Thursday, December 1, 1994

The Bookshops of London

Written for Forbes-FYI in 1994

Only one city pats the reading man on the back and tells him he’s not crazy; only one holds the word sovereign over the image, esteems the well-said over the well-dressed, welcomes the foreign tongue as much as the local, the exotic foreign bloom alongside the hardy houseplant; can boast it was the home metropolis of infinite Shakespeare, of blind inglorious Milton, of our man Dickens, of Conrad, James, Eliot; only one, despite an inconvenient loss of Empire, remains the capital of our Mother Tongue, and if you can’t guess which one by now, better turn to the fashion feature and pray for rain, boyo, because babes still think men who read are sexy.

A busy man in London with an hour to spare and a few knicker (Brit. slang = ready money) in his pocket can, with the help of the strategem which follows, make a fair sally at some of the world’s best bookshops. And should gout, age, inertia, or an expedition to remote bargain-basement corners of the globe stay you from reaching Piccadilly Circus or Berkeley Square, you may also frequent most of these shops (which nearly all issue catalogues) by mail or fax.

MARCHPANE (16 Cecil Court, tel. 71-836-8661, fax 497-0567) You don’t have to have children to love this shop, but it helps if you were a kid once. Dealing exclusively in children’s and illustrated books, often in 19th and 20th century first editions, their window alone is nostalgia enough to warm an old soldier’s heart: thunder-and-lightning plasma lamp, Daleks from Doctor Who, Dan Dare’s Rocket Gun ("the safety model"—if they’d only guessed what was coming); also the Nuclear Merit Space Pilot Missile Gun complete with Two Safety Missiles featuring Secret Message Chambers, Solar Compass, Interplanetary Selector, & Velocity Control. Did I say this was a bookstore? The first edition of Alice In Wonderland, from 1866, will set you back about $4,000, but illustrated versions of the store’s favorite book can be had for a few dollars, as can original Arthur Rackham fairy-tale or E. H. Shepard Winnie-the-Pooh prints from the ’20s. Try tracing the history of boys aloft, from various editions of Peter Pan through The Great Airship (1914) to Baffling the Air Bandits (’30s) to The Boy’s Book of Jets (’50s).

BELL, BOOK & RADMALL (4 Cecil Court, 71-240-2161, fax 379-1062) is for many the modern literature first-edition bookshop of choice; fairly priced, low-key, unstuffy, yet with only top-quality copies. (A first edition is the first appearance of a book, before it gets reprinted.) Want an original of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), a distinguished blue volume with gold lettering above a London street scene? Or Brave New World (1932), with its art-deco dust jacket of oscillating halos of blue and white clouds around the globe as a blue-white airplane hovers above divided continents? Or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) with James Bond’s hand penciling in his coat-of arms? Happily, most of the shop’s 7,500 titles are in the $25-40 range, unlike the Niagara Falls of 20th c. literature, Joyce’s Ulysses, which might set you back about $8,000. (If they don’t have what you seek, try nearby Nigel Williams Books, downstairs at 22 Cecil Court, or Bertram Rota, 31 Long Acre, a few blocks away just by Covent Garden, tel. 71-836-0723, fax 497-9058).

MAGGS BROS. LTD. (50 Berkeley Sq., tel. 71-493-7160, fax 499-2007) An entire elegant house, three floors and a basement full of books, on one of London’s finest squares. A family business for nearly a century and a half, it will remind you that not all the good stuff is in museums yet. You might find on the ground floor, say, a print of Noël Coward by Max Beerbohm for $400; on the next floor, for $2,500, a full leaf from a 16th century Book of Hours, showing St. Apollonia, patron of dentists—or a similar volume complete for $33,000; or in the generous next room, a first edition of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1837, issued serialized, in "parts"), for around $5,800, or of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884, first published in U.K., for copyright reasons), at $1,400. Got one of each already? Upstairs, try a complete set of Cook’s Voyages, or even better, the actual journal of the commander of HMS Beagle, from Darwin’s expedition—yes, the captain who suicided partway (1828) through the voyage; a museum should snap it up for $12,000. Still unconvinced? Try a 1533 document signed by Henry VIII for the same price, or a 1797 letter written left-handed by Lord Nelson soon after he lost his right arm. ($4,000). Good handwriting, too; intelligence always tells.

Among the many qualities H.R.H. Prince Charles and I have in common—and which mutual friends often remark upon—is a preference for HATCHARD’S (187 Piccadilly, tel. 71-439-9921, fax 494-1313 or 287-2638) as our bookshop for "new" (meaning not pre-read) books. Yes, we prefer to do the reading ourselves, the Prince and I. We rarely choose to meet at Hatchard’s, though it remains—by sheer loveliness, ease, and weight of tradition—the choice general shop, bookseller to the Queen as well, outranking Waterstone’s, W.H. Smith, Books Etc., and that antique den of disorganization, Foyle’s. It will soon be two hundred years old; Wilberforce signed the Abolition of Slavery Bill in the store. Five superb floors and a staff who know what they’re doing: if Barnes & Noble were thus, I could believe in a Heaven for writers.

