The narrow focus of this exercise – this casual exploration of our suppressed, ignored and forgotten – has prevented comment on the contemporary, the celebrated, and even the passing of friends. I made an exception once, when it didn't seem too personal. I'm doing so again in recommending The Pope's Bookbinder, a new memoir by antiquarian bookseller David Mason.
One might expect that such a book would find good company amongst Canada's ignored, but this has been far from the case. The National Post, The Toronto Star, Quill & Quire... attention has been paid. Here's the Washington Post review:
David Mason’s ‘Pope’s Bookbinder’ features lively recollections of a life filled with books
For someone like myself, a buyer not a seller, the book has provided an entertaining and informative look into a culture with which I have much to do, but of which I am not a part. I've come away with an even greater appreciation of those in the business... the honest ones, at least. It's proven to be my favourite read this summer.
One of the honest souls mentioned in the book is Bernard Amtmann, whom Mason describes as "the father of the Canadian antiquarian book trade". Thirty-four years after Amtmann's death, collectors chase his catalogues, so you'll understand my delight last month in coming across the nondescript items pictured at the top of this post: twenty-four catalogues dating mostly from 1961 and 1962, with a few more from the late 'sixties. Bound in black card stock, the two volumes set me back two dollars.
Always fun looking through old catalogues, imagining a time when, say, George Vancouver's A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World... (London: Robinson, 1798) was going for $650 (the equivalent of $5,080 today). A cursory look online reveals five copies on offer right now, beginning at US$58,500. The most expensive, yours for US$95,000, includes free shipping!
As they say – antiquarian booksellers, I mean – condition is everything, so it surprised me to discover that Amtmann's listings provide little in the way of description. This, from the earliest catalogue (#146), is typical:
CAMPBELL, Wilfred. Ian of the Orcades... New York [etc.] [n.d.] $3.00The inside back cover of each catalogue features this blanket notice:
Books and other material listed may be assumed to be complete and in very good condition unless otherwise stated.
All this has me wondering about dust jackets. Not a one is mentioned in the twenty-four catalogues. Surely some were missing. Take Ian of the Orcades, which was published in 1906 – you don't see many dust jackets from that year. I turn to Mason, who in an anecdote from his earliest years in the trade writes that the dust jacket was once much less significant, "not yet having reached the ludicrous point it occupies today."
The Campbell is typical of the prices found in these catalogues. The vast majority of the items are priced between $2.00 and $5.00 (roughly $15.50 to $39.00 today). Here are a few of the items that caught my eye:
ALLEN, Grant. The British Barbarians, a Hill-top novel. London, 1895. 2d ed. Cf Watters, p.170. $5.00Bargains all, even when converted into 2013 dollars. That said, anyone thinking that books are a sure investment is advised consider this listing from catalogue #151 (1961):
BARTON, Samuel. The battle of the swash, and The capture of Canada. New York, Dillingham  131 p. Not in Can.Arch. $7.50
BARTON, Samuel. same. with: [also a patriotic speech by Dr. W. George Beers, of Montreal, in reply to the toast of "professional annexation." Authorized Canadian edition.] Montreal, Robinson  137 p. Can.Arch.II, 1253. $7.50
CHINIQUY. Why I left the Church of Rome. London: Protestant Truth Society [n.d.] 24 p. cover-title. $2.50
GREGORY, Claudius. Valerie Hathaway. Toronto, 1933. $5.00
RIEL. Poesies religieues et politiques, par Louis "David" Riel. Montreal, 1886. 51,  p. $10.00
DUMBRILLE, Dorothy. Stairway to the stars. Toronto: Allen  vii, 72 p. (verse) Watters, p. 44. $3.00By coincidence, I purchased this very book as part of the very same haul that brought the catalogues. It cost a buck, less than 13¢ in 1961 dollars.
And it's signed.
I was a high school student when Bernard Amtmann died. The most valuable book I then owned was probably a first of Two Solitudes ($3.00 in catalogue #146). Though I'd inherited it from my father, back then I cared much more about Ian Hunter's Diary of a Rock 'n' Roll Star. My first encounter with Amtmann's name came years later when I first began researching John Glassco. The bookseller had several dealings with the poet/pornographer, selling various rare books and the odd letter. On three occasions, he handled collections of Glassco's papers. It was in this role, the Amtmann received the most revealing letter ever penned about Memoirs of Montparnasse:
Dear Mr Amtmann
Re: Documents in the Glassco Collection
With regard to the first item (A. 1) of the list I supplied you last month, I would like to make it clear that these six scribblers of Memoirs of Montparnasse date, to the best of my recollection, from somewhere between 1960 and 1961, and not from 1931-2 as might be inferred from the Prefatory Note to the published book. They comprise of course the first, only and original manuscript of the book itself, and its only holograph record.
John GlasscoDated 28 September 1973, the letter is just one of 147 found within The Heart Accepts It All, the forthcoming collection of correspondence edited by yours truly.
Enough about me. In his book, David Mason writes that much is owed Bernard Amtmann, "not just by the Canadian book trade but by the whole country." He then adds some words of caution:
Bernard did himself enormous damage by his unceasing attack on the institutions who ignored or denigrated Canada's cultural heritage. He died broke in the honourable tradition of the trade but his influence is still felt amongst those who care about Canada's heritage.Oh dear.