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The Rag and Bone Pickers

Published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Number 92.


My friend Henry Eastabrook, who once ran – and I hope will again – a most interesting bookshop in London, Ontario, told me recently that when he first applied for the municipal business licence cities demand of small businessmen, his business was classified by the municipal authority under the designation, “Rag and Bone Picker.”

When Henry told me that, it reminded me that when I applied for the same license in Toronto almost fifty years ago used booksellers here were treated the same. We were lumped with junk dealers, pawnshops and the old Jewish men with their long beards, who travelled the streets in horse-drawn carts buying all the castoffs from the respectable housewives. No doubt the source of this designation, these men were the original rag and bone pickers.

Now, going to work at six am in the morning, I often meet the current generation of rag and bone pickers who are mostly old Chinese people pushing bundle buggies, perhaps all night, going through our garbage bins scrounging for empty wine and beer bottles to cash in. I now leave out beside our bins all empty bottles so they don't need to dig into our garbage. And I get a cheery good morning most days from the old Chinese lady whose route includes our street. I like to think that she continues to contribute to her family's income by doing this every night, even though her grandchildren are probably doctors or scientists or businessmen. Just as, probably, the grandchildren of those old Jewish men with their sagging old horses and ratty carts from my youth, could easily be the doctors who are trying to keep me alive. All of them are my colleagues in the union of rag and bone pickers, our common mandate to rescue the useful from society's garbage.

We used booksellers were classified with the disreputable scroungers, the unconsidered underclass of society. We were also expected to keep lists of all the books we bought so the police could come and check periodically for stolen goods. Actually for years I've used that law as one of my tests if I'm suspicious of people offering to sell me books “I have to see identification you know, and take down your address,” I say, watching closely to see if they show any signs of nervousness, “We have to do this by law, the police want proof of where we bought everything.” If they show no signs of nervousness or distress, I can relax somewhat. It is a useful device, more so for being true, if ignored now. For the police never came, probably because no one cared if our books were stolen or not, although occasionally a city inspector might show up to check and make sure our pornography wasn't too pornographic.

While we didn't sell porn, it was assumed we would if we could, and the fact that we didn't see ourselves as junk dealers but guardians of the heritage of civilization was of no interest to officialdom. They needed to categorize us someplace and the world of unwanted junk was as good as any other.

So, as Henry found, we were indeed colleagues of the Rag and Bone Pickers.

And, on reflection, I have come to consider that as a compliment. Indeed, that designation may even be apt, for the early paper in books was made from rags and if books are not the bones of our civilization what qualifies better, a philosopher might inquire.

About thirty years ago after another of my frequent forced moves, by then a serious antiquarian bookseller – as I gradually arranged all the necessary changes that a move demands, address corrections, official forms redirected, etc., I purposely ignored the renewal of my licence to do business – I refused to again register as a “Rag and Bone Picker.” Although I didn't feel the need to inform the city of that. I guess that means I've been operating illegally for those twenty-five years or so. Maybe they'll come and put me in jail now that I publicly admit my transgression against all those rules without which the bureaucrats would no doubt shrivel up. But if they come to put me in jail they'll have to take books for payment since I don't have any money or property, except books.

So all we used booksellers started outside respectable society because they had no category to put us in. Nor did anyone care or even notice, and there we still find ourselves. Now, I take a certain pride in that inadvertent attempt to officially dismiss me. And when I meet my colleague Henry Eastabrook, I shall address him with the common question of all small businessmen everywhere, “Hi Henry,” I picture myself greeting him, “How's the picking business these days? Are rags or bones doing better this week?”

I like to think about such things as I sit in my basement shop surrounded by a million dollars' worth of the great artifacts of civilization, alone and still ignored by all those people hustling around me trying to become millionaires, their fantasies and dreams bereft of anything which seems worthy to me. And I'm also ignored officially. In fact, officially I guess I don't even exist, a fitting end you might say for a bookseller in today's society. Someone who had the effrontery to think people might want books deserves that fate, many would say.
Luckily for Henry Eastabrook he won't need to join me in prison, fate saved him. For he met a lovely lady, married and had children, that reality forcing him to face up to the truth. Which meant getting rid of his bookshop and getting a real job so he could feed his family.
But now he informs me, his kids grown and bringing up his grandchildren, he hopes soon to re-open a bookshop, this time with his son.

I certainly hope so. It would give me great pleasure to welcome Henry back into the noble and ancient fraternity of rag and bone pickers.

-David Mason

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David Mason reflects on 50 years in the book business. 
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