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When I was still wandering through the halls and groves—or holes and graves—of Academe, a couple of colleagues—women, incidentally—interrupted a conversation about their journals to ask me if I kept one. “No,” I said, “but I have a copy of every letter I have written since 1970.” “I never heard of anything so conceited,” one replied.
Well, I don’t quibble over the word “conceited,” but I do wonder why keeping a journal isn’t every bit as conceited as keeping copies of one’s letters. After all, both activities imply that what we think and write might be worth reading someday; and both imply a respect for the written word that is almost by definition “conceited,” or why would anybody write a word to begin with? One of the million things about our Technologically-Tyrannized Era that future generations will lament, or perhaps laugh at, is our increasing lack of respect for the written word and, particularly, the letter. Where would the English novel be today if Samuel Richardson’s Pamela had done all that writing on a lap-top? It is a great irony, I think, that the “e” in “e-mail” stands for nothing less than it stands for “epistolary.”
Lagging behind the pack as usual, I had never read 84, Charing Cross Road until I got back from London last April. I thought it quite wonderful, uninhibited by the degree to which some might regard it as sentimental; and I thought, as above, that it’s a shame that the current decade is hopelessly unlikely to be capable of preserving a similar record of exchanges between booksellers and their customers. With a view to filling some of the void which must inevitably emerge from our contemporary insane insistence on the acceptability of e-mail, I have turned to my musty, dusty files and extracted a few epistolary exchanges between me and two booksellers over the last twenty-five years, in the hope that they may inspire in my readers what seems to me the worthy wish to retain what we read and write in this business. Since most of these excerpts reflect discreditably upon me, at least to some extent, I hope that even in this bold enterprise I may elude the faint damnation of being “conceited.”
Let’s begin with an exchange that I have enjoyed, and kept, for many years, between me and a well-known bookseller whose first name alone does not reveal his identity.
Dear Peter: Thanks for the book. The price penciled on the ffep is $235, as against the published catalogue price of $285. I am not quibbling. If, on the other hand, the catalogue price really was a misprint…well, then, fifty-bucks is forty-five bucks, not the kind of money I’m too proud to drop a line about.
Dear Charles: I checked back on our inventory file card, and it was 285. on that. I wish I could blame someone else for marking the book incorrectly. I am sure that it was me. Sorry, but you are right, 45 bucks is 45 bucks.
This correspondence took place in 1983, and it contains two lessons valuable to anyone who is, as I was then, something of a neophyte in the worlds of collecting and dealing in rare books. Of course, you see them both at once.
Considering how spiritual we all are, I’m amazed that so many of these letters concern money, as do these starting in July of 1984:
Dear Peter: Check enclosed as to your Invoice rendered April 27. When I asked if I were good for 60 days, you made some rude crack to the effect that I might be, but the question was when I would pay….
Dear Charles: Actually, I do admit to minding that you have taken so long to pay on the books from April. Am I mistaken, or did we say 60 days? Don’t take this too hard. I’ve always wanted to scold a schoolteacher.
Dear Peter: Thanks for yours of August 8th, which of course makes me feel awful. [There follows an extensive apologia.] When you scold a schoolteacher, his b.s. quotient goes up frantically, doesn’t it?
Dear Charles: Thanks for your payment. Ninety days fine on the new purchase. I hope I did not come across as too peeved. In April you did say 60 days, but we are surely also to blame for being too casual, as we failed to note it on the invoice. But hell, if we wanted to be good businessmen would we be in the book business? By the way, if three large Italian guys show up at your door muttering something about being late with your bills, just tell them everything’s okay and you wouldn’t look good in cement shoes.
And so things stood, for a while, I comfortable in English shoes made of leather.
It was during the mid-eighties, thanks in large part to the expertise and pecuniary patience of this particular dealer, that my Wodehouse collection really began to take shape, especially regarding first U.K. editions in dust wrappers. The last quarter of 1986, for a devastatingly sad reason, for the first time saw me in a position to spend some serious money on books, even in the midst of a more serious change in my life.