HEYWOOD HILL (10 Curzon Street, tel. 71-629-0647) Founded in 1936, the refined man’s ultimate neighborhood bookshop if you happen to live in Mayfair. Though not comparable to Hatchard’s in terms of quantity, a small pleasant place to while away a literary hour, crammed full of old and new surprises. Nancy Mitford worked here during the war; numerous celebrated loyalists since its inception make it a classic, and a model for what such a bookshop should be.

SOTHERAN’S (2 Sackville Street, tel. 71-439-6151, fax 434-2019), just off Piccadilly, established in London since 1815, has hands-down the most beautiful bookstore interior in the city. To call it a general antiquarian shop doesn’t do justice to the range, prestige, and imagination of its selection. You are as likely to find, say, a copy of Kipling owned by Wodehouse as a letter from Christopher Wren; a signed Samuel Beckett as a Piranesi print; a first edition of Sir Richard Burton’s Middle East travels as Hunter Thompson’s Las Vegas ones. Small wonder that this national treasure purchased Laurence Sterne’s and Charles Dickens’ personal libraries. Entire departments devoted to literature, architecture, natural history, naval & military history, travel, art, children’s, prints, theater, autograph letters, and all attendant bric-a-brac. Only a pleasure.

ULYSSES (40 Museum St., Bloomsbury, tel. & fax 71-831-1600) With its British Museum location, and a truly unmatched selection, this large 20th century first-edition shop is able to charge highly inflated prices—sometimes twice what you’d pay at the other fine first-edition shops in the city. There are, of course, book-buyers who feel reassured by buying from an exceedingly posh and somewhat standoffish shop. If price is really no object, call here first; otherwise try here last. The only deals, if you can call them that, are downstairs in the capacious basement.

DAVENPORT’S MAGIC SHOP (tel. 71-836-0408), hidden improbably in the subterranean shopping concourse of Charing Cross Railway Station, is more than a bookshop: the oldest family magic shop (since 1898) in the world. Among the multiplying rabbits and papier-maché lemons are volumes on Divination, Tarotmania, and Conjuring, masterpieces of mentalism, Houdini Research Diaries, and an astonishing array of juggling, classical gambling, ventriloquism, paper- and card-magic books. It’s also where the London Society of Magicians meets for regular lecture-demonstrations. "A wonderful illusion—a finger being cut in half. Have you seen it?" "Not for a week, old chap."

The finest travel bookshops are a bolo toss away from each other. R. & P. REMINGTON (18 Cecil Court, tel. 71-836-9771) don’t deal with new books, but rather with the alternative. Such as? Among the Matabele and Six Years in the Malay Jungle. Visits to Monasteries in the Levant. The Riddle of Hell’s Jungle is not about the same place as The Jungle in Sunlight and Shadow and neither involve Camp Fires in the Canadian Rockies. But on a bad day I feel I’ve spent Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyak of Borneo. But never, thank God, as if on The Worst Journey In the World—a great book, by the way. THE TRAVELLER’S BOOKSHOP (25 Cecil Court, tel. 71-836-9132) has its antiquarian shelves, and a probably unmatched wall of old red Baedekers, and best of all, a basement of new travel chronicles, guidebooks, and maps that also functions as an ombudsman for the adventurous. A place to get your odder travel questions answered.

Also along Cecil Court are a number of other specialist shops that can be highly recommended. For dance, DANCE BOOKS (at #15, tel. 71-836-2314). For music, TRAVIS & EMERY (at #17, tel.71-240-2129). For theatrical prints, programs, posters, paraphernalia, try STAGE DOOR PRINTS (at #1, tel. 71-240-1683) or THE WITCH BALL (at #2, tel. 71-836-2922) or PLEASURES OF PAST TIMES (at #11, tel. 71-836-1142).

The used bookstores of the CHARING CROSS ROAD, starting at around the Leicester Square tube stop, make up a kind of Murder Mile for the secondhand-book addict. Their organization is only haphazard—for readers, not collectors. Though these few blocks aren’t as nourished with emporiums as five years ago, you can pass hours gazing at the pack-and-jam shelves: sometimes it is better to rummage hopefully than to arrive. QUINTO (at #48a) is less energetic than it was; HENRY PORDES (at #58), emphasizing the arts and literature, mostly used and choice remainders, has been good to me; THE CHARING CROSS ROAD BOOKSHOP (at #56) is the fishing boat with the largest net.

This stretch of road also includes SPORTSPAGES (at #94, tel. 71-240-9604, fax 836-0104), undoubtedly the finest sports bookstore in the UK, emphasis on what we call soccer and on what they call cricket. Of London’s many good art booksellers, SHIPLEY (at 70, tel. 71-836-4872, fax 379-4358) has broader interests and more depth than most.

