By Angus O’Neill
Most of my bookselling life has been a lonely business: waiting for trains, scouring shelves of dull books in the hope of finding one good one. But for five years I had a shop, and that wasn't lonely at all.
It was in one of the world's best spots for a bookshop: London's Cecil Court. We had some serious customers; some serious thieves; and some world-class time-wasters. In fact, when I finally sold the lease, I wrote the names of the worst ten on a piece of durable cardboard, so that I could take it out and look at it if I were ever again tempted into retail. (It hasn't been needed). Dr O---, Mr S---, Ms G---: have no fear, your secrets are safe. (Unless you should make any attempt to contact me via the Internet, in which case I will zap you into outer cyberspace. You have been warned.)
Usually, when I was on the premises at all, I skulked in the basement, leaving contact with the public to my wonderful assistants. From time to time, however, they needed a break, and so if all else failed I'd climb upstairs and man the barricades. Most of the visitors (I hesitate to use the word "customers") were either very nice or very nasty, and it seldom took long to work out which was which - although Mr W, number 3 on the aforementioned little list, deserves a couple of words at this point. (They are: Go away!) Just once in a while, though, something happened to floor me completely.
One, which particularly sticks in my mind, shames me yet.
We had a policy of putting cheap books on the shelves outside, maximum price £ 4.00. If you couldn't sell something for £ 25, it wasn't worth cataloguing and putting on the Net, we figured: not with central London rent and rates, anyway. Better to send it on its way, fast; and, in my defense, a lot of customers appreciated this.
So, one not very fine day, we had in a job lot of modern first editions. Two stayed inside the shop: the rest were piled up outside to take their chances. (After a few days they'd be reduced to £ 2, then £ 1, then finally given to one of the few charity shops which wasn't actively trying to put us out of business.) They included a nice clean dust-wrappered first of an Alan Sillitoe title; we could, and can, sell his first two books, but not the others. And you can't be too sentimental… or so I thought at the time.
Half a day later, a man in a raincoat picked up the Sillitoe, and examined it closely. There was, indeed, nothing wrong with the book. He looked a bit surprised, but held on to it. Oh good, I thought, here comes four quid. Yet there was something faintly familiar about him. I knew I'd seen him before somewhere, a while ago, and somehow had good memories of the occasion. When? Where? Who…?
Oh, hell's teeth, I thought. It is. It's him. It's Alan Sillitoe himself. This is going to be excruciating.
He came into the shop, waved the book, said "This seems very good value". I muttered something about the vagaries of fashion, lack of imagination of your average punter, great shame to see such a good writer unfairly neglected, only been there an hour; you can guess the kind of thing: all, by the way, true: and I took his four pounds. I still think it would have been worse if I'd admitted to recognizing him. I didn't have the nerve, anyway. Even if I'd had a first of Saturday Night… or Loneliness…, crying out for a signature, I don't think I could have done that. (That's why I'm not rich).
With some writers, of course, it would have been hilarious. We can all name dozens of odious authors who richly deserve the four-pound treatment: if, for instance, it had only been… But I digress. The trouble was, I'd enjoyed Alan Sillitoe's books (and not just the first two) as a teenager; I'd written him a fan letter, and got a long handwritten reply (two pages, quarto, as we say in the trade) which was thoughtful and generous; I'd even met him, briefly, years later, and thought what a thoroughly nice man he was. So, if the gap between our Victorian floorboards had been only slightly wider - and I in slightly better shape, I concede - I'd have slipped away out of sight. I don't know whether he needed another copy of his book: probably not. It's quite likely that he was just rescuing it; I've done that often enough myself, with books I like but which are wholly unsaleable (see above). In fact one of my long-term projects is a catalogue of entirely valueless association copies - but someone will probably beat me to it, and call it a novel. Nothing can surprise me now.
I do have other stories, of course, but the protagonists are still around, and may have lawyers…
(Published on the website of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA), presented here by permission of the ABA.)