I recently found some kind and encouraging words for the book shop owner in Grant Uden's 'Stange Reading' (Newnes, circa 1936.) It is a short series of sketchy pieces about literary curiosities--forgers, cryptography, 'lexicomania', 'Books which have altered history' etc., In the chapter 'Some types of bookmen' he writes:
For the Bibliopole, or book-seller, there can be little but praise. From the stateliest shop of New Bond Street, Albemarle Street or Charing Cross Road, down to the humblest den in a back street or the tumbled stalls of market places, the vendor of books is a magician.
His rows of friendly bindings are pleasant inns in an arid desert of plate-glass windows, thirty shilling tailors, hat-shops, milliners and multiple stores. His catalogues arrive on the breakfast table as unfailing antidotes to "the petty round of irritating concerns and duties." He may be a bad father, a fratricide or even a member of Parliament, but put him among his books and he is metamorphosed into a benevolent Cheiron with the wisdom of the ages to bestow, the friendly guardian of a treasure house, a veritable panaceist, a successful alchemist, a genuine dispenser of the elixir of life...
Written in the ChesterBellocian high flown manner of the period--a portentous, rhetorical style not unburdened with cliche and platitude but nevertheless refreshing--as a 'benevolent Cheiron' I have nothing but admiration for this Grant Uden. And it is not at all over the top-- surely most booksellers keep a regular supply of 'the elixir of life' under the counter. The slighting reference to MPs shows they were held in low regard even then. There are no bookshops left in Albemarle Street since Thorps left at least 30 years ago, New Bond Street has Sotheby's (sometimes known by rakish dealers as Dotheboys) but Charing Cross Road still has bookshops despite the best efforts of unthinking and unlettered landlords.
Well-deserved praise for the bookseller. I don't mind the high-flown style. Praise also for the actual feel of books. I am reading E.M. Forster's "Collected Tales" and enjoying the feel of the book, published in 1947. At five by seven inches, it fits in my hand. The weave of the blue cloth cover is palpable; the paper, slightly yellow, thick, matt; the jaunty chapter-head decorations are by W.A. Dwiggins. (I'm going to look him up.) It's a pleasure to thumb the dry, matt deckle edge.
W.A. Dwiggens! It turns out he also designed the Forster book as well as the chapter-head decorations. He was the eminent book designer. Will book design matter, if Kindle replaces actual books?
I will have to keep my eyes open for this book. I know I would love it. Thanks for the post!
Mim--design won't matter as much I think if and when Kindlle type books become prevalent. I don't think they will take over (don't want to sound like the guy who said talkies had no future!)
As for Dwiggins he is so famous I have seen cats named after him. Nigel
didn't Uden mean books when he listed "elixir of life" rather than an under the counter tipple?
Author and book completely new to me, thanks Nigel.
I like Mr Uden's reference to a bookseller as a 'benevolent Cheiron' though most of the ones I encounter seem to be more like an 'unkindly Charon' - ashen-faced men who glower at you across their pile of unsaleable books.
As for the 'elixir of life' under the counter, if the bookseller is indeed a centaur isn't it likely to be a bag of oats?
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