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book review

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  • Title: A Factotum in the Book Trade
  • Author: Marius Kociejowski
  • Genre: History
  • Publisher: Biblioasis
  • Pages: 360

Over the past few decades, the book trade has changed – and not for the better. Old creaking shops with their secrets and mysteries hidden behind ancient bookcases and dim lights have met their demise. Alongside them comes the fall of newer local shops that struggled to meet the property tax bill while curating a mix of offerings from the popular to the obscure. The loss of each heralds a shift from bookselling as a craft to bookselling as mass production and distribution.

Today, online warehouse shops find you what you’re looking for and get it to you in a day or two for cheap, though the cost of the savings is too high. Chain stores are available for those who wish a simulacrum of the old ways along with a latte, a few candles and a bar set. Many of us book lovers are part of the problem – we fall prey to the structures that set the rhythm of contemporary life, even while we long for something different. Structures are to blame, not individuals, we say. Of course, that means there is no one to hold to account.

Reading Marius Kociejowski’s A Factotum in the Book Trade is like walking through an endangered species of bookstore. A series of essays that stand on their own yet form a coherent memoir and defence of antiquarian bookselling, the reminiscences of a man who describes himself as a “marriage broker” between people and books is like a strange find at the back of the shop. It’s a volume you idly pick up just minutes before you’re meant to be out the door along to some appointment or lunch or approaching bus. And then, perhaps despite yourself and heaving shelves at home piled with unread tomes, you buy it.

The book is also a holding to account and a settling of scores by a brilliant, meandering writer who brings to life characters from his time in the book trade – most of which you’ve likely never heard of, many of which you should get to know. It’s also a tour through a 20th-century who’s who. Alongside obscure figures are famous names who’ve come through his door one way or another: Elton John, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Bryan Ferry, Annie Lennox, and a whole roster of poets you were likely instructed to read at one point or another. They pop in and out, like visitors to an open house or, better yet, patrons in a shop. With the stories they bring along, you get a sense that certain bookstores have lives of their own, as if they come alive once the lights are off, chatting, laughing, finishing off the bottle of whisky. You wish you could join them. Indeed, the last line of the book is an elegy for the loss of these shops and their tales: “One more bookshop gone, what dies with each one is a book’s worth of stories.”

The charm of Kociejowski’s prose is that it’s human, all too human as Nietzsche might say. The pages are full of existential angst. There’s the author wondering how many books he might read before he dies and determining, as many of us have, that it won’t be each in his library. Tick, tock, tick, tick, tock. There are also moments of self-reflection that double as social critique, if accidentally: “I am more accumulator than collector, more magpie than hawk,” he writes about his book collecting. There’s a whiff of T.S. Eliot and measuring his life in coffee spoons: about Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe he recalls an essay on its origins, dreamt up during work filled with monotony and routine. “Ordinariness is perhaps the most terrifying of all human challenges,” Kociejowski concludes. Telling the story of an 18th-century manuscript, stolen and left outside in a duffel in the rain, only to be later found intact and readable thanks to the “iron-based ink on handmade paper,” Kociejowski reflects “Quality is a passport to permanence.” Each of these reflections deserves a book of its own.

During my undergraduate degree I shopped at a bookseller adjacent to the University of Ottawa’s campus. Benjamin Books is still there. I recall the shopkeeper ringing in my textbooks – ancient philosophy, some cheap edition of Plato or Aristotle – while wearing a T-shirt that read “Adorno was right.” I had no idea what that meant but I needed to find out. Later, I did. Reading Factotum triggers a similar response. So many names, dates, references and places to look up and get to know; dozens upon dozens of new avenues, pathways, perhaps even worlds, opening up and leading to who knows where. Meanwhile, time ticks away. But you’ve got to find out. What’s the point in living if you can’t go and find things out?

The memoir of a bookseller, poet, travel writer and essayist from Ontario who found his way to England by way of several jobs, A Factotum in the Book Trade is cranky, obscure, charming, occasionally antiquarian in its assessment of contemporary social and political life, and illuminating. It reads like a used bookstore smells. Perhaps Kociejowski would hate that simile but for many a book collector – or hoarder, accumulator, maven, avid reader, or whatever you please – it is high praise. Go open this book and see where it takes you.

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