David Mason’s ‘Pope’s Bookbinder’ features lively recollections of a life filled with books

July 3, 2013

Don’t be misled by the title: These aren’t the reflections of a devout Benedictine who has spent decades creating blind-stamped vellum missals for his Holiness. David Mason is, in fact, one of Canada’s most respected antiquar­ian booksellers. His absorbing memoir might be summed up by a button I recently acquired: “Life? Of course I have a life. It’s a life filled with books.”

In my opinion — and I beg readers to consider the source — there is no better way to pass an evening than lounging in a quiet bar, drinking Guinness and talking with other collectors and dealers about books. At Readercon — note the name of this science-fiction convention — I have regularly sat up till 3 in the morning, swapping book stories with my betters and, if given the chance, would happily be sitting there still.

But the second-best way to spend an evening is in desultory reading about books. Catalogues, interviews with writers, magazines like Firsts or old issues of the Armchair Detective and the Baker Street Journal, author bibliographies, glossaries (check out John Carter’s witty classic “ABC for Book Collectors”), addictive reference works such as E.F. Bleiler’s “The Guide to Supernatural Fiction,” the essays of bookmen like Vincent Starrett (but who was ever like him?), the Web sites of specialty presses (Tartarus, Valancourt, Hippocampus, Crippen and Landru), the homepage of the Mysterious Bookshop and L.W. Currey Books — all these provide, to the collector and passionate reader, an enormous amount of rather peculiar pleasure.

And so do booksellers’ memoirs. Early on in this rambling, easygoing account of his career, Mason mentions three outstanding classics of that tiny subgenre: Charles Everitt’s “The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter,” David Randall’s “Dukedom Large Enough” and David Magee’s “Infinite Riches.” “The Pope’s Bookbinder” belongs on the same shelf.

Mason’s path to antiquarian books was distinctly circuitous. While he loved to read as a boy and adolescent, he hated school. So he dropped out at age 15, took one menial job after another until he grew bored with them all, then bummed around Europe in his 20s. In Spain, he managed to learn bookbinding and there assisted a master craftsman who was preparing a volume for the pope. Hence his book’s striking, if presumptuous, title. Tiring of his aimless hippie existence, Mason eventually decided to return to Toronto. He was just shy of 30. As he writes, “I was desperate . . . to find some work that mattered to me and that would test the capacity of my mind and challenge my intelligence.”

Back home, despite his inability to type or drive, he managed to land jobs in a couple of bookshops, learned the rudiments of his new trade, and then boldly borrowed $500 from his father and opened a store of his own. He’s been a bookseller ever since, specializing in modern firsts, classic literature and Canadiana.

Mason loosely organizes “The Pope’s Bookbinder” around the people in his life — revered mentors, traitorous friends, valued employees, favorite customers. These last included a well-to-do lawyer who would stop by every Saturday inquiring for anything related to the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Mason was eventually invited to appraise this gentleman’s highly specialized collection and discovered that he lived alone in an expensive apartment with nothing but a couch, an antique desk, a bed and wall-to-wall bookshelves entirely devoted to the Mad Hatter. Obsessive? Perhaps. Deeply satisfying? Unquestionably.

In memoirs like this, one anecdote always leads to another. After reminiscing about this former customer, Mason relates a story about Eldridge Johnson, who acquired two of the scarce first editions of “Alice in Wonderland.” That edition had been suppressed at Carroll’s insistence because of the shoddy printing of John Tenniel’s illustrations; there are consequently only 22 known copies. Johnson would often travel with these two rarities on his yacht, storing them in a solander case, which he would place, writes Mason, “in a special waterproof safe he had anchored in his stateroom. If ever the ship were to sink a huge buoy attached to the safe with a long thick rope would rise to the surface. On the buoy, in bright red letters, was painted ­‘ALICE,’ so that the world could locate the safe and rescue these priceless treasures. The Alices would be saved even if the humans weren’t. Who said collectors are eccentric?”

Being a collector himself (of Marie Corelli,­ Bulwer-Lytton and early Signet paperbacks), Mason doesn’t seem eccentric to me, but he is certainly opinionated and unafraid of speaking his mind. As a bookman who lives by his wits and judgment, he particularly despises prevaricating bureaucrats and people with institutional power who advance their careers by selling out their nation’s heritage. “In government, stupidity will always trump expertise.”Real librarians, collectors and booksellers are crucial, he rightly observes, to “the salvaging and retention of important artifacts of our civilization.”

While “The Pope’s Bookbinder” shows evidence of having been cobbled together from talks or previously published essays, Mason nonetheless keeps the reader eagerly turning the pages, partly because he can turn a neat phrase:

“Like probably every man who spends too much time thinking, I regret that I didn’t know my father better.”

“The packing of books is not only the first thing an apprentice is taught, it is one of the most important. Real booksellers believe that they have a moral responsibility to ensure that a client receives a book in exactly the state it was in when it was on his shelf.”

“For anyone who might not know the difference between a job and a vocation, a vocation is a job where you don’t earn enough to live on.”

“My advice to beginning collectors is always the same. Buy what you like. Buy the best copy of a book your resources allow, and always remember the rules of condition. A defective book is never a bargain (or at least hardly ever).”

In the past 20 or so years, the Internet has altered the used-book business immeasurably. Even as vast numbers of older titles have become readily available online, walk-in shops have begun to disappear. As a result, novice collectors are finding it increasingly difficult to educate themselves in the time-honored way — by browsing through a dealer’s stock and handling and studying the books on the shelves. Increasingly rare, too, as Mason says, is “the personal guidance offered by a knowledgeable bookseller. Every serious reader and collector I ever knew knows that having a knowledgeable dealer to instruct and guide them, especially in their early years, is essential.”

And so “The Pope’s Bookbinder” ends with a melancholy recognition that the golden age of reading and second-hand bookshops is rapidly vanishing. But at least something of that era is preserved in these lively reminiscences of a life filled with books — many, many books.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

THE POPE’S BOOKBINDER

A Memoir

By David Mason

Biblioasis. 421 pp. $32.95

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