have known better. It would be hard to put the right price on it now but it couldn’t be worth less than £3,000. I. O. Montanana was a different sort of runner, a familiar figure who always pronounced my name as if it began with a Tch and not a J, latterly wore a beret and could usually be persuaded to boast of his children’s achievements. He knew about general antiquarian stock and suspected, with some foundation, that occasionally our prices were based more on intuition than on scholarly research. If he saw that I was busy, he would case the joint to see what was new. Then, when I had a free minute, he’d unwrap his wares, normally annotated in his unmistakeably Mediterranean hand on the reverse of the back endpapers, and I would turn them over or leaf through for bookplates, textual marks or illustrations before asking their prices. ‘Mr Montanana,’ I would say like clockwork, ‘you can’t be asking £150 [or whatever sum he had mentioned]: how could a bookseller make even a penny profit out of that?’ And he would look unhappy and give an explanation of how very significant the printer or binder was, and sometimes he would come down £10 or £20. He preferred to butter me up by producing a cheque for a book he’d ‘borrowed’ several weeks earlier, an unbusinesslike way to buy and sell, but he did manage to dispose of some very unlikely books. Unlike Mr Montanana, A. W. Howlett named his (much lower) prices and kept to them. By any standard he cut an unusual figure in the West End. He carried his books in two cardboard boxes and, whatever their weight, he supported them with lengths of old-fashioned string. If the boxes looked battered, they were nothing to his felt hat, which withstood all weathers and was only very occasionally replaced. If a new hat appeared and we made a flattering comment, he became somewhat coy: indeed, he kept his customers at arm’s length and had been known to take offence where none was intended. Mr Howlett appeared two or three times a week, usually in the afternoon. Gradually we pieced together some of the elements of his earlier life. He had had a bookshop in the Bromley area before the war. After being called up, he served in Italy and was captured. Imprisonment must have been exceedingly harsh and he once spoke of having had to work on the railways during a horrible winter: when he was demobbed, he couldn’t face being shut up in a shop so he took to the life of the runner. Living in Hildenborough outside Tonbridge, he knew the local shops and their stock: he had a particular liking for Hall’s Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells. We never knew his age but suspected that he was well past the formal age of retirement. He would take an early train to London, cross over to Waterloo and then think of a good destination, Brighton or Eastbourne, Lewes or Guildford. Having filled his boxes, he would return to London and sell what he had found. Never books of great value unless – and this is where he had an encyclopaedic knowledge – it was illustrated by Rex Whistler. He himself had a splendid collection of Whistler books and he encouraged one of his daughters to share his enthusiasm. He knew precisely how much we would pay: £5 or £6 per book and a total bill of somewhere between £25 and £35. Because he knew our taste – for regular batches of books by Augustus Hare or the Sitwell brothers, for Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West’s gardening books, for Osbert Lancaster and Freya Stark, he would refresh the second-hand shelves when we had too little time to travel. And he might enquire if there was anything special we’d been asked for. Well, you know what we like, we said, but if you found a set of Turgenev, or the Strachey edition of Greville’s Memoirs, we’ve got a customer who’s awfully keen. Mr Howlett was an invaluable ally and, over the years, became a real friend: when he was ill, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association sent him some money to help with hospital expenses and, when he died in the late 1980s, I wrote a short obituary for the Bookdealer. It would have been nice then to have included the following anecdote. A middle-aged American came into the bookshop and asked if we had an early edition of Mrs Beeton. We usually do, we said, and it shouldn’t be difficult to find a copy for you. She thought that was a good idea, as long as we could mail it to the States, then, after a pause, she told us how she’d known about us. She had been in Lower Regent Street and wanted to sit down and have a cup of tea. She was joined by an elderly man. ‘He was carrying two cardboard boxes full of books, carrying them by lengths of twine. He looked like a hobo, what I think you call a tramp, but then I noticed how he picked up his cup to drink his tea. His hands were dirty, so were his nails, but he held the cup like a gentleman . . . So we started talking and he told me I’d find Mrs Beeton in Curzon Street.’ We see a couple of runners nowadays. They don’t compare with dear Mr Howlett, but perhaps in fifteen years’ time I will recall them with equal fondness.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © John Saumarez Smith 2004


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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