Monday, August 23, 2010

How To Shop at a Used or Rare Book Store Without Being Murdered

“One of the questionable compensations which used booksellers [the books, not the sellers] receive in return for devoting themselves to a precarious vocation is a constant exposure to all the varieties and extremes of human behaviour at its most eccentric.”

So begins The Protocols of Used Bookstores, a serio-comic tract written and recently published by Toronto fine and rare bookseller (the books and the seller) David Mason.

Within, Mason lists forty-four Rules to be heeded by the used and rare book buyer when patronizing a brick and mortar shop if they wish the proprietor to give them the time of day and a piece of their expertise as opposed to a time of death and a piece of their mind. Mason has put forth these rules “to help make your quest for a book simpler.”

And to make the collector and seller allies instead of antagonists. Few things are as annoying to a used and rare bookseller as intelligent people leaving their brain at shop's entrance. And few things are as annoying to the collector as a bookseller so aloof that they seem to be at lunch, full-time.

“While on a good day eccentricity can be stimulating, even exhilarating, on a bad day it can test your endurance and threaten your ability to cope.

“ should be aware that all the stupid questions in this piece are authentic; every single one, no matter how ludicrous it may appear has been said to me or one of my colleagues, often many times.”

I, too, have heard many if not most of them.

It should be pointed out that these rules are for the neonate, developmentally disabled novice or long-term blockhead, and not you, Booktryst readers. You are the best book people in the world, possessing intelligence, savoir faire, grace, good breeding, and manners. U wuz razed rite.

Number One on the hit parade is commonly encountered when a stranger enters the shop. "A library, huh?" Or its close cousin, "Books, eh?"

On the positive, the question demonstrates that your eyes are fully functional and that you have a flair for the obvious. On the downside, the bookseller may justifiably presume you to lack a cerebral hemisphere and thus not be qualified to adopt whatever book you find and wish to bring into your home. Yes, many booksellers operate as a book adoption service and will only place books with the proper guardian; no seller likes to be visited by a case-worker from  Book Protection Services when an adoption goes awry. You don't need to proffer references to the seller, just good sense.

Number forty-four is related to Number One, and is the comment most despised by booksellers: "Don't expect the proprietor to smile with pleasure when you say, 'I'll have to come back when I have more time.'" This statement is often uttered by the dim-bulb of Rule Number One. It must be understood that this has been stated by prior thousands and is priceless. Priceless because the person is never seen again and never buys anything, ever.

In between #1 and #44 are classics, including "Go ahead, steal this book; you have more right to it than the bookseller anyway. He's obviously rich or he wouldn't have all those books. And, he's also a vulgar, greedy capitalist, or he wouldn't put arbitrary prices on knowledge."

This is the only book you are allowed to steal - after paying for it.

If there is any doubt about the legitimacy of liberating a book from its capitalist master, consider Mason's favorite philosophical axiom on the subject, a bit of street wisdom that should probably appear as a footnote to the Eighth Commandment: "If you want to know whether stealing is wrong, steal from a thief."

And #28: "...Our job is to salvage everything, both good and bad, which reflects civilization.  But we will not sell you...stuff if we think your motives are questionable. And yes - you're right - that is indeed a form of censorship. But, they're our books and we make the rules. Many booksellers take a perverse pride in sacrificing profit because of personal principles."

If  you have a genuinely legitimate interest in anti-Semitic and Nazi propaganda literature, you're safe. But if you're a skinhead with swastikas tattooed on your skull and "Fuck Jews" tattooed on your knuckles there's a pretty good chance the books you want to buy will be mysteriously and retroactively placed on hold for someone else and are not available for sale. No bookseller wants to receive phone calls from enthusiasts who saw "Achtung! All Brown Shirts: Got these great books from David Mason" on

David Mason has been in the trade for over forty years. He has seen and heard it all, and if he seems a bit piqued at times in his narrative it is simply the Job-like weariness of one who was called to the vocation, retains a sense of humor, albeit flinty, yet often wonders whether God or anybody else cares.

"The truth is, booksellers believe that what they sell is important to civilization and that their presence contributes to that civilization. And sometimes they don't have much more than that conviction to keep them going. Try to keep that in mind when you enter a bookshop, and try to enter in the same spirit."

Amen, Brother Mason. And to you, brother and sister collectors. We fight the good fight together.

Mason, David. Protocols of Used Bookstores. Toronto: David Mason Fine & Rare Books, July 2010. Limited edition of 300 copies. Octavo. 18 pp., with text illustrations. $10.

Available directly from David Mason Fine & Rare Books. 366 Adelaide Street West. Suite LL04 & LL05, Toronto, ON, Canada M5V 1R9.


  1. My favorite question: "Do you have any books I haven't read yet?" Thanks for the chuckles with this post!

  2. We've read and enjoyed David Mason's book, and are happy that you are finding it a wider audience. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Great post! Thank you for the information. I've just ordered two copies of David Mason's book: one for me, and one for a friend of mine - he'll love it.


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