RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS

30 November 2007

The Legend of Martin Stone, Bookscout extraordinaire.


The above book was found by East Anglian bookseller Robin Summers. He is a friend of Martin Stone and spotted the incredible likeness of the villain on the cover of this obscure French policier to the great bookscout, old rocker and now, boulevardier. Martin spends most of his time in France and now affects a brown hat, suit and tie - so it is fitting that this book should be the only image of him, especially as it is a translation from a British thriller. Take it from me - the guy with the knife is a doppelganger for Martin.

There are probably tens of thousands of bookscouts in this world and maybe even a few thousand full time. Martin is simply the most famous of them and probably the best. A legend in his own lunchtime. The writer John Baxter who accompanied Martin on a bookhunting trip on America's West Coast attributes Martin with supernatural powers of divination (rather like the 'divvy' Lovejoy). At some point on the trip they were shadowed by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle who wrote:
'...Stone, an elfin man in old Carnaby Street threads, a felt hat pulled down over his unruly eyebrows, was briefly famous to English rock 'n' roll audiences in the 1960s, when he played guitar in stints with the Mod band the Action and blues-rockers Savoy Brown. There are those who believe he was more gifted than Eric Clapton, but to anyone who might be in the market for a $35, 000 first edition of "The Great Gatsby," Martin Stone is much better known as one of the world's premier book scouts.
He once sold Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page a copy of the "I-Ching" previously owned by the occultist Aleister Crowley. Stone's legend is such that Peter Howard, proprietor of Berkeley's rare-book haven Serendipity and himself a renowned dealer, has published a limited-edition portfolio tribute to him priced at $5,000.
If Howard is a Christlike figure, as Baxter puts it, in the book world, then Stone is John the Baptist.
"He's out there in the wilderness," Baxter says. "He taught me most of what I know. Also took most of my money, actually."
... Stone, Baxter claims, has an uncanny clairvoyance when it comes to finding rare books. Embellishing the details of their countless scouting expeditions together, he tells of Stone, fast asleep in the backseat of a car, waking with a start to ask their whereabouts.
After directing his driver down a seemingly random off-ramp into a singularly unpromising backwater, they'll come across a decrepit junk store run by "an old bloke, maybe brewing a pot of stew." Somewhere in the back, behind the old bike parts and the rusty tools, they'll invariably hit a mother lode -- a box of Virginia Woolf first editions, perhaps, all inscribed by the author, worth tens of thousands.
"And you think, 'How'd he know that?' " says Baxter. "On some other level, he knows."
The stuff about finding a box of Virginia Woolfs is, frankly, bollocks - John is a master blagueur in the Australian mode. His book 'A Pound of Paper' is one of the great books about books - better than Basbanes - the man is in the line of Andrew Lang.

How does Martin do it? It helps that he is very sharp, well read and seriously driven. His main talent is his incredible memory--Martin can remember a small chip on the back of a dust jacket of a book he owned for an hour in 1975. Forget 'Funes the Memorious.' *** Martin has the ability to recall books once seen, find them again by sight without having to read every damn title in a shop full of books. He knows which publishers to pull, which sections of shops are likely to yield treasures and, crucially, when not to bother. Lesser scouts have to look at every book while 'the stoned one' (as he used to be known) is across the street enjoying an espresso and selling his treasures on the mobile. NB-- in the UK a bookscout is known as a 'runner' and in France a 'courtier.' There is a subtle difference as the British runner (usually town based) does not necessarily 'scout' books - he 'runs' them i.e. from on shop to another with a decent but not large mark up, sometimes at the behest of the shopkeeper. Martin is both a scout and a runner (and a courtier. )


*** A short story from "Ficciones' by Jorge Luis Borges. This comparison with the memory of Funes is something of an exaggeration. Borges says of him:- "He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc."
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