Happy Christmas from everyone at P.J. Hilton Books and Digit Prosfessionals!
Already my routine is buckling under the pressure of the season, and it has been a pleasure to get back to cataloguing books this morning after a few days of late nights and Christmas shopping. There is a really nice set of the first edition of Bell’s British Theatre balanced on the end of the piano, just waiting to be examined: the plates of the glorious, fantastical, costumes and hairdos crisp and clean and the binding contemporary full calf with the original labels on the spines.
So, for me, a two or three hours absorbing work; but it was a shock last night when I met someone to whom such things are as the dust beneath his feet. Circulating diligently among my fellow guests at an old friend’s house I came to rest by the bookcase. My eye picked out a few books that I could see into without even opening them, because I had sold them to him: inside the tatty copy of Rasselas lurked a few words in the great man’s hand; the commonplace Ronald Searle opens to reveal a glorious sketch by the artist. My friend’s taste is not quite my own, running largely to morocco and gilt, but I must admit, in the flickering light from the fire, my puritanical disdain for such showiness began to dissolve and I reach out to touch one of these jewels of Victorian artistry.
Feeling the smooth leather against my hand I opened the book and examined the inside of the binding, the blue leather carried round slightly inside the binding, outlined at the edge with a tiny crisp floral border in gilt, the marbled paper of the endpapers carefully matched so that it picked up the deep blue of the leather and mixed it with other colours boldly and…
“Books, huh?” As he spoke my interlocutor waved his wineglass at the volume, and I hastily withdrew it out of range. He was round and jolly and I took to him at once. I explained my paternal relationship with some of the books in the case, and my envy for some of the others.
“You make a living selling old books?” There was a quizzical fold across his laughing face as if he suspected a Christmas joke and expected me to confess, after a moment, that I was really an accountant or banker.
“How much did you charge him for that one?” he asked, pointing to the Rasselas.
I gave some idea of the value of the book and of the interest of Dr. Johnson’s autograph hand.
“How much!” He looked at me narrowly, and was perceptive enough to realise I was not joking.
“You did that to a friend - charged him all that money for an old book?”
“Yes,” I admitted, “ and, what’s more I’d buy it back for as much again, if I could persuade him to sell.”
After that we got on so well that he gave me a lift home in his Mercedes. As we purred through the traffic, he told me he was something to do with the repackaging of insurance risk (I never managed to understand exactly what he did). It is true I would have to sell an awful lot copies of Rasselas to buy a car like that, but I don’t think I would swap his lot for mine.
By the way I have some guests for Christmas. Another friend has decided to get away from the whole Christmas experience to somewhere warm and remote, so I am entertaining four budgerigars and three cockatiels for the duration. If you come round bring your own earplugs!