The book collector

BOOK COLLECTORS tend to be strange animals who will resort to any device in order to acquire their prey.

We once had a customer whose wife did not share his book collecting passion. In order to satisfy his grinding need we had to send his packages to his bird seed man so he could sneak his new acquisitions into the house undetected.

I used to think he must have had a whole flock of birds given the amount of books he ordered. Then, he sold his Hilaire Belloc, GK Chesterton, and Maurice Baring collections and with the proceeds he refurbished the house and tarmacadamed the driveway. From then on we sent the books to his house. On his passing, his collection was sold for £1.5 million.

Another customer had to be visited under darkness of night four times a year. I never got out of the house before 2am but before leaving I had to place the books all over the house - the reason being that when the staff came in the following morning, they would assume that, on seeing the extent of the purchase, he was flush and would ask for a raise.

No matter the format of their eccentricity, they are all, almost to a person, warm and good people whose love of books is infectious. From a bookseller’s perspective, watching a real book collector at work is a real and rare pleasure. On one occasion when Conor and I nearly crashed into each other in the basement of the shop looking for the same book or something similar, we said “Easy known there is a real bookman upstairs”.

Nenagh born, Sligo based, Philip Murray is just such a person. His earliest memories are infused with a love of reading, moving from the Dandy and the Beano to JD Salinger and John Steinbeck.

This love of reading continued on through his early adult years, and while at university in Dublin and later in Galway it was allowed full rein when he discovered the plethora of second hand bookshops that existed in both cities. It was, however, during a stint in Australia that he graduated to being a collector when he came across the work of Patrick White.

In his wonderful and refreshing book Adventures of a Book Collector, which has just been published, he claims that it was when meeting Yours Truly at a wedding in Ireland after his return, that he was “educated” into becoming a collector through our conversation.

However the evidence of the first two chapters of his Adventures... strongly suggest that the seed had been growing long before that chance meeting.

Adventures... exudes a love of books, the sheer pleasure of reading, and the incredible joy of discovering a new treasure which in its turn would lead to yet another wonderful book adventure. As the book progresses, the reader finds him/herself turning the pages with an almost childlike enthusiasm, caught up with the author’s own energetic search for that scarce first edition or rare pamphlet, as he haunts bookshop after bookshop, catalogue after catalogue.

One of Murray’s specialities as a collector was to get authors (the more famous the better ) to sign his first editions of their work and to this end he corresponded with authors from India to Australia.

This took on a new life when Sean Golden and Peter Fallon published an anthology of the work of 36 living Irish writers entitled Soft Day. Our intrepid collector decided to get the book signed by all the contributors much, I would imagine, to the amusement and slight dismay of his family.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the book is the chapter on that doyen on all booksellers in living memory, the inimitable and delightful Bernard Stone to whom the book is dedicated.

Watching Bernard in a bookshop was like watching a shepherd look after his flock. Every book, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was revered, celebrated, and loved as though it were then only one in the shop. But to speak only of the man’s love of books is merely to scratch the surface of this icon’s charming character as Murrray’s narration informs us.

Adventures of a Book Collector is an extraordinary voyage of discovery with one or two bibliographic surprises. The narration is direct and without frills. It is simply a celebration of the joy of collecting, the wonder of reading, and the pleasure of meeting new and wonderful people. For anyone who reads, loves, or even dabbles in books, it is an absolute delight.


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