Anyone after gardening books should, just near the Royal Gardens of Kew, seek out LLOYDS OF KEW (9 Mortlake Terrace, tel. 81-940-2512), a gorgeous, truly comprehensive shop. Call first; unusual hours.

MOTOR BOOKS (33 St. Martin’s Court, tel. 71-836-3800, fax 497-2539) has the best selection in Europe of new books and videos on motoring, railways, canals, aviation, army, and maritime. Really two linked stores, one devoted to Military, one to Transportation, there are shelves devoted to, say, Small Arms, the Great War, the Colonial Wars, the North American Wars, Afghanistan; illustrated books on insignia, medals, armor, and artillery. The other shop’s obsession is all cars, bicycles, motorcycles, with a whole room for railway spotters that includes, say, locomotive chassis model kits and books with titles like Steam Locomotives of the Baltimore & Ohio—An All-Time Roster. Also videos (Steaming East) so you don’t have to go anywhere; you can chug systematically around the world while lying abed and still drive everyone barmy with train timetables.


Monday, October 10, 1994

In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles

I wrote this for the Boston Book Review in Fall 1994. Bowles died in 1999; I'd visited him in Tangier in 1986 and 1987. Both times he was lordly and welcoming and made fun of his own reputation. 

Edited by Jeffrey Miller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
604 pages

This country can be very hard on its originals, and on none does the distrust fall more heavily than the expatriate. Those who flirt with voluntary exile but always come home, like Hemingway, are forgiven;  those like Henry James or Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, who choose to stay abroad, remain deeply suspect as Americans even as they are glimpsed overseas growing immeasurably as artists.

At 83, permanently settled in Morocco, Paul Bowles is one of the great originals that our country has produced this century, in part because his deepest influences are so resolutely un-American. The usual simplification of his life runs thus: from being one of the most important American composers of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, he became one of the most important authors of the 60s and 70s. (If today his audience is largely literary, the backward-looking eye of the compact disc may gradually balance the situation.) Still, to many American readers Paul Bowles remains peripheral and semi-known, a “cult author," or worse still, an expatriate—that exotic foreign bloom. Who is he really, our white-haired man in Tangier with a traveller’s ease and a transparent, gentlemanly gaze?

Now this huge, incomparable volume of six decades of letters finally allows us a chance to set his work, both writing and music, in perspective against his life as one unbroken flow. Until now, apart from a good book about the expat life in Tangier, we've had only an uneven biography in English, a superb biography in French, and Bowles’ own autobiography, Without Stopping, which William Burroughs called “Without Telling.” But the present huge (600 pp.) book gives us much that the autobiography and the novels cannot: the larger personality of the private Bowles. For those not lucky enough to enjoy a few hours’ conversation with the man himself, they offer a reader the rich incessant sunlight of his company.

Bowles (born in New York December 30, 1910) is that American rarity: an artist who has chosen to live abroad and been able to soak up several distant cultures and turn them to deep creative use, not merely as "local color” but as an original homeland of the imagination. The extra-American influences are as prominent in his music, with its French and Central American intonations, as in his writing. Another similarity is his genius for the small forms.

Bowles’ most famous books—The Sheltering Sky, The Spider’s House, Let It Come Down, and The Delicate Prey—are set mostly in North Africa. The result has been a myth of “Paul Bowles, decadent in Tangier” that has much to do with popular notions of Morocco and a general tendency to confuse the writer and the work.

And indeed, the first impression in following his letters is of someone who had to stay abroad, ever on the move: from earliest travels to Paris as escapee from the U. of Virginia, to sojourns in 30s Morocco (where, sharing a house, he studied harmony with Aaron Copland), to Mexico, where many pieces were written; back to New York with his ex-wife, the writer Jane Bowles, composing for Orson Welles’ theater company and The Glass Menagerie; to an almost permanent move to Tangier, with forays to the small island he once owned on a shoestring in Ceylon. Over the decades he became one of the great North African travellers, with odysseys devoted to collecting an unequalled set of recordings of Moroccan music for the Library of Congress. He has also been a tireless translator, from Sartre's No Exit in 1944 to, currently, the works of Moroccan author Mohammed Mrabet and Rodrigo Rey Rosa, a Guatemalan.

One dominant theme in his writing is the intense sensations, and consequences, of experiencing people and cultures different from one’s own. Thus it is deeply pleasurable, in letter after letter, to encounter the delight such experiences have given Bowles since an early age. By twenty this refined, subtle sensibility seems nearly formed. Here he is meeting Jean Cocteau in Paris in 1931: “He rushed about the room with great speed for two hours and never sat down once… He still smokes opium every day and claims it does him a great deal of good. I daresay it does… the fact that it is considered harmful for most mortals would convince me of its efficaciousness for him." He meets Falla, Pound, and Gide; Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein become invaluable mentors. He meets Desnos, Revueltas, Dali; he meets everyone. “I can't believe you find a similarity between my letters and a seed catalog. Still, why not? Or a telephone directory." In Tangier, in later years, they all (Kerouac, Ginsberg, etc.) come looking for him.

