1435 Where the magic happens
A Factotum in the Book Trade: A Memoir
by Marius Kociejowski
Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2022
$24.95 / 9781771964562
Reviewed by Michael Turner
Vancouver is a city rich in book stores. Could it be richer? Sure. But if it’s more books you want, or a greater variety of them, I’ve had great luck at the thrift stores of late, finding recently published books for a tenth of what you’d pay for them new. Yet thrift store discoveries can be lonely affairs, where excitement for a recently published it-book, or a rare one, is more often than not met with absent nods from cashiers only interested in getting through the work day. This is the difference between bookstores and places where books are sold. At bookstores, consumer enthusiasm is indulged. To a point. It is this point, among others (some of them very fine indeed), that Marius Kociejowski makes much of in his thoughtful and highly entertaining memoir A Factotum in the Book Trade.
Born to immigrant parents (a Polish father and an English mother) at Bishop’s Mills, Ontario in 1949, Kociejowski grew up in a farmhouse where books and reading were, for this “deeply sad couple, … one of their consolations, maybe their only one” (p. 37). For readers who smile their fangs over attributions like “deeply sad,” who prefer expression’s bloodstream over more nuanced forms of storytelling (wouldn’t a couple’s child be their “only” consolation? Oh, the poor boy!), Kociejowski focuses on his parents’ book collection (covers first, words later) to help us appreciate who they were by what they read. “While those books were a buffer between them and a hostile world,” Kociejowski writes of a couple clearly traumatized by the horrors of the Second World War, “for me they represented another kind of escape” (p. 37).
Yet “another kind of escape” comes in Kociejowski’s late-teens, when he hitchhikes to nearby Ottawa. There, at the entrance of Sheila Leishman Books, he sees “a rack of books that would alter the direction of my life” (p. 43). These books, “[w]ith their slightly sinister, black and white photographic covers,” featured the writings of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Ferlinghetti and Lorca, and for reasons unclear “comprised for me forbidden territory.” Of equal significance, the books were published by New Directions, a house that would inspire many a maturing young reader/writer to know a book as much by its publisher as its author. But it is only after Kociejowski moves to Ottawa full-time, in the late-1960s, that he gets a taste of “book running.” Short of cash, he takes a box of discarded books to a young bookseller, the legendary Patrick McGahern. “A man of feeling, he gave me a tenner for the books, which surely was a generous figure, but declined to take one which he thought might be of value” (p. 44). Gestures like McGahern’s, we are to learn in later chapters, are rare in the London book trade.
Much of Factotum takes place in London, England, after Kocejowski moved there in 1974, and where, in the book’s swirling opening chapter (“A Floating World”), we find him reflecting on a working life (mostly in the antiquarian book trade) that, in a few short months, will end — “forever.” As an overture, the chapter introduces a number of the book’s thematic motifs and stylistic tendencies, while at the same time evoking the Japanese ukiyo (the floating, fleeting pleasure-seeking urban world that emerged in Japan’s pre-Meiji Edo Period) and its pictorial representation: ukiyo-e. Mortality sets off this reflection (“What is forever when set against the universe? About the length of a sticking plaster”) (p. 1), then books (“‘The world is made,’ says Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘in order to result in a beautiful book.’ All else — the filling of an order, the cataloguing of a book — is mere procedure”) (p. 2) and bookselling (“The book trade is naturally secretive even when it pretends otherwise. What one might think is an open book is actually a closed one”) (p. 3).
It is this interplay between books (Kociejowski has authored books of poetry and travel writing) and bookselling (a staging ground into which enter books, employees and casual customers, but also literary archives, personal libraries, collectors and celebrated authors like Patti Smith, Robert Graves and Bruce Chatwin) where the magic happens. Some of this magic is happy stuff, for it turns out that Kociejowski (by now an expert on modern first-editions) and Patti Smith share a love of Robert Louis Stevenson. Other times, like Tolkien’s rings, not so happy, as in the case of Bruce Chatwin, who at one point lived above Bertram Rota where Kociejowski occupied a desk by the shop’s entrance. “Chatwin was at least two people,” writes Kociejowski, “and never did they meet in my presence” (p. 103). No need to spoil the fun here. Those who have read Nicholas Shakespeare’s Bruce Chatwin: A Biography (1999) will recognize in Kociejowski’s vivid recounting a pendant to the former’s portrait.
