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Sin and the Art of Bookselling

July, 2009
By Anthony Marshall

I’ve just been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Quite why it has taken me 35 years to get around to reading it, when over the years scores, perhaps hundreds, of copies have passed through my hands I don’t know. Perhaps I was waiting for a nice hardback copy to appear, which is what this copy is. The third impression of the English edition, published by The Bodley Head in 1975. Perhaps since you’re book people I should use the technical jargon and say it’s a casebound copy, but casebound must be an almost obsolete term nowadays. Anyway the book has biggish print that I can read comfortably. I generally need glasses to read with nowadays. One of these days I may get bifocals and peer over them like a proper bookseller. One good thing about growing older is that you begin to look like people imagine an old bookseller should look. It’s much harder to bluff your way in this business when you’re 28.

Well, it’s a very good book and it’s interesting on lots of levels. It’s a road trip book, and a meditation on friendship and fatherhood (Pirsig’s 11 year old son Chris rides pillion on the bike for much of the trip). It deals with what Pirsig calls the “classic” approach to life—the practical technical nuts-and-bolts thinking that enables you to fix your bike yourself—compared with the “romantic” Buddhist-type thinking that means you can have a great time and lose yourself in the “zone” but when things go wrong with your bike you have to call in someone else to fix it. And a large part of the latter part of the book deals with the issue of “quality”, what it is and what it means particularly in the context of the university curriculum. No doubt I have over-simplified things. But it’s a book not easy to categorize. It has all sorts of resonances and perhaps they are different for different readers, which is probably the mark of a great book.

It’s also a great title. Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance has spawned a whole string of “Zen and the Art of” books. You can find hundreds of them listed on Internet search engines. Some of my favorites: Zen and the Art of Whittling, Zen and the Art of Falling in Love, Zen andthe Art of Faking It, Zen and the Art of Systems Analysis and Zen and the Art of the Texas Two Step. I decided that what Robert M. Pirsig did for motorcycle maintenance I would do for secondhand bookselling. I’d write a book entitled Zen and the Art of Bookselling which is a snappy title and almost bound to be a best-seller. And as a sort of warm-up exercise (for me) and an appetite-whetter (for you) I decided to write an article called Sin and the Art of Bookselling for this magazine.

I’m not a man who takes his research lightly. I remember reading many years ago a slim book called Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. Being something of a pedant I draw your attention here to the slight, but telling, difference between the Zen in of Herrigel’s book and the Zen and of Pirsig’s. Well, Herrigel’s book is much more tightly focused than Pirsig’s. Now, I know Zen can be complicated. You are meant to meditate on such impenetrable mysteries as “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” but Zen and the Art of Archery struck me, on my second reading, as pretty plain sailing. Or pretty plain archery.

It’s all about the Oneness. And letting go of the ego. So the archer and the bow and the arrow and the target all become one. So you can’t miss. Great. By analogy, in Zen and the art of bookselling, the bookseller and the book and the customer and the cash all become one, and the cash finds its way unerringly into the bookseller’s pocket. Brilliant! But hang on! What’s this? “When the Zen master shoots, there is no ego, no bow, no arrow, no target and no shot.” How exactly this works is beyond my simple bookseller’s understanding. But if Zen and the Art of Bookselling really means this: no ego, no books no customers and no cash, then it’s really not going to go down well in an article aimed at a readership of booksellers, book lovers and book collectors. So I’ve ditched it. Luckily—with a deadline looming—I have another title lined up. Sin and The Art of Bookselling. Sin as in Seven Deadly Sins, which as it happens I know a lot more about than Zen, having had nearly 60 years practise.

So. The Seven Deadly Sins. You must know them. They are not the really bad sins—the Mortal Sins—like murder or stealing or lying or blasphemy. They are the more subtle, insidious, seductive sins which don’t seem so very bad. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century was the first to make a list of them. And then Dante in his Inferno showed the sort of wonderful punishments that the Seven Deadly Sins will earn you if you go to hell. So what are they? I have a little mnemonic or strictly speaking an acronym to help me remember them. It’s PELASGA which gives you the first letter of each one. Pride, Envy, Lust (nobody ever forgets lust) Anger, Sloth, Greed or Gluttony and Avarice. Pelasga is a real word. It means a Greek Girl, the Girl from Pelasgia, an old-fashioned or poetic name for Greece.