He keeps travelling. In Touggourt, Algeria, he finds “mad people, leprous things like spiders which crawl about eating the grasshoppers others toss them." In Guatemala, "the water was full of brown mud that took a half hour to settle." Back in Tangier after the war, he notes, “I've never yet felt a part of any place I've been, and I never expect to.” His writer’s eye and composers ear are ever alert: in Ceylon the occasional small breeze is "as hot as the breath of a man with fever. And the birds in the shadeless trees around the bungalow don't sing: they cough, choke, gurgle, grunt, hammer, sputter, croak and yell, a welter of ridiculous noises that have no right to come out of the throats of birds. There's one at the moment which sounds exactly like the telegraph in a country station buzzing out its Morse code." In Bangkok the populace "paddles by in sampans to see what the farangs are up to and their neon-flooded hotels where electric organs whine and bump.”

Not surprisingly, Tangier is the return address for many of the letters, and a reader can follow its hold on Bowles across sixty years. “The wind howls and the countryside is the color of a lion." 1948 Tangier, with its international zone, "belongs to nobody" and the entire city “is one large black market." All Morocco's cities are "very beautiful indeed: one feels removed in time rather than in space. Europe before the Middle Ages must have been very much like most of Morocco… you're sometimes invited to lunch in a house built in the 10th or 11th century by the forebears of your host… very little has changed since then… an inexhaustible country."

Expatriates can never take their friends for granted: visits are too infrequent. Bowles, to judge by this book, was a devoted, generous correspondent. (He still has no telephone.) "Although I didn't see Tennessee very often," he notes after the playwright’s death, "I thought of him as one of my closest friends, and of course I still do think of him in that way. Whether people die or remain alive, it's the same: if we were friends, we are friends. Someone always has to die first, and most of my friends have died before me."

Most touching of all, through the letters like a haunting strain that grows more and more prominent, there is the gradual decline of his wife. A marriage like theirs inevitably generates a great deal of gossip, but any dip into this book makes it clear how much Bowles loved and still misses her. (Jane Bowles died in 1973.) He is customarily (and unfairly, I suspect) unforgiving in judging his behavior—seeing himself "a kind of idiot looking on approvingly, even collaborating, while Jane forged ahead with her self-destruction.”

And Bowles keeps working, year after year. To an editor he writes, "I doubt that I have ever been in a ‘relaxed,’ not to say ‘cerebral’ state for more than two minutes, without feeling the ever-present doubt, disbelief and vague angst that has kept me going. Only in action is there a possibility of belief, but what action can a writer engage in save writing—that is, what meaningful action?"

Possibly because of the atmosphere in some of his work, Bowles has a reputation (to this writer, inaccurate) of being cold, aloof. Yet this collection, taken as a whole, is one of the most intimate looks we've had at any great American artist. Those in search of bedroom gossip will not find much here; those seeking what Bowles thought throughout a long, productive, and wholly original life will find it vivid on every page. Here he is in Xauen, Morocco in 1951:

"The streets and walls look as if someone had poured tons of white cake-icing over them—resplendently white, and sometimes light blue, but by moonlight it all looks brilliantly, blindingly white… The main street is merely a long tunnel of green, being completely covered by ancient grapevines whose thick trunks twist up the walls of the little white buildings like great snakes before they become the vault of foliage and fruit that hides the sky. In the ruined Casbah there are palms, oranges and roses, storks and peacocks, and, of course, the inevitable fountains. And the town is drenched in the musky smell of fig trees in summer, and slightly spiced with jasmin. By day the cicadas scream, and at night it is three toads and insects that sound like dry leaves… Two weeks ago I heard the most incredible Berber music I had yet heard—a full evening of it, accompanied by dances of self-immolation and a good deal of blood-letting… One must stay on and on.”

Sunday, May 15, 1994

Baedeker Revisited

I wrote this for Forbes-FYI around 1994. 

Born to serve a steam-and-railway age of travel, the 1100-odd Baedeker Guides issued in English, French, and German between 1832 and 1934 remain the most thorough, detailed, and useful series of travel handbooks ever written. Bound in red cloth, these out-of-print volumes the size of your hand—a museum ticket or pressed flower of a previous owner wedged, perhaps, into a foldout map—still turn up by the dozens in secondhand bookshops. Let other men waste their time on this year’s guidebooks with their up-to-the-minute information; I consult a century-old Baedeker.