Lest you get the impression that Factotum is a succession of anecdote-worthy encounters with authors, collectors and booksellers, punctuated by tales of rare books and letters, it also serves as a subtle commentary on the hierarchies and class relations endemic to an England that, during Kociejowoski’s first two decades there, had not caught up to the more acceptable contradictions of the modern world. I’m not just talking central heating and indoor plumbing, but basic human dignity. Prior to bookselling, Kociejowski worked as an arts administrator at the Poetry Society at Earl’s Court Square. There, amidst the “lowest common denominator” of being all things to no one, and before succumbing to the corruption of a governance structure that hung him out to dry, he endured the wrath of poetry gang leader Bob Cobbing, a “malevolent elf” who “developed a siege mentality that was quickly transmitted to his cohorts” (p. 31). But this was nothing compared to what is arguably the saddest of the book’s anecdotes.
After a brief and favourable appraisal of Anthony Rota’s memoir Books in the Blood (2002), Kociejowski writes:
I don’t think books were ever in his blood, which is not quite the same as saying he was not a proficient seller of them or, for that matter, a smart committee man. What was missing in him, or at least in my periscopic view of the matter, was a genuine passion for books and literature, and indeed I think he was rather afraid of them for what deficiencies they might reveal in himself. A man in such a position tends to hide as much as he discloses and in this case I think he hid, though not very successfully because it was there for all to see, behind the façade of social ambition (p. 82).
Though harsh, Kociejowski’s assessment is not unearned. Nor does it appear to be sour grapes based on Rota’s uneven treatment of him, but the result of a particular kind of injury that leads those familiar with it to bypass Cobbingesque revanche for prolonged meditations on the human condition. Apart from ongoing micro-aggressions, the injury in question came after Kociejowski had damaged his back because Rota was too “stingy” to hire professional movers when the shop relocated from Long Acre to Langley Court. When Rota offered to pay for a chiropractor, Kociejowski asked if Rota might instead acquire his Wyndham Lewis collection. Rota agreed to this, but when Kociejowski presented him with the books, Rota lectured him on Lewis’s declining value. Because Kociejowski was in need of money, he settled for a “paltry figure.” That same day, Rota sold the collection to a shop regular, the singer Bryan Ferry. “Ferry came to the shop and I was called upon to guide him through the books. He seemed a gentleman to me, which only slightly took the edge off the discovery that he bought the collection for close to four times what I was paid for it” (p. 81).
In the final pages of Factotum’s opening chapter, Kociejowski writes, “I have reached a point in my life when of my acquaintances the dead have begun to outnumber the living. Ghosts are ghosts only until we join them” (p. 15). Among the dead is a former Bertram Rota client and Vancouver-based bookseller/collector/publisher whose life is taken up 170 pages later, in a chapter all his own, entitled “The Disembowelling of Phantoms,” and it is because of this man that this review appears in a journal devoted to B.C.-related books, a privilege that those who knew him would know him to potentially complicate — if he were still with us. I am speaking of William Hoffer (1944-1997).
The portrait that emerges in this 31-page chapter includes, at various points, Hoffer’s beginnings in the Prairies, his bookshops in Vancouver, his flight from the city for Moscow in the late-1980s (to commune with a communism that, unbeknownst to him, was on the verge of collapse) and, in the last year of life, his return to B.C., in 1997, to receive cancer treatment under the care of his distinguished father, the orthomolecular specialist Dr. Abram Hoffer. Amidst these basic facts are anecdotes too plentiful and intricate to summarize, but suffice it to say, Hoffer had extremely negative views on everything from Canadian Literature and the country’s cultural institutions to those eager to learn the trade (“people who offer to work for nothing are worth just that”) (p. 195) and those innocent enough to attempt a purchase (“‘I can’t sell this to you. You are not worthy of it’”) (p. 197). Some of the funniest anecdotes are supplied by Hoffer’s former assistant, Cheryl Cooper. Like the time a man came into the shop asking for books on astrology:
According to his assistant of the time, Bill strong-armed the man out the place.
