Barbara Kay: The fine line ‘between hoarding and retailing’


National Post - Thursday July 25th, 2013

Rare book collector David Mason in his Toronto store in 2006.

It’s because of people like me that the antiquarian book trade is in peril.

I’m a lifelong reader. During the Golden Age of used books – mainly paperbacks – from the 1960s to the 1990s, I delighted to browse in used bookstores, finding treasure at absurdly low prices. But the Internet changed all that for me and millions of other readers. Where there were once 18 used bookstores in Toronto on Queen St between University and Niagara Street, today there is but one, itself tucked away on a second floor.

In his memoir, The Pope’s Book Binder, a kind of *ave atque vale* to the used-book trade, David Mason, Canada’s grand panjandrum of rare books sales and appraisals, absorbs this reversal of fortune with philosophical, if melancholy-tinged acceptance.

No child, however bookish, ever dreams of or prepares for a life in the book trade. So Mason considers himself a lucky man to have stumbled into his vocation when the going was good, for “I have not a shred of doubt that without the stability it conferred, I would have ruined myself with drink; it gave me, and still does, my reason and my justification for everything.”

Well along into what his bourgeois North Toronto parents considered their son’s misspent youth after he dropped out of school at 15, while bumming through Europe living off the kindness of acquaintances and transient jobs, Mason spent a few months apprenticed to a master bookbinder, assisting in the painstaking creation of a white leather binding for Vatican documents.

Even as a teenager, Mason was a passionate bibliophile with burgeoning collections of his own (he has 200 variant editions of “Wind in the Willows,” a childhood favourite). With no other career prospects, the experience gave him a useful skill for employment in the used-book trade upon his return to Toronto.

It helped that he was “halfway sane and presentable” in a domain dominated by “eccentrics, misfits and losers.” (And regarding books, obsessive. One of Mason’s client’s reread Gibbons’ notoriously dense “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” because the first time, the book had no index, and the second one did.)

Armed only with chutzpah and a $500 loan from his skeptical father, Mason opened his first used-book shop in Toronto. Realizing he had an eye for “scouting” rare gold in bookpiles of dross, Mason knew that he had found his vocation (defined as “a job where you don’t earn enough to live on”).

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The rare-books business is a virtually all-male trade (Mason’s business and life partner, Debbie Dearlove – don’t you love the name? – is an exception to the rule), which keeps its devotees “on the margins, and always poor.”

The thrill of the book dealer’s hunt isn’t in selling, but in acquisition: “Any fool can sell a book, we like to say – it takes a pro to buy one.” The “tension between hoarding and retailing” in his domain, Mason says, “makes otherwise sane people crazy.”

The memoir has a pleasantly old-fashioned, rambling air, as though Mason, a self-admitted “inveterate gossip,” were holding forth to an audience and mingling prepared notes with spontaneously recalled, often quite indiscrete, anecdotal material about colleagues (the good, the bad and the ugly), clients (honest and crooked) and private collectors (quirky to downright batty).

There are two groups of people for whom Mason has neither respect nor sympathy: non-readers, and the institutional and government bureaucrats it is his chore to deal with for appraisals and the brokerage of donated collections.

The most touching letters came from Elizabeth Hughes, the diabetic child saved by the newly-discovered miracle of insulin

In one story, Mason finds himself championing the unsung achievements of an autodidact relative, Jim Baillie, a great amateur collector of ornithological arcana, whose uniquely valuable collections, meant for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), end up, with Mason’s help, at the University of Toronto. The ROM’s directors, hired to schmooze rich donors and often ignorant of the archival treasures under their noses, were (by Mason’s account) snobbishly dismissive of the uncredentialed but extraordinarily knowledgeable Baillie.

Especially moving are Mason’s accounts of his emotional response to personal letters in collections he is invited to appraise. They are “history in the raw, history’s essence.”

His favourite letter-writers were Mark Gayn, a journalist who witnessed the beginning of Mao’s long march, and economist James Mavor (Mavor Moore’s grandfather), a friend of Tolstoy’s. The most touching letters came from Elizabeth Hughes, the diabetic child saved by the newly-discovered miracle of insulin; the most beautiful from novelist Robertson Davies’ archive; and the most fascinating from Leonard Cohen’s. (Mason refused the conditions that would have allowed him to appraise Trudeau’s papers.)

My only criticism of this book is Mason’s clearly conscious decision to eschew domestic details that would have made the book a more holistically satisfying read. What about that drinking problem? And the “abrupt parting with the woman I’d been living with,” about whom nothing is revealed? And the equally unknown son who, we learn in a casual aside, prefers music to the book trade? Mason doubtless has his reasons for discretion, but the contrast with his candour in other areas is jarring.

Otherwise, this book is a bibliophile’s delight to read. Buy it and make sure you keep the book jacket on it. Otherwise, when your grandchildren decide to sell it as a rare first edition, it won’t be worth much.

News you can use, from Canada’s one and only papal book-binder.

National Post

bkay@videotron.ca