Dear Peter: Thank you for such swift delivery of The Swoop, for which I gratefully enclose a check in the amount of $2,706.00. My life is rather a muddle just now. Carolyn died two weeks ago, comfortably at home in Kennebunkport, after a long but fairly painless fight against a particularly deadly kind of cancer. We had been married for eighteen years. She thought you and your way of life very jolly; and she enjoyed the cup of coffee, or whatever it was, that you and your wife gave her while I was smuggling books out of your basement last winter. She liked your atmosphere: she liked the Gilbert and Sullivan posters over your fireplace, she liked what you do, and she was glad you were getting a piano.
Carolyn was, in fact, partly responsible, in 1970, for my deciding to refine my collecting of Wodehouse books into first editions, and no partner could ever have been more generous or patient with a collector’s mania than she was. Peter replied to the foregoing letter, Sept. 30, 1986.
Dear Charles: Your letter got here today just as I was preparing to write one to you. Doug told me about Carolyn at the New Hampshire fair on Sunday. I was startled and dismayed, and at first I thought he was confused. She was so vital and charming, and must surely have had the patience of a saint to put up with a book nut like yourself. We had no idea that she was so seriously ill, and she certainly didn’t betray even a hint of it. After your visit we discussed how we would have liked you to stop again for a lengthier one. You seem to be able to talk about it, and from what you write you’ve had a long time to deal with the inevitability of her death, but I must say that I admire the composure and grace in the letter.
Dear Peter: Thank you for your extremely nice letter, which I am glad to have, and which, unlike a lot in its company, I have reread with some sort of comfort and pleasure several times.
Despite my opening remarks, a lot of notes of condolence might well be blasted into the withered ear of e-mail; but the bookseller who can range from cement shoes to sympathy over a few months has a special place in my life and lexicon.
In November of 1986 I bought from this same protean dealer my first copy of The Pothunters, and by January of 1987, with Groundhog Day approaching, we were back in business at the old familiar stand.
Dear Peter: Before the Wolf gets his teeth into it, I send herewith a check in payment of half my current balance due. The next check will almost certainly have Groundhog toothmarks on it, but I’ll try to see that the amount in words is legible. Always interested in PGW firsts in dust wrapper—can eat groundhog if necessary. Indeed, my physicians suggest it would be better for me than scotch.
By the following September, however, the worm had turned again; and with that turning I will conclude this installment.
Hey, Charles, this is far too modest an order. I am afraid that, given your recent history of parting with more than an occasional dollar with us, this is something of an embarrassment. But don’t worry, that’s okay, my kids don’t have to eat this month. Maybe I’ll send them to beg at the gates of Kent School for scraps, with signs on their backs saying, “Gould did this to us.” —A Disappointed Bookseller
Dear Peter: Gosh, I sure do hate feeling responsible for snatching shoe-leather from the mouths of your kids. However, the book today received is not the first edition it is advertised as being. [Bibliographical evidence here adduced at tiresome length.] I broke my own rule, accepting your description and selling the book before I saw it. Your kids will understand the desperate measure of poverty that such careless haste must imply, but whatever they are eating, I am eating crow as far as that customer is concerned. Give them a bang-up Peanut-Butter-and-Jelly feed at Locke-Ober, and tell them that that’s it until you have come to terms with…Your Admiring Friend
Dear Charles: OOPS. Of course it is a later binding, and as such I believed I described it. Turning to the catalogue, and then my card, I realized that I had not. Cut the price in half should you still want it. I hope that in some small way this will lessen the shame that my children, and even my children’s children, will have to live with.
Dear Peter: Many thanks. Now your kids can eat your words, which should fend off rickets for a little while; and think of the money you’ll save on picket signs. Or you could actually enroll them in Kent School, where the food is free; but the tuition cost of getting into my classroom is astronomical.
This dealer and I have done business and pleasantly kept in touch for almost twenty years since, but, alas, there have been few more real letters. I hope they still have the piano.
