CRAIG BROWN: Strange genius of the rare book dealer who made me an offer that I had to refuse
Guarded By Dragons: Encounters With Rare Books And Rare People
Rick gekoski Agent £ 18.99
A few years ago I was having lunch with an old friend in the garden of a pub in the middle of the Wiltshire countryside. Out of nowhere, a stranger approached our table, introduced himself to me in a friendly manner and said, “If you ever want to sell your Conrad, I will be happy to give you a offer.
That man was Rick Gekoski, author of this exciting new book about his life in the rare book trade. As it turns out, the great novelist Joseph Conrad once worked on a ship commissioned by my wife’s great-grandfather, and she has a copy of one of his books, An Outcast Of The Islands, inscribed with the captain. Paton of the author, who must always remember with pleasure the time when he served under his orders as second of the Addowa ‘.
It’s a wonderful book to have, but how the hell did Gekoski know that, and how did he know who I was, and what brought him to this pub in the Wiltshire?
Rick Gekoski is famous among rare booksellers for his daring. In a profession that values discretion, he has never been backward when charging forward
We are still in possession of our precious Conrad, but since our brief meeting I have held Gekoski in awe.
He is famous – some would say notorious – among rare booksellers for his daring. In a profession that values discretion, he has never been backward when charging forward.
His self-confidence is reflected in this impetuous jumble of a memory. “I charge ten percent to represent a client at auction, and I’m worth it,” he boasts on one page. He also does not hesitate to discover the world of the antique book dealer.
When he entered the profession in the mid-1960s, it was, he says, “stifled, narrow-minded and unsophisticated.” He himself is clearly neither stuffy nor narrow-minded, but there is a strong touch of stubborn realism about him that could be mistaken for a lack of sophistication.
There are two things you need to know if you want to become a bookseller, he explains: “at what price can a book be bought and at what higher price can it be sold”. Plus, “the term ‘priceless’ is for the lazy and the headlines.”
It’s a wonderful book to have, but how the hell did Gekoski (above) know that, and how did he know who I was, and what brought him to this Wiltshire pub?
He arrived in the dealing book through the unusual path of academia. For years he taught English literature at the University of Warwick. He had signed a contract to write a critical appraisal of DH Lawrence, but his heart was not there.
“I was making little progress. It annoyed me. He set out to collect the first editions of Lawrence and, soon after, he realized that was what turned him on. While his academic writings were “frosty slow and unenthusiastic”, his growing interest in buying and selling books was “focused, passionate and highly organized.”
After buying 12 books from Lawrence for £ 41, he sold them for £ 333. He was on his way. “I probably knew more about DHL pricing than anyone else. It was manic, obsessive and out of character.
Authors and editors tend to be sheepish about money, but Gekoski is as outspoken as a supermarket cashier. By being open about prices, he shows that there is never a fixed value for a rare book: it all depends on who is buying and who is selling.
At a New York antique book fair in the late 1980s, a copy of The Waste Land by TS Eliot, signed by the author to fellow poet Paul Valéry, was on sale for $ 12,500. During the short time that dealers were setting up their stands, it sold out four times between dealers.
Gekoski then bought it for $ 24,000 and sold it that night over the phone for £ 30,000. The next morning, the merchant who had sold it to him the day before asked to buy it back, explaining that it was “better than I had first realized”.
In 2002, the book sold at auction for $ 101,575.
Gekoski is very interesting on the neglected subject of perpetrators and greed. During his career, he was often approached by authors eager to make a quick buck by selling manuscripts and presentation copies.
He says William Golding, in particular, always complained of running out of money. Golding once told Gekoski that he would like to buy a new car, but couldn’t afford it.
“It was the first of a number of his comments about the lack of money. Once I saw his house and expansive gardens, and thought about the lifetime royalties on Lord Of The Flies, I rather doubted it was. After dinner and a lot of alcohol, I encouraged him to buy a new Jag. “It’s very good of you to say,” he replied, “you are a rich man! ”
Golding then offered to sell him the original Lord Of The Flies manuscript for £ 1million, at least four times its market value. Greedier was still James Watson, the scientist and co-discoverer of DNA, who demanded a gigantic $ 20 million for the manuscript of his unreliable autobiography The Double Helix, even though it was “not a second, not even near, not even near near ‘to its true value.
Gekoski describes Watson as a selfish, racist, sexist (“genetically, women have no sense of humor”) and a liar, who boasted of having invented a scene in which his partner Crick exclaimed. that they had just discovered the secret of life.
“I had to invent certain things to increase their dramatic impact… Of course, he didn’t say anything like that!
His final assessment of Watson’s character is typically blunt. “At that time, it was no wonder to me that prominent biologist EO Wilson once called Watson ‘the most disagreeable human being I have ever met’. Yet – I feel rather sad admitting it – I was rather enjoying our lunch. There is something quite fascinating about meeting someone who is not so much on the spectrum as it is on this one.
Another Gekoski pet peeve was the anti-Semitic glumbucket John Fowles, best-selling author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, who scribbled petty notes in the margins of books.
Gekoski remarked that he wrote “almost unbelievably bad” in Helen Fielding’s first novel.
Gekoski remembers Fowles with strong disgust. “He lived up to his reputation and his elegant house, a tall, even introvert, whose every word and gesture seemed meant to show that he was smarter than you.”
After Fowles’ death, his Diaries were published and Gekoski searched the index. “A certain amount of ‘big’ talk,” was Fowles’ verdict. ‘Difficult to have contact with this world without a feeling of nausea.’
It was Fowles in his most devoid of humor and predilection.
The great strength of Gekoski’s vision is that it combines a taste for commerce with an immense joie de vivre. He loves literature, with all its highways and roundabouts.
At one point he got excited to read Sylvia Plath’s scribbles in the margins of his copy of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (which he sold for £ 575 in 1985). “That’s what happens when you read someone’s marginalia, look over their shoulder, read the book with them. It makes you feel more privileged than you are allowed to feel, as if you are actually in the process of reading.
In 2004, Gekoski wrote another book on the world of rare book sales, Tolkien’s Gown. Some of the stories he tells in this new book sound like barrel scrapings from that first book, and he also includes a certain amount of slightly moody settling of scores, particularly in his account of when the big business of Faber tried to stop him from selling pieces that they claimed were theirs by right.
But for the most part, Guarded By Dragons is fresh and fun, and full of great stories.
He has now retired from the world of books to focus on writing. The internet has taken the romance away from rare books: the thrill of the hunt is gone. On the other hand, I expect him to appear in another pub on another day to find out about my wife’s Conrad.
“I will always buy an interesting book, at the right price,” he concludes. ” Why not ? That’s what I do.