Clive James wrote, in a recent essay in Poetry, that “Had he not been a poet, John Berryman would have been a Shakespearean scholar, and well qualified for the task”. So, really, I shouldn’t have been surprised, when trawling through the beautiful Cecil Court in Central London, to find this literary gem for sale.
On walking in to the wonderful Natalie Galustian Rare Books, I was immediately struck by this gem in a glass box: A rare pamphlet of John Berryman, signed by the poet himself, complete with his ‘General admiration’ to the late eminent literary critic Frank Kermode.
The bookshop boasts a huge range of rare and and antique books, everything from 20th Century prose and fiction to some antique books on two of Natalie’s most favourite pastime – poker and gambling. But, being the poetry wonk that I am, I was incredibly interested by the pamphlet.
Kermode was not only a huge figure in 20th Century fiction, but he was easily one of the most influential Shakespeare critics of the last 50 years, and is still considered so. He was also a great lover and critic of poetry – his selected prose of T.S. Eliot was invaluable during my time at University. So it makes a great deal of sense that Berryman would have, at the very least, ‘general admiration’ for Kermode.
I managed to catch up with Natalie herself and ask her a few questions about the pamphlet and her time in the rare book trade.
How did you come across the book?
My friend Anthony Holden (music and opera critic for The Guardian/Observer) was a great friend of Frank Kermode, despite Frank being a good 25 years older than him. In fact, they were friends right until the last.
Anthony was the executor of Frank’s estate and, when Frank died, there were all these books, which the family didn’t know what to do with. All they knew is that they had to get them out of the flat.
I went down and ran an evaluation on the books. One large chunk of it I sold to Kings College. His Shakespeare library, and all of his books he worked with when writing his Shakespeare body of work, went to The Globe (Shakespeare remodelled theatre). The rest we took in lieu of payment for organising the library and I also took some books which I’m selling on behalf of the family to help the estate. I believe the Berryman book is one of those.
Really, it was a result of doing the right thing by all of Frank’s books, ensuring they found good homes rather than getting thrown out to charity shops.
As Frank was, first and foremost, a critic, I imagine his library to be cavernous. Was there anything else you came across like the Berryman pamphlet?
Well, he had this terrible accident with his library. He had a marvellous library of 1st editions, where writers like Philip Roth would send him copies of their books, inscribed to him.
But when he was moving house about 10 or 15 years ago, the main parts of his library were packed up in boxes and left out on the street, as he was waiting for the removal men. He went inside for a few minutes and Cambridge Council’s rubbish collectors, thinking the boxes were rubbish, picked them up and threw them in the incinerator.
So a huge amount of his collection, inscribed first editions of the who’s who of 20th Century literature, was destroyed. Several of the local papers picked the story up at the time – it was big news.
It seems to me, with news about the bookshop being in decline and facing financial difficulties in these times, that rarities like the Berryman pamphlet and the stories around them are in danger of becoming lost.
With your bookshop being in Cecil Court, and being so close to the Charing Cross Road bookshops, whose financial problems are well known (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charing_Cross_Road), do you feel this threat of the ‘end of the bookshop’?
The Charing Cross Road problem is simply one of Landlords, and we have different ones here in Cecil Court. The Charing Cross Road bookshops are owned by the Soho Housing Association, who are a charity. And, because they are a charity, they are duty bound to get as much rent as possible for their properties – hence the reason the rent has gone up annually and why many of the 2nd hand bookstores who were there ended up leaving. They simply couldn’t afford the rent.
Of course 2nd hand bookstores, as wonderful a thing as they are, are never going to make a lot of money. So only the better bookshops with the highest turn over, Henry Pordes, Quinto books and Any Amount of Books, have been able to survive.
Saying that, I don’t think the 2nd hand bookstore will become extinct. I’d be quite interested to see how they manage with the boom of electronic books like the Kindle becoming more widely available.
It might have a positive impact on the rare book trade, in a way. I think that people will always like reading printed books, and I don’t think the Kindles or IPad will detract from this enjoyment. We’ll have a clearer idea in the next 5 years.
Do you feel part of a community here in Cecil Court?
We’re very lucky here because of our benevolent landlords. All of the properties on this street belong to one family, and they do like us being here. And, although our rent isn’t peppercorns, it isn’t hiked up on an annual basis to the point where we can’t stay here. We’re very lucky, really.
This whole area is so steeped in book tradition, and anyone who is interested in books comes here at some point. Its one of those old fashioned ideas that everyone who is in the same trade is in the same space and, because we’re specialist bookshops, instead of being in competition with one another you’re actually helping each other. That’s something you can’t get on the Internet.
What you can get from the internet, however, is more information on the books Natalie currently stocks in her bookshop. Click here to be taken to her website, or visit her shop on 22 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4HE