That ‘Aladdin’s cave’ feeling

There are some books that you get so caught up with reading, even lose a bit of your self, that you are reluctant for it to come to an end. So you savour it slowly, relishing every page and occasionally reminiscing, as book lovers are prone to do. The Bookseller’s Tale is one such book and the only reason its reading was completed, was because the deadline for its review was approaching.

Generally, when we write about some aspect of publishing, we tend to look at publishers, editors, authors, even printers, but rarely booksellers. Booksellers, so integral to the trade, are the more commercial or ‘business’ part of publishing. While many of them may have interesting anecdotes to relate, they are so much caught up in the day-to-day business that they have no time to spare.

One exception was Ram Advani (1920-2016) the legendary nawabi bookseller of Hazratganj, Lucknow. Ram, along with Shanbagh of the famous Strand Book Stall in Mumbai, constitutes two very pre-eminent bookmen in India and we deserve a fuller account of their lives. It has always been my great pity that in all the years I knew Ram (he would have turned a hundred years last year), I never got him to reflect a little more full on his life and put down his reminiscences. I did broach the topic to him on more than one occasion but he always waved it away with a deprecative wave — “who would be interested in my life?” I had to content myself with a chapter on him in my book.

Ram would have loved The Bookseller’s Tale. He would have seen a bit of himself, too, in some of the pages. More importantly, he would have stocked some copies in his bookshop and with his usual skills, sold a few in spite of its price.

Martin Latham is not the typical bookseller. Currently the manager of the Waterstones bookshop in Canterbury, he has a PhD in Indian History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His supervisor was Peter Marshall whose works on India Ram used to stock. Everywhere in the book we see evidence of Latham's academic training. The book is a virtual “tour de force” of book history, of legendary booksellers and pedlars, of marginalia and scribblings which have a history of their own, of comfort books, of book collectors and libraries, of bookselling histories even amidst adversity in Paris, Venice and England and, above all, of reading. The book is a testament to the power and to the joy of reading. The book was 10 years in the making and in his introduction Latham begins with an account of a book that has not moved a centimetre in 800 years! It is on the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Fontevraud Abbey, near Poitiers. “Her turbulent life is all behind her, as she lies in deep repose, holding up an open Bible. She rests as we all do in bed when, finished with talking or tea, we become one with a book, lost in a private world. Curled up with a book, we continue to find new selves. The story of humanity’s love affair with books is, one of our strangest tales.”

Self-effacing as he is, Latham’s own career and his involvement with books only comes at the end of book. His career, too, as with most people in publishing begins more as a chance rather than by design.

Stuck in a part-time History lecturer’s job (paid only for contact hours), Latham spots a sign in Slaney and McKay, a new bookshop in Chelsea advertising for staff. Interviewed by Sally Slaney, Latham gets the job and realises he has stumbled on a vocation.

What follows is a fantastic career in bookselling meeting personalities like Dirk Bogarde, Francis Bacon, Spike Mulligan, Umberto Eco and Antonia Fraser, Seamus Heaney, and Ted Hughes, all of whom gave talks at the various bookshops in which he worked. Finally, Latham joins the Waterstones group, a chain store started by Tim Waterstone, and after a spell at Waterstones’ Kensington and Cheltenham branches, sets up the Waterstones Canterbury branch in 1990.

Years later, the shop expands to four floors with a stock of 35,000 books and Latham asks Tim to inaugurate it. Tim goes around the refurbished shop but says that it does not quite have “that old Aladdin’s Cave feeling”. Determined to find a fabled treasure in the bookshop, Latham discovers an old Roman bath under the floor, just behind the History section. He uses the “petty-cash” from the till to dig up the floor and excavate the bath, a significant archaeological find. He is now one with history.

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and has been a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham, Penguin Random House, 2020, Rs 699


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