Rick Gekoski and Me – A Review

by Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

The news that Rick Gekoski is to give the first of the new series of seminars on book-collecting  (www.aba.org.uk/seminars) prompts a reprise of this review by John Windle of San Francisco (www.johnwindle.com) originally published in ABMR a few years ago.  Many thanks to John for permission to use it.  

John Windle

John Windle

I have often wondered what might be the unifying factor that links the tribe of rare booksellers worldwide, if there is one.  From the titans of the trade to the smallest bedroom dealer, I believe there’s a common thread that links us all, which I would dearly love to identify. Perhaps it’s a cloaking mechanism, that somehow we have all learned to hide from whatever we fear most by surrounding ourselves with books; perhaps it’s a stubborn streak that won’t conform to the 9-5 routine and can’t abide commuting in a gray suit on the 7:38 from Stamford; less likely is a financial motive, though the thrill of a bargain purchase or a high-ticket sale is addictively exciting and carries a frisson of wickedness with it as if you’ve committed daylight robbery and gotten away with it.

Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders

William and Victoria Dailey once created a game called “The Heartbreak of Bookselling”.  Akin to “Snakes and Ladders”, you moved through a series of actions dictated by the dice – Bought a book at auction way below my bid, Yay – Turns out it lacks a plate, Groan – Get a huge order from a new customer, Yay – He returns the most expensive item after negotiating a big discount, Groan – Item then ordered by an Italian collector, Yay – Book lost in the Italian mail system (so-called) and your insurance company won’t cover it, Groan.  It’s such a roller-coaster ride this bookselling game and every time I buy a pricey book I lie awake at night wondering why on earth I paid so much, who do I think I am paying such prices, and every time I sell said pricey book I lie awake at night wishing I’d priced it what I originally was going to before I lost my nerve, and then around 3:30 a.m. a nagging memory surfaces that the purchaser doesn’t always pay promptly and what if the money gets held up just when I was under the gun to pay down my line of credit, Oh God my spouse is going to kill me, but maybe he’ll pay if I ask him nicely – or will that cause him to change his mind and send it back, Oh God what if his check bounces, didn’t someone on the chatline mention this guy was no good, I should have asked him for a credit card but then I’ll sweat blood for months wondering if there’ll be a charge-back and anyway I resent the 4% it costs plus the monthly charges, so I get up and stagger off to the laptop in my home office and bingo! There’s an order for a decent book at a decent profit from an old customer who’s safe and I start to feel better as I scroll through my inbox and see with a start that wants@abebooks.com has located a Blake book so rare that even  Bob has never seen it, but what if it’s already sold and the vendor is in Northumberland wherever the heck that is, what time is it there anyway,  I can call right now but wait, it’s way too much money and what if Bob’s picked up a copy since I last checked his wants list, well heck, he isn’t the only customer on the planet and I can afford it sort of now that I got that other order so I call and some grumpy English dealer says yes he has it and prices are net to all on internet orders and I bite my lip and just manage to refrain from screaming at him about trade courtesy and common decency and how the pound’s killing us right now anyway and I ask him to send it by air data post with no value declared so he sends it FedEx collect fully insured and it costs $350 plus brokerage fees and sits in customs for a week because he didn’t put my phone number on the package, and when it arrives it’s nowhere near as nice as I’d hoped so I call Bob with my heart in my mouth and no, he doesn’t have it but like a wimp I already told him a price that included a whopping 10% markup so I can’t even make a decent profit but at least I’m not stuck with owning it at that price since, as we all know, great collectors are few and far between and thanks to the internet the competition for their dough has gotten wicked and it’s such a trick to find the right book at the right price at the right time for the right customer that even as experienced a rare bookman as Nicolas Barker once called dealing in rare books a version of the Indian rope trick the final economics of which he could never understand. 

Nabokov's Butterfly

Nabokov's Butterfly

Rick Gekoski
Rick Gekoski

All of which leads me to recommend wholeheartedly a new book about book dealing by Rick Gekoski called “Nabokov’s Butterfly and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books” which appeared in England under the title of “Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books” late last year and is in its third printing there. Full disclosure: Rick and I once partnered a book together that was too good not to sell itself at once, so of course it didn’t, and it languished on my shelves for a couple of years, starred in a catalogue (illustrated), was shown at umpteen book fairs, languished in Rick’s care in London ditto, came back to me for seconds and even failed to sell at a Bonham’s auction on a reserve that might have just got us our money back, only to sell recently at full price with a good chance that by the time you read this (I’m writing just after Christmas) we might have (a) been paid and (b) split the proceeds, events which do not always follow hard upon each other’s heels in our trade, sad to say.  

Rick has been a tolerant and good-natured partner so I confess to some prejudice on his behalf when I picked up his new and rather nicely printed book.  Oh, you want to know what the book we partnered was?  I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you so just use your imagination.  Peter, Rick’s colleague in his business, who can put the kibosh on a modern first at fifty feet without breaking a sweat, memorably said of our treasure: “If they don’t buy it while they’re still laughing, it won’t sell”, and for years he was right damn his eyes.  Anyway, back to Rick’s book for which he engagingly chose a simple theme – the purchase and sale of twenty modern first editions with attendant details of general interest.  

