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Fifty Years




Fifty years ago today, on June 15, 1967, I bought my first two books as a bookseller, later selling one on the Ward’s Island ferry, completing my first, and probably most successful day as a bookseller.

Here is my account of that first day excerpted from my memoir The Pope’s Bookbinder (Biblioasis, 2013).

David Mason


As I entered the Village Bookshop that day in 1967 Marty was talking to a man, who, when I made my profound announcement, Marty introduced me.

“This is Gord Norman,” he said, informing me that Gord was also a bookseller. Gord Norman, it turned out, operated from his home issuing catalogues in his specialty, Modern First Editions. Gord was cordial, asking me at one point how big my stock was. When I informed him that I had no books, he inquired how long I thought it would take to acquire sufficient books to stock a store. I replied with the confidence of the abysmally ignorant, “Oh, I figure about six months.” (I also thought that my $500.00 loan was going to be enough money to stock a shop, too.)

Neither man laughed in my face, although I’m sure they were both quietly amused at my incredible naiveté. (In fact, when I went out on my own 2 ½ years later I had some seven hundred books, about two shelf sections.)

But both of them took me seriously, demonstrating a generosity of spirit I’ve never forgotten. And both of them immediately began a process I only became aware of quite a long time later, quietly and subtly instructing me, guiding me with gentle suggestions, mentoring in the time-honoured traditions of the booktrade. They knew what I then didn’t know, that there being no schools for booksellers, the responsibility for educating future generations of the trade falls to other booksellers. The continuity of five hundred years of tradition demands that the older pass it on to the younger.

They didn’t know whether I was one of the worthy ones, or just another of those who show up often, do it for a while and disappear. They did what I have done ever since I realized the importance of these traditions; they took me seriously and were prepared to do so until I proved myself unworthy of their attention.

My new acquaintance, or I guess my new colleague, Gord Norman told me that he was just going up to a sale of books run by Hadassah, the Jewish women’s organization, and asked if I wanted to accompany him. I did. It was an outdoor street sale on Markham Street in the Mirvish village.

Rummaging through the assorted books I realized I hadn’t any idea what I should be interested in buying – reality was starting to intrude.

I finally found a book by Somerset Maugham, who I was then reading with great pleasure. It was a late novel, and it had no dust wrapper, but I didn’t know that it should have. On the verso of the title it clearly stated “First Edition,” although it wasn’t. More properly it should have read “First U.S. Edition,” but even that was not true. It was in fact the Book-of-the-Month Club issue. In that period the Book Club would simply purchase a part of the first printing, and the only certain way to tell the issues apart, for one who didn’t know the other signs was if it retained its dust wrapper, where the book club details could be found.

But I couldn’t get into too much trouble because the price was only 25¢. I bought it.

A few minutes later Gord showed me a book called The Buddhist Praying-Wheel, by a man called Simpson. It looked very serious and obscure. I didn’t know enough to realize that that was a good sign. It looked too dry and scholarly to me, which is exactly what it was. A real bookseller would have known that was what made it desirable.

But Gord advised me to buy it, and since it was only 50¢ I suppressed my skepticism bowing to his superior experience (at that stage my experience of the used-book business being of about ten minutes duration; I guess every other used bookseller in the world had more experience than me). So my first expenditure as a bookseller was two books: cost 75¢.

Travelling home that same afternoon on the Ward’s Island ferry I met my friend Blake Stevens, to whom I proudly announced that I was now a bookseller, showing him my entire stock, all two books. He astonished me by showing great interest in the Maugham and asked if he could buy it. I agonized for a moment about what to ask for it, my first experience of that anxiety-laden existential dilemma booksellers come to know so well: needing to arrive at a price on the spot, no time for reference, no time to properly think. After years and years one gets better at this but never comfortable. I bit the bullet and suggested 75¢. He paid me, thus completing my first sale, on my first day as a bookseller. I had bought two books for a total of 75¢, sold half my entire stock and got all my money back, being left with Simpson’s The Buddhist Praying-Wheel, as my eventual profit. My first sale as a bookseller was therefore conducted on a boat, perhaps, I like to think, the only career in the annals of the book trade begun thus. Later I also sold a book on that same ferry to my friend (and first publisher) Karen Mulhallen who also lived on Ward’s Island then.

And, furthermore, my first day as a bookseller, I now realize, may very well have been my most successful day as a bookseller, in spite of all those years since.

A library bought, half of it sold at once for an enormous profit-ratio, paying for everything and retaining one very good book as my profit.

Forty-five years later I still have Simpson’s The Buddhist Praying-Wheel. Its history illustrates a lot about the used book business, and probably me as well. After much thought and anguish I decided that it should be worth $15.00. That was a considerable price when used books were mostly priced from $1.50 to $3.00 and the more common first editions only sold for $5.00 to $10.00. But it was a good book, and scarce, as I later found, having only ever seen one other copy of it since then.

A few months later I began working for Jerry Sherlock at Joseph Patrick Books. I have been asked and have explained thousands of times about Joseph Patrick. There is no Joseph Patrick; Joseph Patrick is Jerry. He didn’t want to use his own name so he used his middle names. His full name is Gerald Joseph Patrick Sherlock (yes, his people came from Ireland). I have cursed Jerry thousands of times for all of the time I’ve wasted explaining that. Still, during the two years I worked for him and in the forty-five years of friendship since then, that would probably be the only thing that has ever given me real cause to curse him. Jerry very generously gave me some space in his shop to put some of my books for sale. The Buddhist Praying-Wheel lasted through those two years and then accompanied me to my new office, where after a few months I raised the price to $17.50. There it sat for a few years more, before I raised the price again, to $20.00, then $22.50 and up in those increments until it reached $35.00. Finally, after fifteen or twenty years, with the price now at $75.00, I looked at it one day – but now with the eyes of someone who had gained the sense of tradition and continuity which all booksellers inevitably acquire through time – and realized that I should not sell that book; after all it was the first book I ever bought as a bookseller. I removed it from the shelf, gave it to my bookbinder, instructing him to make a folding protective box, and put it in my private library, where it affords me great comfort and pleasure every time I look at it.

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