Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Early in this memoir, author Marius Kociejowski laments the ongoing wave of closures of small bookshops due to the combined onslaught of large book-selling chains and online book buying. To emphasize what is being lost, he talks about the experience of entering a bookshop, something that chains and the internet cannot duplicate. In a small bookshop, he writes, one encounters “dirt” (meaning, to say it more kindly, that they are usually not well swept), “chaos” (books spilling over everywhere and often not well organized), but “above all, mystery”: “I want to be able to step into a place and have the sense that there I’ll find a book, as yet unknown to me, which to some degree will change my life.” A Factotum in the Book Trade, as it turns out, is that sort of book.
The author, an Ontario native, spent over four decades working in antiquarian bookshops in London, England. Antiquarian bookselling is not the same as hawking the latest bestseller. It is a world dealing with book collectors, book collections, other booksellers, and the characters of each. Kociejowski himself stands a bit apart. He does not consider himself a bookseller, for the simple reason that he is also a writer, and he feels one cannot really be both.
The title is actually a label conferred on him by one of his employers. A “factotum” is essentially a jack-of-all-trades, but without the inherently negative implication of being “master of none.” Indeed, Kociejowski is a man with much knowledge and many skills. So, “factotum” suits him. But despite the self-referential title, we actually learn very little about Kociejowski in this book. Apart from the occasional mention of his wife and kids, there is not much in the way of autobiographical detail to be found. But that doesn’t matter. His purpose is not to talk about himself. He has written this book to elaborate what it means to value books, and how many ways there are to do just that.
The narrative is structured chronologically, according to Kociejowski’s periods of employment. His first (and longest) exposure to antiquarian bookselling was at Bertram Rota, a very prominent bookshop, where he spent fourteen years, mostly in cataloguing estate-sale purchases and manning the front desk. He subsequently worked at two others, ending his career when the last closed its doors.
Kociejowski presents a series of portraits of men and women he has met and worked for over the years and the various different, and often revealing, ways that these people have interacted with books. In creating these portraits, Kociejowski’s writing verges on stream of consciousness at times, starting a discussion about one person, then seeming to wander off as he elaborates about the people that person knew or interacted with, but somehow he retains control and seamlessly returns to his main person of interest. This takes skill, and through it, the reader gets a wonderful sense of depth in understanding the person Kociejowski is describing.
Kociejowski is opinionated and delivers some marked comments about a number of people, but he does make efforts to be fair, or at least to put his judgements in perspective. He displays great appreciation for writers, especially poets (he is one), and pays tribute to quite a number of them, most of whom are either obscure or have fallen out of favour. Interestingly, he pans the fixation so many people have with first editions, pointing out that most books are first editions, as so many never go into a second printing. This applies to poets especially, whose print runs (usually by small presses) seldom exceed 100 copies.
Kociejowski’s main focus, however, is on the eccentricities, even obsessions, of both book collectors and the booksellers who cater to them. One major quirk of so many collectors is that they don’t read many or even most of the books in their collections. The value to them is not in the content as such, but in other aspects—the craftsmanship of the cover, the state of the dust jacket, the paper, and the binding, for instance. And their role in the history of literature and language. But all collectors share a common trait: an unquenchable passion for acquisition.
And this passion can take many forms. Many are predictable: mysteries, erotica, specific writers, literary periods, and so on. Others are not. One man Kociejowski profiles collects “grammars, glossaries, dictionaries and works of translation” that “must have upon them the patina of unlikelihood and, better still, a story attached to them.” A first edition of “Robinson Crusoe” qualifies—but only because it is in Maltese!
Despite having a library with upwards of 1,000 volumes, Kociejowski does not feel he himself is a collector, however. He calls himself a “bibliophile”: a book lover. And this is the essence of A Factotum in the Book Trade. It is about love for books.
A Factotum in the Book Trade is an extraordinary work that will give all readers an increased appreciation for what books are and the many intricate roles that books play in our lives.
A Factotum in the Book Trade is published by Biblioasis.