Fossicking for Old Books. By Anthony Marshall
(Melbourne: Bread Street Press, 2004) 284 pp.
This is the second of Anthony Marshall’s collections of essays, mainly about book selling. It might also be his last, as the original publishing venue for (most of) these pieces, the Australian Book Collector, has ceased publication. Marshall will be known, to buyers and sellers of old books in Melbourne, as the proprietor of the delightful Alice’s Bookshop in the thoroughly gentrified inner suburb of North Carlton. Other less formal data about him emerge—as is inevitable with familiar essays—in the book.
Writing about books is hardly a limitation on subject matter, because books can be about any and everything. One of my own favoured books for taking to a deserted tropical island is Anthony Burgess’s collection of book reviews, Homage to Qwert Yuiop, which as a reading experience is rather like an idiosyncratic and discursive encyclopedia. The essays in Marshall’s Fossicking are not reviews, but ‘columns’—less topic-focussed, and revolving (in a somewhat elliptical orbit) around the day-to-day issues of running a bookshop.
In any city, the people whose chief business or pleasures revolve around old books is a small world. We know each other, at least by sight, and see each other at bookfairs, and bookshops. Bookfairs is the topic with which this collection starts. It’s a subject which captures the eccentric and adrenalin pumping side of what its enthusiasts know to be mistaken by outsiders as a quiet and genteel preoccupation. Only those who have queued up of a cold Saturday morning outside some suburban church hall, with the scruffy and sometimes smelly men (mostly men) of the Melbourne book trade will
appreciate the strange cult-like pull of such occasions: everyone smiling and chatting slightly nervously, clasping their chosen bags or boxes for the booty, exchanging info about recent book finds or trying to peek inside and see the hall layout, until the doors open and it’s elbows out and every man for himself. The best bookfair I’ve been to, the great State Library of Victoria sell-off in 1992, gave me an experience akin to what others must get from a VFL Grand Final. Anthony’s revelations of bookfair strategies confirm my impression that a punter like me needn’t bother going to a fair at all, if
I can only arrive after the dealers have gone through. Anthony Marshall, I must add hastily, is most emphatically not a smelly bookdealer. He is in fact rather urbane. No beard, and apparently now (so he tells us), no moustache. He reads or tries to read at least some of his books; he drives a nice—in fact, so he also tells us, a very nice—car. He goes on rather fancy holidays. I’ve always thought that running a secondhand
bookshop must be a risky venture financially, and though he sheds light on many trade secrets, he does not illuminate this one.cNor does he indulge in gossip. I would, for instance, have loved a chapter about Melbourne’s smelliest dealer, now deceased, whom Anthony knew.
But all the undoubtedly disreputable aspects of the trade are passed over in discreet silence—topics such as the strange people he must have bought books from or sold them to, the various odd and sometimes unpleasant things one finds in old books (a collection of toenails clippings in a volume of Gerard Manley Hopkins is my worst—so far), or the tricks a dealer must have to play to wheedle collections—for not unfair but nonetheless profitable sums—out of unwary widows or (worse) the wary but uninformed.
But if you’ve ever been curious about how book-searching is conducted, or how booksellers deal with thieves, or the vexed issue of dust jackets, Fossicking will gratify you. Physical and paratextual aspects of books and the mechanics of publishing are discussed in a few essays where he writes about what he learned by publishing his own previous book. I can only say “hear, hear” to his repeated assertion that paperbacks are better books when they are—as they apparently may be for a little more expense—‘sewn and drawn-on’, rather than ‘perfect-bound’ (the inapt name for the method by which the pages held together and to the spine merely by glue). I’ve always thought sewing was the mark of a real book; but it raises the question: if
Anthony thinks so too, why isn’t his second book made that way? (I am also curious as to why his self-publishing outfit—Lost Domain Books for the earlier Trafficking in Old Books—is now Bread Street Press for Fossicking.)
But bookselling is not the only subject. There are essays, and passages within essays, about cars, saints, dogs, pedantry, multiculturalism, communications technology, and travel in Scotland, Mauritius and Tasmania. And of course, about various books, and subjects of books: Proust, eucalypts, the Antarctic and (the longest essay) Samuel Johnson.
We inevitably find out all sorts of information about the author: his upbringing, jobs, education, family, homes and back problems. He depicts himself as a curmudgeon—he dislikes the edifice of the Carlton Library, private schools, bad spelling, pulp fiction (westerns, romances, ‘Baby-Sitters Club’ books), and political correctness. But he’s also a liberal, who likes ethnic diversity and dislikes censorship, pedantry and dogma of most kinds. On consideration, it sounds like a perfect formula with which to find happiness and success both in dealing with books and dealing with the people who look for and buy them.
He obviously loves writing: he has, he says, a backlog of topics for new essays perhaps this very journal could give him a corner. His corner in the monthly ABC wa apparently a largish one: his essays are mostly between 5 and 10 pages in length, and could—it has to be said—benefit from being a trifle shorter. There’s a slight surfeit of elaborations, and of too many phrases like “You guessed it”—“Talk about fun”—“as you probably know”—“You know what I mean.” But he takes an obvious pleasure in
crafting his pieces along classic lines, with smooth transitions, chatty style, artful digressions, a modest tone, frank opinions, polished anecdotes, factual ballast, etc.
The miscellaneousness of this collection of essays replicates the browsable quality of a nice bookshop, and if on a damp Saturday afternoon you can’t traipse across suburbia to such a place, you could do worse than spend a few pleasant and undemanding hours in the company of this amiable volume.