Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Trafficking, Fossicking, and Noodling in Old Books: The Partaking of Biblio-Pleasures

Bookseller and writer Anthony Marshall where art thou, kindred spirit?  I recently discovered your two books by chance in an Austin, Texas used bookstore – Trafficking in Old Books (1998) and Fossicking in Old Books (2004), far from their place of publication in Australia.  There may be copies in abundance in Australia, but they are pretty scarce here—my excuse for overlooking them these many years.  And what an oversight!  Your adventures running an antiquarian / used bookstore in Melbourne and ancillary essays are among the damndest, bestest, funniest biblio-writings I’ve encountered.  Your prose enlightens and surprises: creative skills meeting a worthy subject.  I must simply salute you.
            But I’m just late to the party.  Some sleuthing revealed you received accolades upon publication (and just as importantly, brisk sales) primarily in Australia and the UK, but also a foray into the US where you did a few books signings.  Both books sold in the thousands of copies, not an easy achievement.  (You record a sold-out print run of 5,000 copies for the self-published Trafficking in Old Books.)  You even had a fan base and book signings in Tasmania!  Admittedly, that was much closer to your bookshop in Melbourne than it would be to someone in America, but it sure sounds exotic and alluring as recorded in your delightful Fossicking essay, “Et in Tasmania Ego.”
            I find you were born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and English father, grew up in England where you taught school before becoming a bookseller, and then migrated to Australia, owning the Alice’s Bookshop there until 2012, when you sold the shop and retired to Germany.  I’ve gleaned this information from your own writings and online searching.  It all peaks curiosity but this is secondary to your published works.  The last of your essays I can find appeared in 2016 in Book Source Monthly.  The proprietor, John Huckans, speaks highly of you, but has not heard from you in years.  He supplied me your email on file and copied you in his reply to me but no response as of yet.  I fear none will be forthcoming but imagine nothing sinister or final, just that you have disconnected from the online discord and are relaxing with a giant stein of hefeweisen in hand, listening to Wagner (“I think that as a man Wagner was a rascal, a cad and a bounder but as a composer, sublime.”), and perhaps missing your bookselling days just a bit.
            If you don’t mind (and I doubt you will), I’d like to share my excitement about your writings.  There are certainly others reading me who may have overlooked you as well.  Your first book Trafficking in Old Books (1998), collects fifty-two essays relating almost exclusively to running an open bookshop.  Every conceivable situation is described, reflected upon, laughed at, and occasionally grumbled about.  Your own engaging character emerges throughout, adding unusual depth to the panorama that populate the essays: fellow booksellers, book buyers, book thieves, collectors, and other hangers-on, including bookstore pets and the taxman.  Nowhere have I found another book that more fully explores the workings of an antiquarian / used bookstore.   And it is accessible to the average reader -- however that is defined -- who simply enjoys good stories.
            Your follow-up Fossicking for Old Books (2004) collects thirty-seven essays and mines the same biblio-vein.  I find it more discursive and more personal as you deftly weave bookish themes through essays about travel adventures, caffeine addiction, family lineage (including a number of Scottish castles), and the gum of the Eucalyptus tree. 

