U.K. bookseller’s shelf life vividly recalled

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A book is indeed a powder keg, but it’s the reader that lights the fuse.

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A book is indeed a powder keg, but it’s the reader that lights the fuse.

In this case bibliomaniacs will find much to warm their hearts as author Marius Kociejowski shares his love of books, travel and name-dropping anecdotes of those famous in the arts and in the antiquarian book trade in England.

The use of the word factotum in the title hints at the range of jobs he took on in the trade, while learning to recognize his strengths and weaknesses. Which also suggests why he never opened his own store, allowing him to be a published travel writer and poet.

A Factotum in the Book Trade

While pinball players will delight in how the chapters ricochet, others may wonder about the eclectic circus feel. As the author says, “I abhor the straight line.”

Kociejowski had long said he would not write a memoir, but it seems his publisher, the pandemic and the end of his bookselling career prodded him to pick up his pen.

Born in 1949, Kociejowski’s curiosity took him from rural Ontario to the lure of London. When he writes of Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court you can hear the thrum of traffic, the steady stream of pedestrians stopping to browse the bargain books outside the shops, the aroma of falafel emanating from Gaby’s Restaurant, and then the noise falls away as you press your nose on one window after another on Cecil Court. Modern first editions, Travel, Children’s, Theatre, Mysteries. It’s a pilgrimage.

Cecil Court is a little side street that has seen so much history but, according to Kociejowski’s current description (and a visit to the street’s website), is becoming ghostlike.

As the old saying has it, to those who have sought it out and experienced it no explanation is necessary; to those who haven’t, none is possible.

As to anecdotes, Kociejowski talks of author Graham Greene coming into his shop, travel writer Bruce Chatwin living upstairs, and his commiseration and support for a young musician hoping to put Edith Sitwell’s poetry to music — only to find later that he had been chatting with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics.

The author seems to have worked with or known the crème de la crème in the trade, though some self destructed or had a nasty streak of deviousness. Best of all are the customers — the quirky, the irritating, even the time wasters. Curiosity shared is better than cash in hand and explains why every day promised new possibilities.

This is a book for quoting until your friends plug their ears. There are teasers, such as “I first met him when he had got hold of the remaining stock of the then very scarce first Ukrainian edition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm… it contains a special introduction by the author, translated into Ukrainian, in which Orwell describes not only his experiences in the Spanish Civil War but also the genesis of the book.” If that doesn’t catch your fancy, then perhaps A Factotum in the Book Trade is not for you.

Ron Robinson learned his trade as a stock boy in Eaton’s book department and was a founding partner of McNally Robinson Booksellers.

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