Book Review: “The Last Bookseller” — A Breezy Memoir of Life in the Rare Book Trade
By Timothy Francis Barry
The arrival of the internet adds a sour-grapes ending to an otherwise fairly compelling narrative.
The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade by Gary Goodman. University of Minnesota Press, 200 pages, $19.95.
As someone who has worked at the fringes of publishing for several years, as an editor and literary agent, I’ve heard rumblings that university press publishers are trying to go more “trade-y”; that is, focusing on books of somewhat more general interest — “trade books” — rather than churning out the usual list of arcane, niche material (like, for example, a 2019 page-turner from State University of New York Press: Life As Insinuation: George Santayana’s Hermeneutics of Finite Life and Human Self.)
Perhaps this is true to a degree, but the province of the university press has been and probably always will be this: to provide a platform for writers and thinkers whose research interests lie outside the bounds of popular taste. These writers are often professors. And if the commercial marketplace — your Simon & Schusters and your Random Houses — deem these ideas not ready for prime time, then perhaps a university press will provide a home.
By definition the university press title is exhaustively researched and footnoted (which can be helpful, but often as not interrupts the flow of the narrative), and the writer given free rein to follow narrative tributaries wherever they may flow. This can lead to stunning insights and fresh ideas as yet unexpressed — or just as easily bog the reader down in the mire of minutiae.
The press of the University of Minnesota is known for its high-theory endeavors like the works of Edouard Glissant and Paul DeMan (somewhere I have a copy of The Theory of the Avant-Garde with a bookmark on page 17), so it comes as a welcome surprise to discover this breezy memoir of bookselling by one Gary Goodman. I do wonder about that first question publishing committees ask when considering a manuscript: Who Might Buy This?
Personally, as an owner of used bookstores for — well, never mind how long exactly — I’ve read any “book about bookshops” that came across my desk. Among my favorites are:
Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell. Melville House, 2019.
A day-by-day account of a used bookstore, wherein the author renders the quirkiness of the customers and the simple act of bookselling just so darned Interesting. Sets the bar for bookselling memoirs, unlikely to ever be topped. The Seven Stairs by Stuart Brent. Simon & Schuster, 1962 reprinted 1989,
An engaging though extremely self-promoting tale of a Chicago bookman.
Shakespeare & Company by Sylvia Beach. Bison Books, 1956, reprinted 1991.
Perhaps the most famous used bookstore in history; Beach (her gender a notable rarity in the bookselling world) not only palled around with Joyce, Stein, and Pound, she published Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else dared. A great read.
Shakespeare & Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, ed. by Krista Halverson, Shakespeare and Company, 2016
Though glutinous with self-approbation, owner George Whitman’s account is a name-droppy wild ride. “As Jimmy Baldwin said when he was signing books here … blah-blah-blah…” Still, a fun book worth seeking out. My own visit there was a crashing disappointment: there are few if any used books on the shelves, mostly new copies of A Moveable Feast, etc. And if you touch a book they look daggers at you.
The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett Harper Perennial, 2014
The chapter in which Patchett recounts the naissance of her own (new) bookshop in her hometown of Nashville is one the best concise accounts of opening a bookshop I’ve found.
Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett Cassell & Co. 1931, reprint Penguin, 2017
Though fiction, by all-but-forgotten bestselling writer Bennett (hated by British modernist Virginia Woolf), this book captures the essence of a used bookstore in an indelible fashion. Boston writer Stephen McCauley read the book on my recommendation (bookstore owners dispense reading ideas like farmers cast chicken-feed…) and later wrote this to me: “I took your advice again and got a copy of Bennett’s Riceyman Steps (the Brandeis library is FULL of Bennett, most of which appears not to have been touched in decades) and LOVED it. At the beginning, I thought it was a little ‘quaint’ but it quickly became so strange and dark in unexpected ways. I think V. Woolf was wrong about him — this novel is full of the characters’ interior lives, all done in subtle and interesting ways.”
As for Goodman’s book, his self-deprecating homespun humor is about what you’d expect from Garrison Keillor territory. For example, he sells his first shop after finally realizing after a couple of years that it was in a loser location — he found one unsuspecting poor fellow who “always wanted to own a used bookstore” and “gave the fellow what he wanted.” Ouch! [See Comment Below]
I followed with interest (but again, I wonder if others will…) Goodman’s account of driving around the country, visiting other used bookshops in search of “sleepers,” books that the bookseller can sell for more money to his customers. Every used-bookseller has his story of the rare Marc Chagall art book he bought in an El Paso used bookshop for $12 and quickly resold for a several hundred-dollar profit. (True personal story.)
I have a dim memory of Goodman, (and many others like him) visiting one of the eight used bookshops I’ve owned and operated, shambling in with the smell of the road upon them, and immediately asking “any Derrydales (out of print, limited edition books with high resale prices), and do you have a Voyages and Travels section?” Then they took a brief glance at my shelves of mostly “reading copies” — reasonably priced second-hand copies of not very obscure titles — and exited with nary a “thank you” and with as often as not a door-slam.
It’s become a commonplace to hear booksellers “blaming the internet” for the demise of their business: the ability to accurately and fairly price books via online services has indeed created a sea change in the economics of the used and rare book trade. If your high-priced hunting and fishing books are suddenly not as “rare” and costly as they had been pre-Amazon and Alibris, well, Mr. Goodman, that’s the history of commerce, pal. (Remember Henry Ford, and why around 1920 buggy-whips suddenly weren’t selling?) So, a sour-grapes ending to an otherwise fairly compelling narrative.
Tim Francis Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, New Musical Express, the Noise, and the Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, both in Provincetown.