David Mason has been selling books since 1967. He’s seen it all, several times over. David Mason Rare Books remains one of the few surviving bookshops in downtown Toronto, and that’s his fifth location during his long career as a bookman.
The Pope’s Bookbinder is David’s memoir describing his life in rare bookselling. The title comes from his youthful years when he toured Europe on a very thin shoestring and landed a job at a Spanish bookbindery where he learnt many skills. David’s fleeting moment of fame was helping to bind a volume in white morocco for Pope John XXIII’s library in the Vatican.
“It took a couple of years to write,” said Mason of the memoir. “It was an exhilarating and humiliating experience, especially once the book was being edited. I enjoyed it but, unlike many booksellers, I never wanted to be an author. Now I have an empathy with authors. The launch nearly killed me, spending two and a half hours signing books – that was hard work. The book is for anyone who loves books.”
One of the first things readers will notice is that David doesn’t hold back. In many anecdotes and stories, he names names and details the booksellers he does not like, and the reasons for his feelings. His book goes way beyond daily life in a rare bookshop and he describes dealing with libraries, clients (good, bad and awful), bookselling associations and even the police.
“I did not set out to ruffle feathers,” he said. “I have written about matters where people acted improperly and I stand by everything I wrote.”
He spends much time describing his early days in bookselling and the mentors who shaped his career and his knowledge. David also describes his love of scouting and laments the death of this facet of the book business. Time and again, he describes the discovery of a ‘sleeper’ in a used bookshop or at an auction or at a book fair.
“The two most exciting aspects of bookselling are scouting and researching books,” he said. “Scouting matches your skill against your colleagues. I’ve often said it should be an Olympic sport. I used to travel out to small towns to scout the bookstores but those days are gone. Thanks to the Internet, everyone can price a book.
His anecdote about bidding for a rare copy of Anne of Green Gables against a member of L.M. Montgomery’s family is a case study in bookselling detective work and people watching. He also vividly describes blackmailing the head of the Royal Ontario Museum after the death of his uncle.
Libraries are close to David’s heart, and he is infuriated when librarians veer away from books and into bureaucracy.
“I would love to end my career buying books for a special collections library,” he admitted. “Sadly not all librarians are book people but the most important librarians are children’s librarians as they introduce books and reading to kids.”
Canadian first editions are a topic of importance to this bookseller. He believes he has seen almost all of significance although he is still intrigued by Canadian pirate editions where pirates rushed out book editions using text initially published in magazines or journals. Canadian book pirates so infuriated Mark Twain that he famously moved to Montreal in order to enforce copyright status on his works in Canada.
And his advice for anyone thinking of going into the trade?
“Someone else said it’s a wonderful way to make not much of a living,” he smiled. “You don’t get rich, but what a life. I’ll sell books until I drop dead.” Now aged 74, David works in his shop seven days a week and his only concession to age is finishing his working day at 2:30pm before going home and reading a good book.