Wednesday, October 10, 2007

This damp, autumn morning

I saw a page torn from a spiral-bound reporter's notebook sellotaped to the glass of a bookshop window. It carried this legend, in wobbly felt-tip:

Derek Gibbons, 1926–2007.

Aghast, I went inside. The chap behind the counter, squashed behind a tiny desk toppling with books and paper, was picking out phone-numbers on a handset in an abstracted manner. He looked up from behind his walls of books.

"Derek has died?" I say.
"Yep." He tapped out the rest of the phone number, left the phone ringing on loudspeaker, and confessed that the note outside might be wrong; it probably wasn't 1926, and that he was going to sort it out. "There's a requiem mass for him on Friday at Great St Mary's" he said, staring curiously at the ringing phone.

Ah, Derek.

Someone once told me Derek drank a pint of port in the bath every morning before coming to work. Can't vouch for that story. But he was a legendary curmudgeon among bookseller curmudgeons. A bookseller's bookseller.

Back in the day, I used to work in another bookshop, up on Castle Hill. Unlike Derek's, ours wasn't haunted. We had our regulars, though. The crazy archaeologist who'd sit down and talk at me for hours about either Jacques Brel, paleolithic burial mounds, or both. The madman who came in to recommend nuclear war as a way of cleansing the earth. A whole constituency of the erudite and grumpy. The man who talked to himself. The transsexual who was a good friend of the Yorkshire Ripper. The wall of death man. The Pet Shop Boys used to drop in quite often. We didn't like them. They always seemed a bit too good for our shop.

One of of our regulars was an elderly, emaciated and oddly gallinaceous old guy, always snappily dressed in a lilac polyester shirt and a huge, windsor-knotted purple tie. His name was Mr Reed. He had a proper old Cambridgeshire accent, the one that transforms "go home" into "goo hume". He'd come in and try and sell the most extraordinary things. I remember a WWII German shell casing. "Look at this: you should buy this" he said, holding it out. "This is a bookshop" said Andrew, the owner, with great good grace.

He would stay and witter on for ages. Sometimes this led to a near-breakdown of customer-owner entente cordiale. After one particularly long visit, he'd run out of things to say, and made as if to go; Andrew looked relieved. But then, on his way to the door, he turned to my friend Charlie and pointed at a poster for the latest Footlights review, the Barracuda Jazz Option. "What's that?" he said. Andrew visibly stiffened. "Don't tell him" he said, not quite sotto voce.

One morning, Derek, on one of his rare visits away from his own shop, came into ours, for a chat with Andrew. Mid-chat, Mr Reed walks in. Derek does a fantastic double take, turns back to Andrew and demands, loudly, "What do you let him in here for?", pointing at Mr Reed. Who turns and stares at them both. Andrew, sensibly, says nothing. Derek isn't going to let it lie. He points again. "Him", he says. "Why do you let him in your shop?"

Mr Reed feels the need to come to his own defence. "Andrew knows that if he ever needs good cricket books or Nazi memorabilia, he can always rely on me..."

Derek cuts through him. "Whenever I see him," he continues, equably, "I tell him to fuck off"

There is a pause.

"Even in the street" says Derek, with relish.

We shall not see his like again.


Matt Mullenix said...

Now that's an obit!

Meg Kribble said...

Marvelous story! Sorr the English bookselling world has lost such a character.

Reid Farmer said...

The crazy archaeologist

Aren't "crazy" and "archaeologist" redundant?

pluvialis said...

I bow to your superior knowledge, Reid: although this one really was genuinely crazy, rather than crazed.

More sad news: the bookshop I used to work in has just closed: went past it today and it's been emptied. I expect a lifestyle shop selling hessian sofas, distressed white-painted wardrobes and expensive soap to open there any minute. Sad sad sad.

Chas S. Clifton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Professor said...

I've known Derek Gibbons for forty-two years, meeting him first at his Little Goat Lane bookshop in Norwich 1965. He was a brilliant antiquarian bookseller specializing in rare and collectible children's books as well as anything else that caught his fancy. It was in the early to middle 1970s he relocated to Stansted and then Cambridge. He was eccentric, like all great specialists, but he knew his books as well as his customers. One would need to chat him up until he felt you'd be a good caretaker and protector before he would show you something special amongst his rarities. Lucky for me we got along well together as over the years he sold me first editions of LITTLE BLACK SAMBO (1899) and the first privately printed TALE OF PETER RABBIT (1901) paid for by Beatrix Potter's family one year before the 1st trade edition came out by Frederick Warne. Yes, dear Derek was a great dealer, and indeed, his passing marks the slow fading away of an era. He will be sadly missed by many who loved him.

Ian Patterson said...

One of the other oddities about Derek was that he wouldn't touch American books. Hated them.