The term “fossicking” was foreign to me, but I was enlightened in your introduction to the book: “If ever, in the hope of finding treasure, you have rummaged through a heap of old books—at a school fete, a church bazaar or an opportunity shop—then, knowingly or not, you have fossicked for old books.  Welcome to the club!  Welcome to the Worshipful Company of Book Fossickers!  And welcome to this book which celebrates the delights and dilemmas of book-fossicking as well as other pleasures and pitfalls associated with old books, old bookshops and old booksellers.
            “An excellent word, fossicking.  For years it languished in the broom cupboard of an English dialect, until it was rescued and put on a stout ship and despatched to Australia.  Here it has grown tall and strong; here it is a word that is widely used and understood.  ‘To fossick’ means to search or to rummage or to prospect.  It implies—at least to my mind—that great treasure lies at the end of the quest.  Also that this search is somewhat haphazard, lacking in system and method (especially bureaucratic method).  A lone prospector, with a mule and a pick, may be said to fossick for gold but a multinational mining company with teams of experts backed up by whiz-bang technology cannot.  No, fossicking is for individuals, fired with private hopes and dreams.
            “Bookdealers like me spend a lot of time fossicking for old books.  Partly because it’s fun, but mostly because our livelihood depends on it.  And we tend to be focused.  We do not always know exactly what we are looking for but we have a lively sense of what we are not looking for.  Ninety-five per cent (no—let’s be honest) ninety-nine per cent of all the books ever published in the world are from the bookdealer’s point of view completely worthless.  We pick them up and toss them aside.  They are the dross, the spoil and the tailings, fit only for the mullock heap.  But bookdealers are not infallible.  Where they fossicked others may follow and ‘noodle’ after them.  ‘Noodle’ is another good Australian word.  ‘Noodle’ is what you do at Coober Pedy in South Australia when you pick over the tailings of the professional opal miners in the hope of spotting overlooked opals.  Many browers in old bookshops can be said to be ‘noodling’ through the books, hoping to spot a bargain or some treasure that the bookseller has overlooked.  Try to incorporate this fine word into your lexicon.  Use it when a family member reproaches you for wasting your time looking at books.  Explain that you love to go a-noodling.  There are many worse things you could be doing.”
            I see that many of your essays published in the two books first appeared in biblio-magazines.  Most notably you wrote about ninety essays in a regular column for the Australian Book Collector over the span of a decade before the magazine folded in 2002.  In the last column “Signing Off” (reprinted in Fossicking for Old Books), you express some revealing thoughts on your writing:  “There is really no end to the subjects you can write about in a bookish sort of column.  The challenge has been to make the topic of my fancy at least vaguely relevant to books and bookshops and bookselling.  And part of the fun has been seeing what oddments can be dragged in; I often feel like a sort of bower-bird on the lookout for shiny treasures which I can stuff into my next article.  People who know me know that anything they say (or do) may be taken down and used.  I am not (I think) ‘mad or bad’, but I may very well be ‘dangerous to know’.
            “I have generally been pretty conscientious about getting my articles written and send in by the due date, but it hasn’t always been easy.  Other things (like the necessity of earning a living) have got in the way.  I’m told (by one who loves me) that when wrestling with words, and with a deadline looming, I am apt to become cranky and withdrawn.  Downright offensive even, for days.  You find this hard to believe (as I do).  Surely I have a sunny, cheerful disposition?  Not at article-hatching time, I don’t.  It’s easy to criticize the cook.  But cooks know that it is not easy making souffles.  You try to whip the words into a nice froth and all you get is stodge.  And I know stodge when I see it.
            “There was a time when I thought I could perhaps be a writer who did a bit of bookselling on the side.  Nowadays I am happy to accept that I am a bookseller who does a bit of writing on the side.  Fame, ambition, worldly success?  I do not think so.  I am a humble bookseller who has achieved a tiny amount of celebrity or notoriety.  I enjoy visits and comments from people who have read my articles or my books.  But it is all on a minuscule scale; not sufficient to turn my head.  Which I am sure is how it should be.
            “This exchange [about an essay] made me realize that one of the delights of writing is this: you simply hand readers a fork so that they can start digging in their own gardens.  Your words are just the catalyst that sparks off a reader’s memory and imagination.”
            Writely so, Mr. Marshall, and easier said than done, my friend (may I call you a friend? – I feel like one after reading your books and doesn’t that make the point?)   I’ll bring this homage to a close for now unless I hear from you.  But it’s not necessary, really.  Your books are enough. 


  1. What fun, Kurt!
    Just bought copies of both through vialibri but you're right not many copies in the U.S.

  2. Two to look for to enjoy.
    Another great article, please keep up the good work.
    Hope to visit this year.
    Thomas Wixon

  3. Contact Book Source Magazine for copies of Anthony Marshall’s books. bsm@windstream.net