Hidden away, high on a shelf, in a secondhand bookshop in Bath, was a plain green volume. I can spot a 1930s hardback at a hundred metres, and thought it was worth pulling it down, to see what it was… well, truth be told, when I saw the title The Private Papers of a Bankrupt Bookseller (1931), I was hardly likely to leave it where I found it.
It claims to be anonymous, but is actually by William Darling – as somebody has inscribed in the front of my copy. I thought perhaps it was signed by the author, but the pencil note underneath (‘let’s hope I don’t have to write one!’) makes me think that perhaps the Bath bookshop owner put it in there himself.
The book is a collection of very short essays and observations, often no more than a couple of pages long, and give the life of a bookseller. It’s not easy to see how much of it is fiction (it’s certainly not the non-fiction account the narrator asserts), but I’m going to assume that Darling had at least some familiarity with running a bookshop. Sometimes it is about the customers who come in. Sometimes about ordering stock. Often he is diverted into talking about books in general, whether madness in books, books with pictures, blue books, etc. Here, as an example, is part of an enjoyable explanation about the life cycle of unfashionable books:
The first stage is when it arrives – after much of Sunday Times and Observer heralding. It is almost hot from the printers and, if it is a great success, I may sell my three or maybe six. I am encouraged. I believe the book is going to be the big book of the year. I buy another six, and the comes the frost. I am left with them. Strenuously practising salesmanship, I sell – on credit – one – maybe two – more, but the four remain. What can I do with them?
Their jackets – they have always wonderful jackets – coats of many colours – get rubbed and torn and they languish. They become tired and weary. I lose taste of them. I ignore them.
Some Monday I put them into the window. I expatiate to any who will listen on their claims to attention. They are worth buying, if only as representing a phase, I plead. It avails nothing.
I take them out of the window. I try a little longer with them on the counters and then – they are in the old shelves at the back shop incurably, definitely bad stock.
And so it goes on! The narrator/author/character is a genial man, though he has a few stern words to say about the draper working next door, and the draper’s customers. This (inevitably fictitious) draper is also the writer of the preface. This lends some amusement to a volume that remains amusing, even when we learn at the outset that the supposed bookseller has died, penniless, before his papers were discovered.
Alongside the lighthearted tone, the author has created an entertaining and likeable character. Is he the mouthpiece for the authors opinions? One has to assume so, when he recommends books (and this is one of the chief joys of the collection – the number of recommendations from a 1930s perspective, though perhaps not always entirely up my street) though perhaps not at other times.
I love what an unexpected find this was, and how unusual. Who would publish this sort of book today? Those of us who love the 1930s are always after different perspectives on it, and something like this very clearly ticks all sorts of boxes for me and my tastes.
So why hasn’t it escalated into my all-time favourites? Hard to say. Perhaps I would have preferred it to be clearly fictional, or to be actually non-fictional. Maybe the joke wasn’t carried quite far enough, or the mix of satire and sincerity didn’t quite work perfectly. But, if not an all-time favourite, it’s definitely on the second or third tier – extremely enjoyable to read, and a gem for my ever-growing books-about-books shelf.