A Factotum in the Book TradePosted: July 15, 2022
A Factotum in the Book Trade
Biblioasis (April 26, 2022), 438 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $16.94
This book has a rather odd provenance. Despite the author’s Polish last name, he was born in Canada. His father was Polish and his mother English. He spent most of his working career in England, where most of the narrative takes place. The publisher, Biblioasis, is based in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and the copyright page states that the book is “published with the generous assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts,” despite its content focusing mostly on London and its environs. What caught my attention about the book, however, is that the author writes about his life in the book trade.
You may know that I spent the early part of my post-college career in the book business working for B. Dalton Bookseller, back when chain bookstores were in shopping malls and before they were free-standing affairs with a Starbucks inside.
Kociejowski spent his career, however, in the antiquarian book trade, something I know only as a customer. I have never been in a position of walking into an antiquarian bookstore to ask the person on duty to find a particular book for me, but I have done so by mail. Back in the early 1980s I sent letters to antiquarian bookstores to find me out of print copies of R.H. Blyth’s four-volume set dedicated to the haiku, all of which I eventually obtained. It was sort of a fun treasure-hunting adventure.
The author describes casting about for a career when he was young. He says that he attempted work as a “freelance gardener.” He was not good at it and writes, “There are, so I was made to understand, subtle differences between plants and weeds, which strikes me as a form of botanical prejudice. Gardening was not meant for me.”
So Kociejowski went into the book business. Unlike my experience in tracking down the haiku set using the United States Postal Service, the author dealt with people who walked into his shop. He not only located books for people, but he was authorized to purchase antiquarian books. It bothered him to see people disappointed when a book was not worth nearly what they thought it was.
One interesting aspect of Kociejowski’s job was collecting and cataloging the papers of famous authors late in their career before the bookshop shipped them to their ultimate home at a college or university. I didn’t realize that was part of the antiquarian book business in England, but it was one of Kociejowski’s areas of expertise.
The author says someone with whom he worked told him he was a “factotum.” The Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary says that a factotum is “a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities: a general servant.” That hardly describes Kociejowski’s career, as his range of responsibilities was fairly narrow. In addition to being skilled in the cataloging of author papers, he was knowledgeable in the realm of modern first editions. Modern referring to roughly the era of Joseph Conrad.
Kociejowski at one point makes a digression into a set of papers from his own family, describing a British ancestor who was terribly abused by a man of privilege. That might be material for another book, but I found it distracting here. Aside from that, however, I found A Factotum in the Book Trade pleasant and diverting reading.