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Review: A Factotum in the Book Trade mourns the bookstore’s endangered species

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  • Title: A factotum in the book trade
  • Author: Marius Kociejowski
  • Gender: Story
  • Editor: Bibliography
  • Pages: 360

Over the past few decades, the book business has changed – and not for the better. Gone are the creaky old shops with their secrets and mysteries hidden behind old bookcases and dim lights. Alongside them comes the downfall of new local stores that have struggled to pay the property tax bill while curating a mix of offerings from the popular to the obscure. The loss of each heralds the passage from the bookstore as a craft to the bookstore as mass production and distribution.

Today, online warehouse stores find what you’re looking for and deliver it to you in a day or two for cheap, although the cost of savings is too high. Chain stores are available for those who want a mockery of the old ways with a latte, a few candles and a bar set. Many of us book lovers are part of the problem – we fall prey to the structures that punctuate contemporary life, even as we yearn for something different. The structures are to blame, not the individuals, we say. Of course, that means there’s no one to hold to account.

Reading by Marius Kociejowski A factotum in the book trade it’s like walking through a dying bookstore. A series of essays that are self-sufficient but form a coherent memory and defense of ancient bookstores, the reminiscences of a man who describes himself as a “marriage intermediary” between people and books are like a strange found at the back of the shop. It’s a volume you lazily pick up minutes before you’re supposed to step out for a date, lunch, or an approaching bus. And then, perhaps despite yourself and the house shelves full of unread tomes, you buy it.

The book is also a call to account and a settling of accounts by a brilliant, meandering writer who brings to life characters of his time in the book trade – most of whom have probably never heard of, many of whom should you happen to know. It is also a visit through a who’s who of the 20th century. Alongside obscure figures are famous names who have passed through its door in one way or another: Elton John, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Bryan Ferry, Annie Lennox and a whole list of poets that you’ve probably been invited to read at one point or another. They come in and out, like visitors to an open house or, even better, shoppers. With the stories they bring, it feels like some bookstores have a life of their own, like they come alive after the lights go out, chatting, laughing, finishing the bottle of whiskey. You wish you could join them. Indeed, the last line of the book is an elegy for the loss of these shops and their stories: “One more bookstore gone, what dies with each one is a book of stories.

The charm of Kociejowski’s prose is that it is human, too human as Nietzsche would say. The pages are full of existential angst. There’s the author who wonders how many books he could read before he dies and who determines, as many of us have done, that there won’t be every one in his library. Tick, tock, tick, tick, tock. There are also moments of self-reflection that double up as social criticism, so accidentally: “I’m more hoarder than collector, more magpie than hawk,” he writes of his book collection. There’s a whiff of TS Eliot and measuring his life in teaspoons: About Buzzati The Tartar steppe he remembers an essay on his origins, imagined during a work filled with monotony and routine. “Commonness is perhaps the most terrifying of all human challenges,” concludes Kociejowski. Telling the story of an 18th-century manuscript, stolen and left outside in a sack in the rain, only to be found intact and legible thanks to “iron-based ink on handmade paper,” Kociejowski reflects “The quality is a passport to permanence.” Each of these reflections deserves a book in its own right.

During my undergraduate studies, I shopped at a bookstore adjacent to the University of Ottawa campus. Benjamin Books is still there. I remember the shopkeeper ringing in my textbooks – ancient philosophy, a cheap edition of Plato or Aristotle – while wearing a T-shirt that read “Adorno was right”. I had no idea what that meant, but I needed to know. Later I did. While reading Factotum triggers a similar response. So many names, dates, references and places to research and know; dozens and dozens of new avenues, ways, maybe even worlds, opening up and leading to who knows where. Meanwhile, time is running out. But you have to find out. What’s the point of living if you can’t go find things?

The memoir of an Ontario bookseller, poet, travel writer and essayist who found his way to England through several jobs, A factotum in the book trade is grumpy, obscure, charming, sometimes antiquarian in its assessment of contemporary social and political life, and illuminating. It reads like a second-hand bookstore smell. Maybe Kociejowski would hate that comparison, but for a lot of book collectors – or hoarders, hoarders, mavens, avid readers, or whatever – it’s high praise. Open this book and see where it takes you.

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