In May of 1977, on our second or third trip to London, I found an exciting little cache of Wodehouse first editions from what might be called the Early Middle Period, all without dust wrapper and all very inexpensive, at G. Heywood Hill Ltd. The manager of this delightful bookshop, then as now, was John Saumarez Smith, whose The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street—Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952-73 was published last year—a collection that he edited. Nancy Mitford worked at the shop from 1942 to 1945, and thereafter, living in France, she maintained a lively interest in the place and its people and their doings. As the dust wrapper blurb says, “Charming, witty, utterly irresistible, the correspondence gives brilliant insights into a world that has almost disappeared.” That is how I felt about the shop twenty-eight years ago; and you may imagine the delight the following letter, the first of many from John Saumarez Smith, afforded me in 1977:
Dear Mr. Gould, It really makes a difference to one’s trading life to receive letters like yours of April 9th. It is unusual enough in our experience to find any compatriot of yours who enjoys putting pen or typewriter to paper, and when this is combined with a comprehensive knowledge of the works of P.G. Wodehouse, it’s obvious that Heywood Hill must be his spiritual home.
I can’t think of a letter that ever pleased me more. Even when the topic became commercial, the tone seemed to me from another century.
You are right in supposing that our approach is not based on the hand-to-mouth principle, and we would be perfectly happy if you paid for the Wodehouse on the never-ever. I am not suggesting that you should think of booksellers as the more raffish members of the Drones Club thought of their tailors, but I don’t want you to be bouleversé by the prospect of an avalanche. It certainly seems as if one should pick up as much as possible in English bookshops before Wodehouse becomes the territory of humourless investment-conscious thugs.
Indeed. In June of 1977, Heywood Hill sold me a “scruffy and somewhat battered copy” of a first edition of Tales of Saint Austin’s, 1903, for about $40.00. In 1992 they sold me another copy (albeit not battered and scruffy, and inscribed by the author) for about $3600.00. I wonder sometimes to what extent I myself have swelled the rout of “humourless investment-conscious thugs”!
A month later I received a letter about which I still blush, educating me in a new vein.
Dear Mr. Gould, In the circumstances in which I was raised, it was expected that gentlemen could write to each other as Dear Mr. X for the whole of their lives, unless they happened to be introduced on a social occasion…. I must suggest that you call me John from henceforth.
Fortunately, I somehow perceived at once that this was an amazingly tactful and gracious way of correcting a bloomer that I had been making from the first: my correspondent was Mr. Saumarez Smith, not Mr. Smith. This was, of course, something I should have known, would have known had I not been brought up on the wrong side of the Atlantic. The only worse example I know of such a solecism is the time the Mayor of Portland, Maine, introduced Ernestine Schumann-Heink as “Mrs. Heink.” Years later (1990), John afforded me a brief explication occasioned by the fact that his son, traveling in America, apparently dropped the “Saumarez.”
Saumarez Smith is wholly correct but it’s a name that foxes most of your compatriots because it isn’t double-barreled—or at least it isn’t hyphenated—& we might very often pass ourselves off as honest-to-god Smiths. Joe may have found the shorthand version simpler in the purlieus of Pittsfield Massachusetts,
In the course of the following year, I bought so many books from Heywood Hill that by the end of October I owed them a hundred pounds—not an inconsiderable sum for a schoolmaster in 1978. But, again, the following excerpt suggests a world in which we don’t much live now.
Dear John: In the interests of saving time and sanity, I must be blunt. While you and I, and Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, are not clothed in the muddy vesture of cash, the World requires of us that we Get Things Right; and your last two statements have been all out of whack. I blush to say it, knowing that if I paid you promptly there would be less difficulty; but I enclose copies of your last three statements and I my own record of all purchases and payments since we first engaged in this joyful correspondence. Here they are. What’s wrong?
Dear Charles, No Member of the Drones you; your grasp of matters of commercial importance has been worn lightly & I have not properly admired it heretofore…. The business of bookselling can easily reduce itself to a matter of bookkeeping. I would prefer not to get too entangled in the latter, but to employ a relatively thick minion to carry out the basic chores…. So, you are right in every possible detail. I have followed through your debits & credits and the final figure is precisely as you’ve given.
