Literary Lifeguard

A life spent saving books from oblivion reaps deep rewards

As many university students majoring in English literature do, I worked in bookstores for a number of years, first at the chains and later in an exceptional and still-thriving independent shop in Burlington, Ontario. Despite the fact that David Mason, one of Canada’s foremost antiquarian booksellers and now author of The Pope’s Bookbinder: A Memoir, has declared that “antiquarian booksellers do not really consider new booksellers to be booksellers at all,” but rather “only retailers selling whatever the publishers provide,” my experiences in the new book business put me in contact with many an eccentric bookseller, collector and reader of the kind Mason describes vividly and in abundance in his thoroughly enjoyable memoir. “Bookmen,” as Mason calls them, are a distinct breed with a noble imperative: “I have come to believe that, more important than my or my colleague’s petty concerns or our personal ambitions, the true significance of our work is social, and our main contribution is the salvaging and retention of important artifacts of our civilization.”

Dedicated to this notion of the bookseller as preserver of cultural memory, Mason is dismayed by the apparently small number of memoirs written by booksellers—a paucity he laments in a review of Anthony Rota’s 2002 memoir, Books in the Blood: Memoirs of a Fourth Generation Bookseller:

I have always found great irony in this melancholy fact: that in a trade whose raison d’être is focused on the rescue and preservation of the past, significant members have not seen fit to record the anecdotal history of their own personal past.

It is with this lofty vision of the crusading bookseller that Mason has, in effect, taken up his own challenge to provide the world with just such an anecdotal history of his apprenticeship and early years in the book trade, his successes and failures as his business expanded, and the many relationships he has formed over 40 years, both positive and not, with fellow booksellers, scouts, customers, librarians, employees, scholars and institutions. The result is an illuminating account of one man’s admirable efforts to create something in his life that is meaningful, beautiful and lasting, and to explain his decisions and actions to those—most poignantly his deceased father—who have doubted him. Indeed, at heart this book reads as a son’s attempt to justify to his disapproving father, a banker, his choice of an admittedly not-very-profitable vocation: “My father was a good man; he meant well; he just didn’t understand.”

The memoir’s title, intriguing though it is, relates only to a small aspect of the book and to a brief period in Mason’s early life when he trained and worked as a bookbinder in Spain, eventually assisting in the fulfillment of a commission from the Vatican. While an amusing anecdote, the story of the work he did for the Pope highlights a more important point: bookbinding provided an entry point for Mason to the book trade, first as a seller of books new and then used and rare. At the age of almost 30 with no formal education or serious work experience, and having spent most of his twenties hitchhiking around parts of Europe, dirt poor and aimless, Mason had finally found an occupation that captured his interest and challenged his intelligence. That he was not making a lot of money was irrelevant given what he viewed as his tremendous fortune at discovering bookselling as a genuine vocation, and not just a job.

Among several philosophical digressions in The Pope’s Bookbinder (including his debatable assertion that one cannot be successful in any book-related enterprise if one is not a committed collector of books), perhaps one of the most sincere is Mason’s determination to resist conformity, to not be distracted from his true calling by the “inducements and temptations which seem to offer high rewards.” Having witnessed acquaintances in the book world succumb to the rewards of more money, authority, security or prestige, Mason declares, “a man with a true vocation must guard the integrity of that vocation with the same zeal that he affords to his family or his country. There can be no compromises of one’s truth, just as one can’t be a sometime patriot.”

Not one to mince words, Mason clearly has little patience for anyone who does not live up to his high bookman standards, as evidenced by his description of the fallout he had with Steven Temple, a longtime friend and fellow Toronto bookseller. According to Mason, Temple violated “one of the strongest unwritten rules of the book trade” when he attempted to profit on an exclusive agreement between Mason and the National Library of Canada to supply the library with Canadian editions of books by foreign authors—Mason’s specialty.

Temple’s betrayal was compounded by the response of the library officials claiming that there had never been an exclusive agreement; Mason takes the opportunity in this example to illustrate his extreme distaste for government bureaucrats who do not understand or care about books, and excoriates the dubious actions of the National Library:

They lost my respect and they also lost the moral loyalty I have adopted towards all my clients. Now collectors and other libraries get first shot at the important rarities I scout out—the National Library comes last. Not that it matters much now, for what is now merged into one huge bureaucratic morass called Library and Archives Canada buys nothing. They are collectively denying the moral imperative all sovereign nations have to preserve the written and oral record of their history. They are dissembling in the manner of all shadowy bureaucrats everywhere, and they are apparently engaged in sinister plots to ignore their mandate.

Mason’s mandate, he makes clear, is to ensure the preservation of the past for the future by educating younger booksellers, just as his own beloved mentor Jerry Sherlock of Joseph Patrick Books did. In some of the more instructive chapters of the memoir, Mason offers advice to those in the trade on such matters as the art of scouting for books, appraising collections and successfully bidding at auctions. “Buy what you like,” he offers, and “follow your own instincts.” In one amusingly self-congratulatory yet edifying instance, he describes how he outsmarted and outbid a distant cousin of L.M. Montgomery at an auction for a rare edition of her book of poems, The Watchman.

The Pope’s Bookbinder is a rich testament to Mason’s deep love of books and abiding respect for those who share his life’s passion. Immensely appealing to anyone who has warm childhood memories of favourite books and librarians, has worked for minimum wage in bookstores spending most of each paycheque on books and finds no greater pleasure on a Saturday morning than browsing the shelves of a regular haunt and selecting a new volume, this memoir will not disappoint. Mason’s sometimes supercilious tone and moments of false modesty can be forgiven in one so devoted to his mission: to worship and spread the good word of the book. “I realize I have worshipped a worthy God all these years, and I am exalted,” he writes. Books, “the most perfect invention man has ever created,” saved Mason, as they have many of us, from lives of aimless wandering and destructive behaviour. Mason, in turn, deserves our respect and appreciation for saving the books.