‘Out of here,’ he told him, ‘and don’t come back.’
Bill turned to see the shocked expression on his assistant’s face.
‘What’s your problem?’
‘The man you threw out …’ she stuttered.
‘Yes,’ he barked. ‘what of it?’
‘That was Leonard Cohen’ (p. 197).
It is unlikely that Vancouver will ever again see a bookseller like William Hoffer, though after reading Factotum, I recognize shades of Kociejowski in fundamentally humble and generous eastside booksellers like Don Stewart (MacLeod’s Books), Chris Brayshaw (Pulp Fiction), Tim Carson (Carson Books), Rod Clarke and Kim Koch (The Paper Hound) and Patricia Massy (Massy Books), all of whom I would recommend this book to. If not because they too are in the trade and likely have had similar experiences, but because as well-read bookseller/bibliophiles I am curious if they might see what I see in a book that, in its style and tone, feels very much like a voice from the past. Robert Graves was mentioned earlier, and Factotum’s prose at times feels like an extension of his memoir Goodbye to All That (1929). Same too of Bruce Chatwin’s travel classic In Patagonia (1977), which Kociejowski admires. That both books are routinely accused of being fictions of the imagination should in no way preclude A Factotum in the Book Trade: A Memoir from taking its place among them.
Michael Turner is a writer of variegated ancestry (Scottish/ German/ Irish, mat.; English/ Japanese/ Russian, pat.) born, raised and living on unceded Coast Salish territory. He works in narrative and lyric forms, both singularly, as a writer of fiction (American Whiskey Bar, The Pornographer’s Poem, 8×10), poetry (Hard Core Logo, Kingsway, 9×11), criticism and music, and collaboratively, with artists such as Stan Douglas (screenplays), Geoffrey Farmer (public art installations) and Fishbone, Dream Warriors, Kinnie Starr and Andrea Young (songs). His work has been described as intertextual, with an emphasis on “a detailed and purposeful examination of ordinary things” (Wikipedia). He holds a BA (Anthropology) from UVic and an MFA (Interdisciplinary Studies) from UBC Okanagan. Currently he is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Graduate Studies, Ontario College of Art & Design University and a workshop leader at Mobil Art School, Vancouver. Editor’s note: Michael Turner has also reviewed books by Larissa Lai, Emma Cleary et al., Tara Borin, Taryn Hubbard, Jen Sookfong Lee, Isabella Wang, and Sachiko Murakami for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster
4 comments on “1435 Where the magic happens”
William Hoffer moved to Moscow in 1992, not the late 1980s. Hoffer probably did not recognize Leonard Cohen (he would have welcomed a fellow poet and Jew) but if anyone came into the shop and asked for astrology, the occult, or eastern religions, Hoffer would automatically reply that he only dealt in things “that can be weighed and measured.” It is too bad that the reviewer focuses on the Anthony Rota episode when there are so many detailed interesting stories about eccentric book collectors in London, poetically portrayed. The reviewer then takes the opportunity to see shades of Kociejowski in the “humble and generous” Vancouver secondhand bookshops that he favours, which is a little like comparing roasted peanuts to a Persian pomegranate. William Hoffer was in a class far above collectible and used books. He was a recognized and respected antiquarian bookseller, known throughout the US, UK and Australia, who dealt at an international level in all kinds of rarities, not just Canadian literature which he did not despise: he just objected to the old boys networks that granted money to friends of friends, and girlfriends of friends, the result being listless books that no one wanted to buy. He didn’t have “extremely negative views on everything,” either. This is reductio ad absurdum. Few booksellers are also publishers. Hoffer published books, pamphlets, broadsides and issued seventy lists. His premises on Water Street were exclusive. You had to be buzzed in to be admitted, whereupon you would be asked the nature of your business because, he would say, “You don’t browse in a rare bookshop.” Lastly, bookseller Patrick McGahern is not yet “legendary” as the reviewer states, nor does Marius Kociejowski use this word. McGahern is not the subject of legends. He is still alive.