Tamara Ustinov

Tamara Ustinov

Rick is a friendly, shaggy-haired fellow who reminds me of Peter Ustinov (whose gorgeous daughter Tamara I was at kindergarten with but that’s another story– Julie Christie was there too – I was a magnet for beautiful women from an early age); in fact, Rick and I have a number of things in common but in reverse such as his D.Phil at Oxford and my Ph.D at Berkeley (a.b.d); his running books round the English trade whilst I was flogging Rackhams and press books to Duschnes and Howell; he’s a Yank living in England and I’m a Brit living in America;

Julie Christie

Julie Christie

but one thing I don’t have in common with Rick is an inventory of, and, more importantly, (for the books can always be had), great customers for milestones of twentieth-century literature.

When I worked at Quaritch in London in the 1960s I was placed, after an apprenticeship in the basement sweeping, packing, and dusting, as the junior assistant in the department of modern first editions, which in those days was books after 1700.  Twentieth-century books were virtually ignored though they came and went in profusion, and the dust-jacket fetish had not yet reared its ugly head.  How well I recall picking up several boxes of books from the Mews house of a customer one gray London day and, as I was loading them up, said collector popped his head out of the upstairs window shouting “I don’t suppose you want the bloody dust-jackets do you? I couldn’t bear to throw them away”. Back I went muttering under my breath and there they all were, lying flat in library drawers absolutely mint and unfaded, unlike the books.  I wonder how many of those books have since been rejected by the modern firsts pundits as “married copies.”  

Tolkien's Gown

Tolkien's Gown

Rick writes of “Lolita”, that seductive book in its green wrappers with the funny “point” about the price sticker, but not any “Lolita”, oh no, try Graham Greene’s copy inscribed to him by Nabokov, he whose influence had played such an important role in getting the book published; and with a disarming honesty Rick tells us how much he paid for it (£4,000 which Greene thought too much and tried to take less), how much he sold it for (£9,000), to whom (Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist and the nicest man with a ponytail I ever met), and most delightfully not complaining like most dealers (e.g. me) of selling it too cheaply but instead, coining a phrase new to me but utterly indicative of Rick’s style, of having “under-owned” it.  How often we sell too quickly and regret not the loss of any potential increase in price but the sheer joy of pausing at an idle moment and suddenly remembering that a certain book is right there on the shelf or in the safe, letting us feel a warm glow to know that for this little shard of time it rests more or less safely with us.

His chapter on Tolkien and “The Hobbit” gave the British edition its (much better) title “Tolkien’s Gown …” for Rick had acquired the professor’s black academic garb in an entertaining way and sold it through his second catalogue for £550 to an American which led to a hilarious conversation with Julian Barnes who wanted to know if Rick would like to have Gertrude Stein’s bra or D. H. Lawrence’s  underpants.  I myself have bought and sold Edith Sitwell’s stockings, Lawrence of Arabia’s boots, and a pair of earrings made from lions’ fangs given by Rudyard Kipling to his wife.  I am frequently amazed  at how creative we booksellers are in our buying and selling and how uncreative we are in recording our trade and recognizing our geniuses.  I wonder why we don’t we have an annual dinner where awards are given for Most Interesting Single Item, Catalogue,  Best Illustration, Most Ambitious Price, Bargain of the Year, Greatest Book Fair Display, Best New Dealer, perhaps a special lifetime achievement award – our  very own Oscars, which could be called Rosies after the Doctor, or perhaps Bernies after Mr. Quaritch or until recently Mr. Shapero.  

I would nominate Rick for Best Memoir, by a long shot, not falsely self-effacing or (worse) grandiosely rattling off the names of famous and wealthy customers and tedious details of huge auction purchases with other people’s money, but a real nuts and bolts account of buying, sweating, selling, sweating, and buying again with his own dough, the merry-go-round of our so-called business.  His chapters on Wilde, Kerouac, Salinger, Joyce, Lawrence (Tiny Edward, not Dirty Herbert), Plath, Waugh, Hemingway, Eliot, Orwell, Greene etc., all breathe new and fresh air into what have been very stagnant waters for way too long.  More surprising and equally delightful are his chapters on Rushdie, Rowling and Larkin with which he closes out a book far too short though I suppose I should be grateful as I began reading it at 9:00 p.m. while my better half was watching CSI, a TV show so grisly I can’t bear to be within earshot as even the sound effects gross me out though she, otherwise the gentlest and most loving of creatures, can’t bear to miss an episode – so I retired to bed with Rick and chastely enjoyed his company until 3:30 a.m. when I finished the last tale.  

My only criticism, and I have since re-read it to be sure it wasn’t some sleep-deprived euphoria that caused me to be so over the top about “Nabokov’s Butterfly a.k.a. Tolkien’s Gown” is that he only mentions two book dealers in the entire book and, to save you all worrying if you’re one of them, they are Ed Maggs and Glenn Horowitz (no comment, as I’m terrified of them both for utterly different reasons).  

Of all the bookshops

Of all the bookshops

Frankly I was crushed – we’re partners after all, Rick and me, Ricko as I call him, der Rickster when we’re joking around, Rikitikitavi, we’ve bought cheap and sold dear together, that should have got me a footnote if not a paragraph and frankly Rick, of all the bookshops in all the towns in all the world, I sure hope you’ll walk into mine someday soon so I can tell you how hurt I was – so hurt I had to make my review of your book all about me.  So it goes buddy, and you can laugh all the way to the bank; me, I’m working on my autobiography and you can bet I’m not sending a copy to you for review.

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