That redoubtable publishing firm was founded by Karl Baedeker (1801-59) near Cologne as a kind of Germanic answer to the John Murray guides published in England at the time. More encyclopedic and less stylized and imperial, they were carried on by Baedeker’s sons, who moved the firm to Leipzig, where it flourished until its premises got destroyed during an air raid in WWII. The firm revived after the war, but its modern guides cannot equal their predecessors.

By the time of the first World War the founding Baedeker’s grandsons had expanded their list to 78 titles in three languages. These ranged from, say, Transylvania, the Azores, Constantinople, and India to Canada, Corsica, Russia, and the Black Forest. Sometimes the guides followed great rivers (The Rhine from Rotterdam to Constance, 1873) or mountain ranges (Tyrol and the Dolomites including the Bavarian Alps, 1927). Sometimes they sensibly and neatly divided countries into several volumes, like Italy, or lumped them together into one, like the United States, Mexico, Cuba, PortoRico, and Alaska. The French Riviera received its own volume.

The language was by turns declamatory (“Over all the movements of the pedestrian the weather holds sway”), philosophical (“The traveller’s ambition often exceeds his powers of endurance”), out-of-date (“The traveller is cautioned against sleeping in chalets”) or helpful (“Care must be taken... for should the overhanging masses of snow give way, the traveller would be precipitated to a depth of 3000-4000’.”) Those remarks are from an 1899 Guide to Switzerland.

On every page of every volume the author took it for granted his reader was an educated person who could follow every turn of phrase and allusion while sharing his assumptions and judgments. In three northern tongues, Baedeker cast a cold eye southward on all that seemed immoral, from the “disgracefully insolent” clowns in Egypt to the innkeepers in Naples: “The traveller is often tempted to doubt whether such a thing as honesty is known here.”

An old Baedeker can serve as a good barometer for how much the world has changed. A 1900 guide to Paris, with the Metro in its first stages, or to London with its underground only half finished, seems quaint today, but in countries where the attractions and the streetcar lines have changed little over the last century, Baedeker simply cannot be equalled. A visitor to Cairo need look no further than the 1929 Egypt and the Sudan. As Hans Koning put it, despite the “pseudoscientific racism... Baedeker’s completeness is baffling. I can only visualize squadrons of German professors swarming out over Egypt, sleeping in every bed, and sketching every pillar.”

Certain advice may make us uneasy. One section of the 1906 Palestine and Syria guide entitled Intercourse With Orientals warns: “Familiarity should always be avoided. True friendship is rare in the East....” But who can argue with the rest? “The custom of scattering small coins for the sake of amusement furnished by the consequent scramble is an insult to poverty that no right-minded traveller will offer.”

In an age where speed is taken for granted, these old guides remind us that tourism began as a leisurely, improving activity. Every Baedeker educates us and slows us down. Better than a time machine, not only do they offer us the world as it actually was; they show us, more miraculously, how much of that world still remains, and what our century has added, for better or worse.

Sunday, May 8, 1994

Serendipity Books

I wrote this in spring 1994 for Forbes-FYI, who published it soon thereafter. When Peter Howard died in March 2011, Serendipity's million-plus books disappeared in fire sales to other booksellers. 

It is often called the greatest bookstore in the United States; one of London’s leading antiquarian booksellers, no slouch himself, named it the finest in the English language. Serendipity Books, in Berkeley, California, has become the ideal of what a literary, secondhand bookstore can be, regarded with reverence and amazement by others in the field. Serendipity has set standards for knowing and acquiring not only books but the ephemera that accretes around writers. It differs from somewhere like the Strand in New York City just as a select warehouse differs from a jumbled attic.

As proprietor, creator, resident baseball fanatic, and ruling mind, Peter Howard has been in the book business for thirty years. Though Serendipity is a general bookstore, with stock under most subject headings, Howard specializes in literature of all sorts. This involves modern first (and later) editions of English and American Literature; fine printing; literary manuscripts and archives; little magazines; screenplays. He has entire shelves of Jack London, Steinbeck, Naipaul, Virginia Woolf; entire bookcases of Graham Greene, Nabokov, Henry Miller, C.S. Forester, Joyce Carol Oates. One enormous, well-organized room holds 35,000 volumes of poetry. An upstairs contains over 26,000 volumes of American fiction. You wander through one vast, high-ceilinged room after another, lose your way among the tightly-packed shelves, and sooner or later realize this is not a bookstore, but a national treasure.

“I’ve got 300,000 decent books in here,” says Howard. “Nobody, no single bookstore, can handle it all. You could just as easily fill this place with only fishing books, or with film books.”

No categorizing can give any indication of the treasures Howard has—or, with his three full-time assistants, can find for you. If you’re looking for Borges’ personal copy of a C.S. Lewis book, or rare editions in Russian of early Nabokov novels, or a few Christopher Isherwood or Jack Kerouac manuscripts, or an unfilmed Faulkner screenplay in typescript, or an obscure book of Picasso’s that comes with an original lithograph, turn to Serendipity.

