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.