P is for Pride. Well, I know a bit about pride. I’m an Englishman for heaven’s sake! I’m a countryman of William Shakespeare and I can’t help feeling, like a lot of Englishmen, just a little bit smug about that. I was thinking about this the other day, on 23 April which is Shakespeare’s birthday and his deathday, St.George’s Day and England’s National Day. The English don’t make a great song and dance about it. No fireworks or flag-waving or marching bands, no parties or parades or public holiday. Why not? Simple. There’s nothing to celebrate. The English just know they’re the best and they assume everybody else knows it too.

On the other hand I am not at all proud to be a compatriot of Jeffery Archer. In fact I refuse to stock any book written by Jeffery Archer. Or even touch one. (I keep a set of tongs in the shop in case his books turn up). I’ve never read a single word written by Lord Archer but I know a rascal when I see one and I refuse to have anything to do with him. It’s also part of my proud arrogant and elitist mission not to deal in what I call “Lowest Common Denominator” books, Airport fiction, books aimed at the mass market, books for the Great Unwashed. Books that you can recognize by the amount and thickness of embossed lettering on the front cover. If that’s pride then I’m proud of it. A lady from Virgin Airlines rang me up the other day: “I’ve got eight crates of books to sell. They’re all books left behind by passengers on our aircraft.” I felt sick just thinking about them. Eight crates of Aircraft Fiction. If only the gold embossing were real gold, you could melt the covers down and reap a fortune.

E is for Envy. There is only one bookseller in the world that I envy and he’s the chief book sorter at the main depot of the Brotherhood of St Laurence. Imagine it. Having the good fortune to be the Godlike creature appointed to skim the cream of those bookish donations! And take them home! I was talking about this the other day to another bookseller whom I met at the Brunswick branch of the Brotherhood. “We’re just like jackals really, who get to pick over the carcass after the lion had his fill.”

My colleague agreed. “It’s not really fair, is it? When we get to go through the books, it’s just the left-overs. It’s like you’re buying a ticket for the lottery, knowing you can’t actually win the jackpot ever, because it’s already gone. Along with Division One and Division Two.”

We fell silent.

“Listen, Robin. There’s no point in being envious. There are only two rules in life. One: Life is unfair Two: Get over it.” So if envy’s your problem too—that’s my advice. Get over it.

L is for Lust. The one you were waiting for. But if you think I’m going to write about lust happening in my bookshop—if you want the Candid Confessions of an Old Bookseller—I’m sorry I’m going to disappoint you.

But there is a very close, I might even say intimate, relationship between lust and books. Think of all those so-called “adult bookshops”. I’ve never really got into “adult” books. This was a disappointment to one of my customers back in England,. He was a middle-aged man of middle-European ancestry I think. He used to sidle up to my bookstall at Kettering Market and say out of the corner of his mouth: “Hey, boss, got any fucksy books?” Well, just occasionally I did have a fucksy book for him under the counter and he went away happy.

Let’s raise the tone a bit and talk about Dante! A fucksy book—I mean an erotic novel—was certainly involved in the undoing of Francesca da Rimini, whom Dante locates in the circle of Hell reserved for the lustful. (Incidentally I was quite old before I discovered that it was possible for women to be just as lustful as men). Anyway Francesca and a man called Paolo were sitting together reading a novel about Lancelot and Guinevere (and you know what they got up to) when things got out of hand.

Blushing and trembling all over, they kissed, threw the book aside and “read no more that day.” You can imagine what they did instead. Francesca explains to Dante and Virgil that it wasn’t really her fault, it was the book that did it. But her lover Paolo was not just any man. Francesca was a married woman and Paolo was her husband’s brother—her brother-in-law—so they were committing not just adultery but incest. They were real people and they came to a sticky end. Francesca’s husband finally caught them in bed together and stabbed them both to death. Their punishment in hell? To be chained together for all eternity.