In a profession known for its eccentrics Howard has a reputation as a Character, less for his appearance (like a genial Rasputin) than the brilliance of his occasional catalogues, which are equal parts good scholarship and salesmanship. He is current president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, and sees his profession as often misunderstood and misrepresented.

“Everyone who writes about the antiquarian book business emphasizes price rather than service. We serve customers by getting a book for them at the cheapest possible price. We serve libraries in the same way—we’ve sold to every institution in the country.”

He waives off questions about book collecting as investment only, the glamor of financial (as opposed to cultural) value—though feeding this desire keeps many antiquarian bookstores going.

“I despise price guides. They get the emphasis all wrong. Price is the last thing of importance. The first is:  Why? Why buy it? Why is the book important? If the first reason is money, then reconsider. In any case, the most overpriced books are modern books, within the context of the prices of other centuries’ books.

“As an investment, collecting books is a ludicrous way for someone to attempt to increase their capital assets. And it can be expensive, depending on what you choose to collect. Most people don’t realize what the range of possibility is around the author. If you’re serious, really serious, about, say, John Steinbeck, then you’re into it for $1,000,000 over a lifetime. If a guy walks in and wants a complete set of F. Scott Fitzgerald first editions, in perfect dust jackets, immaculate condition, everything, we’ll get them within a year. It’s a matter of how much he wants them and how much money he has. They’re all out there and can be had, except possibly the first, This Side of Paradise, because too many people want it. A first edition of The Great Gatsby, in a perfect dust jacket, will set him back about $20,000. But if someone wants the book, really wants it, then it’s at the other end of the telephone, or soon will be. But this sort of thing represents only about 3% of what’s out there of interest.

“And why collect books simply by the numbers? Are you adding anything to the world? It’s an aesthetic act, the idea of a collection: completing the structure, adding to the culture. When people come in they have blinkers on. I try to take the blinkers off. I want to be trusted by my customers—I’ll share my knowledge with them. And I try to confront people about their reasons for collecting, but there’s no right or wrong. They inform me.

“I’ve wanted to do four catalogues a year. I end up doing a catalogue every four years. It’s an inefficient way to sell books.” Still, he is justly proud of them, and particularly of his 641-page Faulkner catalogue, the most complete bibliography ever assembled for the largest Faulkner collection ever. It ranges from English and foreign editions of his books to 19th century Mississippi maps, the writer’s last will and testament, and private letters. A typescript of Faulkner’s first book of poems is priced at $75,000.

He insists there are still great collections to be made. “The guy with the greatest Twain collection built it in the last 25 years. Preposterous! Everyone thought it too late to collect Twain.”

He points out that new areas are always developing. Recent Serendipity catalogues detail collections of Viet Nam war literature (over 400 items), fiction and poetry related to the petroleum industry (nearly 600 items), and American fiction of the 1960s (over 2100 items). And today, he adds, there are more small presses, more fine presses, and more desktop publishing of fine books than ever before.

“What people are willing to buy has vastly expanded. All the barriers are being broken down between what people previously thought to collect. For example, baseball has been co-opted by book people. Screenplays form the largest single body of unpublished material by excellent writers. Both Faulkner and McMurtry, to name only two, produced some forty-odd screenplays each. They just weren’t at hand twenty years ago, but now they are.

“All through the 60s and 70s increasing numbers of people went into the so-called ‘antiquarian’ business—selling books you couldn’t get currently from the publisher. Many were academics like myself, seeking an alternative lifestyle. We all sensed there hadn’t been any increase in the book business. And then at some point suddenly everyone was interested in buying books. Why? For all the reasons. Boredom with television. Because they liked the books. Because they suspected that books might hold their financial worth. Books are objects of aesthetics and value, seen against the volatility of international currencies. On the other hand, there’s so much secret knowledge required.

“I’m seeking books at every waking minute—but I’m not as aggressive as some people. I don’t have trouble getting books in the door. The cost is less than you might think, and people send me books to sell for them. I’m constantly trying to replace stock. The physical effort, of administration and research, is enormous. But we deal in books because they carry so much emotional baggage. They’re transportable and have all the freight inside, plus they’re the only conductor of that freight. Books are our cultures, far more than, say, stamps or coins. Books are perfect.”

Monday, January 17, 1994

How To Be An Expat

Written in 1994 for Esquire, re-written in 1998 for G.Q.

Most of us have a yen to live abroad sometime in our lives—to savor the romance of feeling at home in a foreign country. Everyone has his own version of the Expatriate Fantasy, but the idea is usually that being overseas can make you, in unexpected ways, into a free man. (Just ask Ronnie Biggs, mastermind of the Great Train Robbery, who's lived happily in Brazil, outside the reach of British law, for decades.)

