London’s fabled Book Runners

One is said to live in Paris, the other has vanished. Profiling Martin Stone and Driff, whose knowledge and eye for rare books are legendary

January 31, 2015 05:05 pm | Updated 05:05 pm IST

Drifs guide makes news in London.

Drifs guide makes news in London.

Two legends in the London Antiquarian Book Trade who continue to fascinate me are Driff and Stone, London’s famous book runners. (Martin Stone has been profiled a few times, Driff less so). Their knowledge and eye for rare books, uncommon editions — and where they could be lying hidden and undiscovered and under priced — are legendary. The book finds would later be sold to collectors or dealers at their true market price. Buy cheap, sell high. Stone and Driff have figured as central characters in Iain Sinclair’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings , feverishly combing the bookshops of London for rare book treasures. However, there has also been some mystery surrounding Driff: he disappeared suddenly. Vanished. Without a trace.

Occasionally there were rumours in the book trade that he had been sighted somewhere before he vanished again; or that he had vanished to India! Driff was — and probably still is — a vegetarian with a love for Indian food. On his long book hunting trips all over Britain, he would just as single-mindedly search for Indian restaurants to feast on a vegetarian thali as look for obscure bookshops. For many years Driff published his own idiosyncratic, opinionated guide called Driff’s Guide to All The Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain, which upset many booksellers for the way it dismissed even the most famous bookshops as being of little interest to the true book hunter. (“A corset may be what this shop most resembles. The parts that show will be very attractive but those that don’t will be under considerable pressure.” Driff’s… , 1986).

Sinclair described this pocket-sized guide as “Swiftian in savagery.” If a bookshop got even a mildly approving write up in the guide, the owner would be ecstatic and say, “Driff gave me a good mention” or “Driff let me off lightly.” He liked to also be known variously as Dryfeld, Driffield, Drif, or Dryfield. The photograph of Driff used in his guides was that of Raymond Carver, because Driff felt he looked exactly like Carver. Or, was it Driff, posing as Carver? He once started a free bookshop: anyone could come in and take what they wanted. It didn’t last long. When browsing in bookshops and, if asked by the owner what he was looking for, he would honestly answer: “I am looking for a £1000 book priced at less than a £100.”

In A Pound of Paper , John Baxter records how he became an obsessive book collector of Graham Greene because of Martin Stone. While browsing in a London flea market, Baxter noticed an unusually thin-looking book dealer in a beret with nicotine stained fingers (“a morning fag guttered in the moist morning air”), who quickly sensed Baxter’s keenness for Greene and proffered not one but three rare Greene editions. (Greene was notorious for not signing books. However, if you surprised him on the street with a fine edition of one of his books, he was known not only to sign it but even leave a long inscription in his spidery handwriting. Baxter would leave his Greene editions with a bookseller whose bookshop the author frequented and, in this way, managed to get some of them signed). Stone and Driff have made alluring book finds for various collectors and book dealers in their time. Iain Sinclair has written on Driff, and the legendary bookseller Peter Howard of Serendipity Books has a booklet on Stone (which also has a limited edition with a portfolio of photographs of Stone done over a period of a year) recounting this book scout’s memorable finds. In turn, Stone wrote a marvellous tribute to Howard, starting with a description of his first sight of the cavernous Serendipity Books:

“In the dream landscape of every bibliophile there is a vast shop, seemingly chaotic, constantly churning and changing. If the moment is right, almost any book may be found there… Serendipity Books… is no dream; at its helm is Peter B. Howard, substantially human, quixotic, fired-up and endlessly entertaining. I first met Peter at the Olympia Bookfair in the late 1970s; he had a table of James Joyce in absolutely marvellous condition, many of them inscribed. I stood there hypnotised…Peter peered down at me with avuncular concern. ‘Stay well away from Joyce,’ he said. ‘He’s a nightmare to buy and sell.’ He said he’d like to see my books and I gave him my address and phone number.”

Stone, we are told, now lives in Paris because that is where all the good books are, but what of the reclusive, mysterious, and wonderful Driff? Has he resurfaced in London, and stalking bookshops? Or, is he here in India still (if he was here at all)? Or, is he perhaps as Sinclair once reported, haunting Brick Lane once more for dal soup, popadoms , onion bhaji , vegetable curry, and black coffee?

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