Well I daresay that such things can happen in bookshops. The lust I mean, not the stabbing. Bookshops are great meeting places and there is no taboo about booksellers having sex with their customers. Which is not the case in the so-called “caring” professions. I have even heard people describe secondhand bookshops as “chick magnets.” A colleague and friend who has a shop in New Jersey told me that his son had absolutely no interest either in books or in helping in the bookshop until one day at the age of 19 he was more or less pressed into manning the shop for an afternoon. Thereafter it was impossible to keep him out of it. “Such a neat place to chat up cool chicks” was how he expressed it. And it’s true.

A certain amount of flirting does happen in bookshops. And some falling in love even. Perhaps I can be teeny bit personal after all. I have been seriously smitten by three of my customers, all women, which I reckon in 30 years of bookselling at an average of just one grand passion every ten years, is not so bad. Or not so good, depending on your viewpoint. And this I can say in my defense, I did not marry any of them. I suppose I have lusted in my heart for a number of others but the lust stayed in my heart and whatever the bible or Jimmy Carter says I think that is not such a bad thing either. But I’m going to leave the subject there. Talking of lust in a young man of 19 may be rather charming but in a man of 59 it’s certainly embarrassing and probably rather pathetic. Perhaps some booksellers just need to grow up.

A is for Anger. The French have an expression for feeling angry: La moutarde me monte au nez. The mustard gets up my nose. You know the feeling? (I’m talking hot powdery English mustard here, not that gentle soup called French or Dijon mustard). Well, in my shop there’s one thing that really sends the mustard up my nose and that’s mobile phones (this is what we call cell phones in Australia). You’d think that when customers get calls on their mobiles they’d pick up and go outside or at least retreat to the back of the shop. But no, they stand in front of the counter and yammer on in a loud voice about how they’re in a bookshop. I was once on the point of closing quite a large sale, a collection of books worth quite a few hundred dollars and the customer had just got out her credit card when her mobile rang. “Sorry,” she said, as she skipped out. “I’ll come back later.” I knew she wouldn’t, and she didn’t.

But my worst mobile phone experience was this. It was raining and this man, who looked like one of the Carlton mafia, stepped into my shop. He flicked open his mobile and punched in some numbers then, standing right in front of me, started an inane conversation with some fellow gangster. Boy, I felt so much mustard I nearly sneezed! I mean it’s one thing to answer your mobile in a shop, quite another to deliberately initiate a call. When he’d finished he looked at me defiantly. I said to him, with some asperity: “This isn’t a public phone box, you know.” “No”, he said, “in a public phone box you’d have to pay” And he strolled out.

Perhaps laughter would have been a better response in this case than anger. There is a Zen saying: turn your anger into laughter and your laughter into love. Isn’t this one of the wonderful things about being human? We can’t always choose what happens to us but we can always choose how we respond. Anger or laughter? I can make up my mind which it is to be. Because it is all in the mind. Shakespeare (via Hamlet) said: “There’s nothing good nor bad, but thinking makes it so” and John Milton in Paradise Lost wrote: “The mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” So there. It’s always our choice.

S is for Sloth. It’s rather a relief to turn to sloth. Note that in Australia and the United Kingdom at least the received pronunciation of this word is “sloth” to rhyme with “both” and “troth” (and not with “Goth” and “moth”). Sloth with a long “o” is what both the Macquarie and the Oxford Dictionaries recommend. Besides, to my ear sloth with a long “o” sounds at least 10 miles per hour slower than sloth with a short “o”. What is sloth? Well, literally it is slow-ness. Lethargy, laziness, lack of energy and (I would say) lack of courage. I learned recently that one obsolete name for the koala is the “sloth bear.” And one of my favourite cartoons pictures a comatose koala stuck in the fork of a gum tree with this caption: “I would be unstoppable if only I could get started.”