Maybe you get sent for three years to open the firm's new branch in Hong Kong, Rio, or Paris, and expect to be well compensated for making the move. Maybe you make a personal vow to grab your paintbrush or laptop and try to match Hemingway's bells, bulls, and balls in a Madrid cafe. Maybe you set enough aside in your twenties to take the plunge—to go native and withdraw from the millennial chaos on a beach in Bora-Bora or Belize. Or maybe you're trying to drop from sight of the Feds, like the crooked New York stockbroker who died and eventually turned up running a video rental shack by the Caribbean under an assumed name. No matter where or how, a good deal of the same thumbnail rules apply.

This How-To is culled from the personal expertise of expat businessmen, spies, artists, diplomats, journalists, surfers, consultants, con men, veteran retirees as well as foreigners—to help the Innocent Abroad avoid becoming the Ugly American, no matter how long you stay away.

Before You Go Abroad:

1. First, prepare yourself for a new luxury—learn to really enjoy diarrhea. It's absolutely everywhere except for that tiny slice of civilization called Western Europe. In the "developing" world, some forms of diarrhea verge on a religious experience.

2. If you can't master another language, consider marrying a foreigner. Just be sure to choose your foreign spouse wisely. If she's Iranian, for example, you instantly become an Iranian citizen too. In sickness and in health.

3. If you have a blonde wife or daughter, don't go to the Middle East. What you fear most is true: every single male wants them as sex slaves.

4. Take out plenty of airmail magazine subscriptions—a surprisingly efficient way to ease the pangs of homesickness.

5. 71% of all expats turn out to be alcoholic. That probably means you. This percentage is even higher in hot climates.

6. If you're moving somewhere poor, get over your politically correct ideas about servants before you arrive. Saves time.

Once You Get There:

7. Learn the local currency as quickly as possible. The sooner you can stop converting ("438 rupees, that makes $9.25 to cab it back to Delhi,") and think in terms of how many days a local family can survive on the money, the closer you'll be to your new home.

8. Don't ask for reliable advice from your "friendly" U.S. consulate or embassy. Consular officers don't like Americans abroad; they wish we'd all stay home. As they're mostly dorks who wish they were political officers instead (i.e. possible future ambassadors), their advice is dubious at best.

Still, let's say your tooth hurts and you just arrived in Caracas. If you're forced to go to a consulate for advice, ask a foreign employee (a local who works for the consulate, known as FSNs in governmentese) which dentists are lethal and which trustworthy. The locals are usually smarter and more honest than the consular officers—it's much more prestigious for them to work there than it is for your fellow Yank.

9. Expect your salary to go down in buying power, unless you end up with a cushy relocation package. Life overseas usually costs more. The poorer the country, the more bribes you have to lay out to get the water heater fixed.

Americans often have a philosophical problem with bribery. It does have one advantage, however. When a transaction's done (say, you drop $200 to get your trunks through customs) it then truly is finished. There's none of the tyranny we have here of people owing each other "favors" and the consequent worries about repaying them.

10. Make friends with someone in the Interior Ministry—those folks who confirm your work permit, boot you out if it's not in order, or bug your phone if they don't like you. They make very helpful and informative dinner guests, but keep them separate from anyone you know on the U.S. Embassy staff.

11. Be careful whom you have sex with. If you're in Europe, enjoy the dessert trolley. Odd as it may seem, most foreigners (outside of Southeast Asia) are statistically safer partners than Americans, who per capita are highly infected.

Don't even think about sex in Africa (truly unbeatable odds) or in the Middle East, where only four eyewitnesses are required in court to prove unlawful fornication.

12. Don't wear school ties or graduation rings overseas. They look even geekier abroad than they do here. And resist telling those priceless college anecdotes. No one over there cares.

13. Tax attorneys abroad invariably cost more and know less than in the States. Your tough luck, you're screwed.

14. Gird your loins for underwear shock. In France, Italy, and Spain especially. Undergarments, particularly women's, cost many times what they do here. The first time you slide French underwear off a woman you'll undoubtedly note the superior workmanship. If you paid you may note the price; $150 for a brassiere isn't uncommon. Still, there are compensations.

15. Resist the temptation to place your children in U.S. schools overseas. One joy of living abroad is that your kids will avoid an American education. Likewise, never send kids to an English boarding school. The playing fields of Eton are filled with weeds nowadays.

French and German schools are found nearly everywhere, and your children will come away speaking a foreign language plus the language of the country you're in, and also be able to speak, read, and write English better than most of their peers back home. Unfortunately, your children may develop nasty French and German habits (respect for their elders, for example).

16. The climate overseas is always more extreme than they tell you. You'll never be as comfortable as here. Most Europeans still don't understand heating, and many Brits don't even know what a thermostat is. You'll find yourself spending a lot of time next to the pre-war towel heaters in the bathroom.

17. People overseas—even in Europe—may stink. Often they think it's sexy. Not surprisingly, these people also disapprove of air-conditioning. (A French magazine recently sold millions with this headline: "Surprise Survey! The French wash!") Actually, the French are among the cleanest.