If I’d kept a journal, on this day in November of 1978 the entry would have been “Hallelujah!” But I’d rather have the letter.
It is only fair to record, however, that a few years later some clouds gathered—as did some debt. I’ll spare you the reading of a lot of intermittent gabble on my part—and myself the embarrassment of rereading it—and share these three gems from John S.S.
A witty letter arrived a week ago & has been lost in the post-Christmas jungle. I remember the message well enough to forgive you until the onset of spring & to enjoin you to manage yr. Finances with less Woosterian spendthriftness. If I don’t hear from you by Mid-April I shall have to take a plane to N.Y. & apprehend you by coup de telephone. [January, 1981]
With your burgeoning trade as a dealer, would you not be able to pay our bill without my having to adopt a sterner tone? [October, 1981]
Your letter was worth waiting a very long time for. Thank you for it, your kind words, your apologies & your cheque. [November, 1981]
I did not deserve such an easeful restoration to a state of grace—after such an appalling lapse into the disgrace of a Dickensian deadbeat (I think, ashamedly, of Mr. Micawber and Harold Skimpole). Perhaps it was the cheque that did it, but I like to think that a letter composed of kind words and apologies counts too, as John Saumarez Smith’s own lovely letter suggests. On the other hand, of course, is Thomas Carlyle’s observation that “Hell, to an Englishman, is a non-monetary payment.”
For more than twenty years now, I am a little sad to say, I have not owed any money to Heywood Hill. I am sure they get along nicely without my indebtedness, but my own attitude toward Accounts Receivable has ever been the same as Hamlet’s: “If it be not now, yet ’twill come,” and I hope that some thread-bare tweedy Duke is keeping The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street afloat with promises, written in real ink by hand on good paper and delivered by post. In February/March of 1984, my correspondence with John Saumarez Smith acknowledged a sort of sabbatical leave.
Dear John: I once predicted that the effect of my paying my account with you would be a lapse in our correspondence; but I didn’t really mean it to come true! Now I note with dismay that it has been a year and a half. I have thought of you and intended to write; but with so damnably clean a conscience I just haven’t done it.
Dear Charles: Since getting your letter a week or two ago, I have had a tender conscience about my capacity as a correspondent. Of course, it was a great pleasure to have seen your new catalogue…. At the last book fair in London I was rather crustily shocked by how scrofulous most booksellers now look; they might easily have come from the seedier parts of a race course.
In the next couple of years I ordered and actually paid for books from 10 Curzon Street, and Heywood Hill actually bought—and paid for—a few Wodehouse things from me. Then, in 1986 came an especially touching mindful mixture of Saumarez Smith’s sensibility and sense.
Dear Charles, Thank you so much for your letter of September 21st. I had no idea at all about Carolyn’s illness and the news of her death is a very great shock. I will keep affectionate memories of our lunching across the road together and send you our warmest condolences…. We reached the letter ‘G’ yesterday, so a bill should be on its way.
Though usually in the shop, John was not there on either occasion when I stopped by in April and bought a copy of his book, asking that it be signed and sent. In a few days, it arrived with a card.
Charles, Very disappointed not to have seen you. It’s far too long. Hope you’ll enjoy this.
Dear John: Thank you so much for signing and sending The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street—the place you once (30 years ago) were so kind as to mention as my “spiritual home.”
Dear Charles, I have been carrying round your delightful letter for more than a week hoping that I can summon the time , & the recurring Muse, for a proper reply.
Dear John: Thank you for your letter of May 9th, which afforded me great pleasure. Indeed, it is most gratifying to me that you do not share Nancy Mitford’s regarding “a letter to America as a letter lost & never write any.” That seems to me a little unfair—but it is roughly analogous to my attitude toward e-mail, so there we are.
Indeed, there we are, just where we started.
Charles E.Gould, Jr., retired from the English department at Kent School, is an antiquarian bookseller and P.G. Wodehouse specialist. He lives in Kennebunkport, Maine.