Well, in the popular imagination we booksellers are certainly koalas. We loaf around all day drinking coffee, gossiping, reading the newspapers, doing crosswords or sudokus and, if we happen to live in New Jersey, flirting with our attractive customers. We never do seem to get started. And when we need to acquire stock or move books around—onto shelves or into boxes—or lug them along to book fairs, it’s so easy: all we do is just whistle, or click our fingers and hey presto! The books just hop into our arms or onto the shelves, or into the boxes. Brilliant!

Booksellers know what the reality is. On the other hand it is rather easy to spend time in a bookshop not doing very much. I know I spend a certain amount of time just day-dreaming. I’m reminded of what the old Sussex countryman said when asked how he spent his time in retirement. “Well,” he said, “sometimes I sits and thinks. And sometimes I just sits.” If that’s sloth I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Is it not but one step away from calmness, serenity, stillness, peace?

G is for Greed/Gluttony and A is for Avarice. I’ll take these two together as they overlap a good deal. They are both sins of excess par excellence. Greed wants to get hold of more than enough, avarice can’t bear to let it go. Both are driven by fear. Greed, by the fear of not getting enough; avarice by the fear of losing it. “Greed is Good” was the catchcry of the past few decades. Well, we all know it isn’t and by definition it never can be. Greed is always excessive. It always wants more. It never knows when to stop. There’s a nice story about the two writers John Updike and Gore Vidal who’ve been invited to a very posh party thrown by a billionaire—caviar, French champagne, solid gold cutlery, flunkeys in periwigs and white gloves, in short everything lavish and extravagant and completely over-the-top. “You know Gore,” says John Updike. “These folk have everything. But there’s one thing we’ve got that they haven’t and they won’t ever have.” “What’s that?” says Gore. “The sense to know when enough is enough.”

Book collectors and booksellers, I’m afraid, are rather notorious for greed and avarice, for not knowing when enough is enough. We collect and we hoard. We rush around gathering up books at book fairs and garage sales like there’s no tomorrow. Every bookseller I know (myself included) has far too much stock. Shops full to overflowing, stores and sheds and garages piled up with books. Why? Are we afraid that the supply of books is going to dry up overnight? Do you remember the Muppet Show and the lovely Miss Piggy, with those gorgeous eyelashes? Oui, c’est moi! She gave out useful advice including this gem: “Never eat more than you can lift!” We could usefully adapt this wisdom for booksellers buying at thrift shops or charity book fairs: “Never buy more than you can carry away.”

At least most booksellers do not have the pathological attachment to their stock displayed by a bookdealer in Barcelona in the 19th Century. His name was Don Vicente and on a number of occasions, after selling a customer a particularly beautiful or valuable antiquarian book, he would be overwhelmed with remorse. He would stalk his customer through the back lanes of Barcelona, and in some quiet alley stab him in the back, retrieve the book and return to his shop. You see how these insidious little deadly sins can lead you into big mortal sins.

I have a hunch that in this life we get the books we are meant to get. And whether we are bookdealers or book collectors, it’s the books that choose us and not the other way round. And we are only temporary guardians of our books. I never saw a coffin fitted out with bookshelves and neither did you. So we might as well cultivate a little Zen non-attachment to help us get used to the idea. And trust that all will be well.

Those Barcelona murders remind me that Robert M. Pirsig’s son Chris was murdered in San Francisco at the age of 22, only a few years after the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. My knowing this gives extra poignancy to the passages dealing with eleven year old Chris in the book.

E.B.White, author of many classic New Yorker columns and two wonderful children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, was asked what it was that made a great children’s book. He replied: “The only test of a children’s book is how much love it brings to the world.” I can’t help feeling that this is pretty much the test, perhaps the only test, we should apply to human beings too. But why bringing love to the world should be so difficult—and sinning should be so easy—is to me a mystery almost as impenetrable as the sound of one hand clapping.

Anthony Marshall is owner of Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and author of “Fossicking for Old Books” (Melbourne, 2004).