I chanced upon it, this secret bookshop. Trying to cool off in the hills last summer, I took a late afternoon walk off the beaten roads and passed a charming cottage enclosed by a beautiful garden. I would have kept walking but the sight of a handsome, antique glass-enclosed wooden bookcase left outside the cottage stopped me. My generous and attentive hosts, the family of Nallathambi Whitehead, had told me only that morning that they were looking for a handsome bookshelf and that none were to be found in town.
I entered the garden through a ‘kissing gate’ (something you don’t come across much anymore but this British Raj relic was once a common feature in old Indian cottages) and approached the bookcase that was outside a door with the sign ‘Browse for Bargains’, but no other sign to proclaim it a bookshop, not even a name. The glass-enclosed bargain bookcase seemed to contain, to my astonishment, what looked like antiquarian books in sumptuous bindings — half-leather, marbled boards, gilt edges.
I gently tugged on the handle but it was locked. I tried peering through the glass to catch a glimpse of some of the titles on the spine and pulled back in more astonishment: Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s handsomely printed three-volume The Bibliographical Decameron — the most rousing treatise on bibliomania — was there, and that too, in its scarcer, large paper copy edition. There were more antiquarian marvels lining the bookcase, but now my only thought was to locate the owner of the bookshop, settle the price for everything in the bookcase, and then explore more thoroughly: if such rare and precious volumes were pegged as bargains, what bibliophilic surprises lay within?
Before I could knock on the door or let myself in, a man in his early 70s briskly stepped out, and smiling broadly said, “Welcome, welcome. Please take your time to look around. I am open all afternoon.” I informed him right away that I was interested in the bargain bookcase. “Ah, yes, of course,” he said, warming to me further, his smile more inviting. “What were you interested in?”
“Well, just about everything,” I replied.
“But any item in particular ? There must be something you have your eye on?”
“The Dibdin volumes,” I said.
“Magnificent!” he cried, rubbing his hands in satisfaction. “Let me then tell you why these copies are special,” he said. I said I was rather hoping to get them out and examine them myself. “Surely you will not deprive me of a little book-talk first? After all, as Charles Nodier, one of the fathers of bibliophily, said, “The next best thing to owning books is talking about them, no?”
I hesitated, and replied, “Well, why don’t we look at them together?” His face clouded at once. “But of course,” he said, politely but somewhat curtly, and was still frowning as he handed me a key to the bookcase. And instead of joining me, he scooted in and shut the door firmly.
I knew I had ticked him off (how badly, I was to discover only later) but I couldn’t wait to see if those books were actually what they seemed to be. All the Dibdin volumes were in beautiful condition: none of that pervasive foxing that is common to this edition. Now, what was he asking for the set? The number pencilled in couldn’t be right: 75. Just 75? Must be bookseller’s code for some fantastic hidden price. The rest of the contents in the bookcase put me in a state of shock that I have not recovered from till today.
Those elusive fine-press books from the private presses of San Serriffe were all there, all seven of them. Theodore Bachus, the bibliographer who had made them known to the world, had a slim little volume to himself that he had even inscribed and signed to Henry Morris of the Bird and Bull Press. One couldn’t ask for a more telling, highly desirable association copy. Also present in the bookcase were the highly-coveted and yet derided series of ‘finely’ printed booklets of the Saint Ronan’s Press put out by the eccentric printer Christopher Larkspvr (Larkspur deliberately spelt in that eccentric way).
But the one that electrified me was finding Echoes from India and Afghanistan by John H. Watson, privately printed in Calcutta for the author in 1883. This was the widely-rumoured edition supposedly containing Dr. Watson’s manuscript signature. And indeed there it was on the flyleaf. There are, as most Sherlockians well know, only two or three samples of Dr. Watson’s signature in existence, and any of them would vouch that what I was looking at was the real thing.
When I looked for a price, there was none. “I would like to buy everything in the bookcase,” I declared, turning around, but I was forcefully pushed aside by the owner as he ripped off the bargain sign and hung a new one which read: “Not for Sale. Own Use Only.” Politely, but firmly, he asked me to leave. I begged him to consider selling me at least one or two things, but he threatened to throw me off the premises. I left in great dejection.
When I recounted my bibliophilic misadventure to my hosts, they regretted not warning me to stay away from the cottage with the bookcase.
Apparently, the owner was a book collector desperate to show off his great collection and, by this ruse of a bargain sale, lured unsuspecting bibliophiles to salivate over his books. “But how does he come by such fantastic books?” I asked, still wide-eyed. Alas, replied my hosts, no one could tell. When I wondered aloud at what could possibly be inside the bookshop, they said with some surprise, “Why, don’t you know? They contain the bibliophilic jewels from the Count Fortsas auction!”
Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.