18. Never repair your shoes overseas unless you're in Turkey, Italy, or Hong Kong. Otherwise it's incredibly expensive and dangerous. More than one American lies doddering and drooling in a foreign jail cell for beating to death a local shoemaker who transformed his loafers from size 10 to size 7.

19. If you consider yourself a sensitive American who never says an unkind word based on race, gender, and political or sexual orientation, grow up. Foreigners love to trash their fellow man. Remember: outside the USA, everyone openly hates everyone else. Be careful about expressing any compassion for humanity until you're totally certain about the religious, family, and tribal backgrounds of your hosts.

20. Conversely, become adept at denouncing the States right at the beginning of every dinner party. Foreigners really love to hear an American criticize his homeland. If you do so early enough in the evening, there's every chance that by the time you get to after-dinner drinks, they'll start to trash their own countries, and you can really join in. If not, be patient. It may require a few dinner parties before you have the deep pleasure of excoriating your hosts.

21. In many countries, people seem to have a sixth sense about which cars belong to Americans and can thus be scratched, bumped, and wrecked with impunity. When you go for repairs, you'll learn why French auto mechanics look as prosperous as surgeons. One solution: own the car there, but insure it here.

22. Master the art of changing money. Be wary of the fellow in Egypt, Italy, or all Asia who can count phony bills off the bottom of a wad of cash quicker than any card sharp. Do not, however, automatically distrust the so-called black market. In some countries the banking has simply moved onto the streets. For example, in Latin America the funny guys standing on the corner with briefcases full of money almost never cheat you.

23. Unless you're homosexual, don't learn Japanese in bed. The men and women speak significantly different dialects, the women's being quieter, more deferential. Many a Westerner who's enjoyed a Japanese girlfriend long enough to learn the lingo ends up, it seems, being seen afterward as (in Japanese terms) a poofter.

24. Learn to enjoy soccer ("football"). And if you don't already know what an after-dinner drink is, find out fast.

Going Native—The Final Frontier

25. Choose a country with a high standard of living. Sounds obvious? Not to all the ex-hippies stranded in India, still trying to earn enough to leave. You'll become much less popular with the locals if you end up as poor as they.

26. No matter what crimes you've committed, don't ever give up your citizenship, even if you have to hide that U.S. Passport under a reed mattress. Think of it as a ripcord you might have to pull on very short notice one day. The USA is like your long-lost cousins at Thanksgiving: they have to let you in. (At the same time, watch out for those extradition treaties.)

27. Never, never, never hit the locals. The Marines—unlike the British Army of yesteryear or the French Foreign Legion of today—won't come to your rescue.

28. Accept the fact that your friends back home a) will be very jealous of you, not imagining how difficult it is to get your water heater fixed, and b) if they do keep in touch with you, will be forever promising to come visit you in several months' time, and c) they will never, ever, come.

29. If you must hide big money, hide it somewhere handy (preferably several somewheres) so you can flee fast and far on short notice. Don't make the mistake of spending quickly or ostentatiously; go for the long haul; don't be greedy. If living abroad helps you decrease your worries and increase your daily pleasures, that's plenty. Don't play millionaire among peasants.

30. A small local income, no matter how incidental, ties you in a friendly way to neighbors so long as it doesn't take work away from them. Do not resent paying modest taxes if the country has a good national health service (you're better off than here). Get a strong local lawyer a.s.a.p. Don't dream of buying a house till you've lived there through all four seasons—if the place actually has seasons.

31. Going native doesn't mean you have to dress native. Even Gauguin probably looked absurd in a sarong. Anyone who's been to Guatemala and seen gringos in Mayan weavings should beware their mistake—not realizing what really goes together. Most expats who "dress native" and think they blend in never imagine they look as absurd as a man strolling around in a woman's blue jean skirt under a dinner jacket.

32. A good way to judge the future of a country—when deciding if you want to hang out there for a decade or two—is by the state of its poor. There really is such a thing as clean, safe, and community-minded slums (say, Istanbul's or Tahiti's). On the other hand, a society with filthy, dangerous, every-man-for-himself slums (like Los Angeles) probably has a bleak future.

33. To go native usually means to eat native. Get ready to enjoy goat thighs washed down by corn beer fermented with old women's saliva—the enzymes act as a yeast, in case you wondered.

34. Don’t automatically trust most the locals who speak English best.

35. Remember what Dante wrote about exile: "Other men's bread is salty, other men's stairs are steep." Be careful you don't become a man without a country while trying to be a citizen of the world; there's a crucial difference. If you live abroad, embrace the experience fully, like a lover with whom you share few responsibilities, and see how much you can learn before you break up. Who knows? The affair might last a lifetime.

Don't expect your stay-at-home friends to understand. Sadly, you'll have less and less in common as the years pass. And when you do visit them, never forget the advice of an expert raconteur: There is no bore like the travel bore.