Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare People by Rick Gekoski

You don’t have to venerate literature to be a book dealer. Rick Gekoski candidly admits he did not much like his time as a lecturer in English literature at Warwick University, “being required to be excited about Keats, in my private little room, from 2pm-3pm on Tuesdays made me feel like a hooker … it felt phoney, forced, stale”. Speaking as a former Oxford don, I can only agree.

Gekoski has derived much more manifest pleasure from the buying and selling of books. For example, in the late 1980s, splashing out $24,000, he once acquired a volume of TS Eliot’s poetry, inscribed by Eliot to Paul Valéry. He sold it later the same day for $37, 075. In 2002, the selfsame copy went for $101,575 at Christie’s.

It all began in the mid-1970s. When researching a book (“it bored me”) about DH Lawrence, Gekoski tracked down a man in Birmingham who sold him a box of Lawrence first editions from the back of a van for $50. Gekoski flogged them for $412. He then found in Blackwell’s a copy of Sons and Lovers that had belonged to the fruity horror-story author Dennis Wheatley. Gekoski’s $433 investment landed him $2,410. So began his passion for rare books.

Developing the Eye

To build up his business, Gekoski needed to develop an eye for fine copies in dust wrappers, inscriptions, fancy bindings. He warns us that something catalogued as “very good” usually means not very good, and “good” means terrible. Buyers also need to be aware of later impressions, missing pages and plates, and other defacements — everything affecting value.

Though I suppose it depends on who was responsible for the defacing. Gekoski once sold Sylvia Plath’s copy of The Great Gatsby, which contained her marginal notes, underlinings and annotations, for $711. Ted Hughes got wind of this and said the book had been stolen from his house, it was never Gekoski’s to sell, and legal action would ensue unless it was immediately returned.

It transpired the Fitzgerald novel had been borrowed years earlier by Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother, who had put it on the market. Nonetheless, Gekoski returned it to Hughes.

Something catalogued as “very good” usually means not very good, and “good” means terrible.

In return for such magnanimous behavior, Hughes allowed Gekoski to pay him $4,943 in cash for a copy of Plath’s The Colossus, with an inscription from her to him, which Gekoski put on the market for $11,740. Hughes, who died in 1998, was appalled at the profiteering — so what would he have felt about the way the copy changed hands again, in 2002, for $38,850?

A lot of Guarded by Dragons involves being menaced by lawyers. Matthew Evans, for example, the chairman of Faber, suddenly decided letters sent by authors to their editors, even if in a private capacity to their home address, were the exclusive property of the publisher. Gekoski calls this “dangerous, stupid, tyrannical”.

Gekoski, who had paid Charles Monteith, a Faber grandee, $34,603 for a batch of Philip Larkin notes and postcards, was suddenly served with a High Court injunction, blocking any further sale.

In the late 1980s, splashing out $24,000, Rick Gekoski once acquired a volume of TS Eliot’s poetry, inscribed by Eliot to Paul Valéry. In 2002, the selfsame copy went for $101,575 at Christie’s.

“Within a month,” Gekoski says, “I had spent as much in lawyer’s fees as the cost of the letters Faber wanted returned.” Neither side would back down, with Faber going so far as to brand the late Monteith, who had been a colleague of Eliot’s and a director of the firm, a fellow of All Souls and a qualified barrister, a thief, for pocketing his own Larkin correspondence.

Property is a vexed issue — who owns what, and what can be done with it. Graham Greene’s 123 love letters to Yvonne Cloetta were bought by Gekoski for $18,538, who then sold them on. But the novelist’s mistress never grasped the point that, as he put it to her, “the fact is, Yvonne, you can’t control material once it is out of your hands”. She was glad to receive the money, but not willing to cope with inevitable invasions of privacy and the prowling of biographers.

Another annoyance was when Gekoski undertook a house clearance operation, paying good money for mountains of junk — and then the family and executors suddenly come back for more, if treasures are unearthed. As Gekoski says, if preliminary family research was inadequate, that’s neither his fault nor his responsibility. A deal was a deal.

In 2004 he paid $27,188 for “filthy old box files” which, when properly examined, contained drafts of the Balfour Declaration, and were thus documents having historical importance for the foundation of Israel. Gekoski thought a few of the key sheets may alone be worth $185, 376. They went into a New York auction and made $775,000. Meanwhile, the family of Sir Leon Simon swarmed back, wanting a slice. There were predictable “legal debates, involving acrimonious claims and counter-claims”.

Where there’s muck there’s brass, and with brass people are brazen. William Golding was morose, preferring to stay at home in Cornwall and get drunk, but perked up when he was told signed first editions of Lord of the Flies “would now be worth” $18,538 each. The Harry Ransom Center in Texas, having hoovered up anything Joycean, was quite happy to dispose of nine surplus first editions of Ulysses when the price rose to $163,131. Anyone with a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is laughing. A copy went recently for £368,750.

Where there’s muck there’s brass, and with brass people are brazen.

Gekoski has specialized in the sale of literary archives to American institutions: filing cabinets and crates of manuscripts, drafts, letters, reviews, clippings, notebooks and so forth, whether accumulated by individual authors — Julian Barnes, Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Penelope Lively, Doris Lessing — or by publishing houses.

In a damp aircraft hangar in Littlehampton, Gekoski found the vast trove of unsorted material belonging to Victor Gollancz and to Weidenfeld & Nicolson. In among the junk (my first book was for Weidenfeld & Nicolson, incidentally) was correspondence with people like George Orwell and James Watson, of DNA fame. All this, when patiently sorted out, was worth millions.

On the whole, the people Gekoski meets are pretty seedy and self-seeking. He lunched with Watson, a crusty misogynist, who told him, “genetically, women have no sense of humor”. John Fowles, keen to market his papers, lived reclusively in Dorset and was a bitter anti-Semite. “I’m disgusted at the very thought of Fowles,” says Gekoski. Greene owned a Paris flat crammed with Victorian detective fiction, which he persisted in believing was worth a mint. The stuff couldn’t be given away.

When he first started, the rare book trade was “stuffy, hidebound and unsophisticated”, with phones mostly disconnected because of unpaid bills. The trade has lately been rendered redundant by the Internet. Dusty little secondhand bookshops have disappeared, replaced by AbeBooks and Amazon, with the most recondite volumes competitively priced, available immediately.

Gekoski regrets this passionately, believing online sales have led to “the gradual decline of connoisseurship”. I’m a connoisseur too and love my one-click purchases, though I admit I am addicted. Why have I just bought my third or fourth copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s A Time in Rome? Especially as I still haven’t read it.

Always excepting he doesn’t have to shove his arm up a cow’s bottom, Gekoski, a fine raconteur, does for bibliomania what James Herriot once did for pets and farm animals. As his previous books, such as Tolkien’s Gown, remind us he has a wealth of quirky and diverting stories, and you feel he could keep entertaining his readers forever.

Roger Lewis is a critic and the author of Seasonal Suicide Notes and What Am I Still Doing Here?