Long long ago, before architecture took up my time, I dabbled in book dealing, buying and selling on a small scale. In the mid-90’s, before the internet caught on, you relied on books to find other books. Various firms published guides to bookshops and bookdealers, locating them and providing a rough idea of their stock. Dog-eared copies of Skoob, Sheppard’s and Drif rumbled around the boot of my car, alongside old banana boxes packed with architecture and design books of various stripes.
If you needed an entertaining but unreliable Cicerone, you picked up Drif. Occasionally, you come across the kind of book you know will cause trouble: Drif’s Guide to and For the Secondhand Bookshops of Britain was described by one reviewer, the joyless Simon Heffer, as “a scabrous collection of insults, jokes, prejudices and abuses about bookshops and their owners.” The fact that it was self-published was the key to its existence: a publisher would never release a title which offended so many folk, or a book which revelled in anti-promotion. Speaking of bookshops, Drif noted – “They are dreadful, you are wasting your money buying this guide. It will only tell you how dreadful they are in more detail.” Only someone who loved books as much as Drif could say that.
No-one knew his first name. His given name was always Drif. The books were called Drif Field Guides, suggesting that bookshops could be tracked down and ticked off in the field like rare birds, or wild flowers. The first edition was published in 1984 – In Quest of the Perfect Book: The Antiquarian Bookshop Catalogue & Directory, and its author was already honing his no-holds-barred vitriolic skills. Mr Driffield achieved notoriety thanks to his Guide. It is – provided you can find a copy – probably the least objective book you are every likely to read. Drif badly needed an editor, and the D.I.Y. cut-and-paste graphics improved only a little with each edition. There are occasional insights into the machinery of the second-hand booktrade, which would be hard-won if you had to figure them all out for yourself: the guides discuss the shibboleths of pricing (calibration, as Drif calls it), condition, haggling, and accurate description. Yet these are not instructional books for greenhorns; they are as much aimed at the trade as the casual reader.
Drif characterised his fellow dealers using an enormous stock of pejoratives, including the immortal put-down, “a person who thinks sex is what the Scots carry coal in”. By turns he is scathing and nostalgic, yet his guides are always shot through with dry wit and variable grammar. As the years went on, the format of the books changed, and they became more autobiographical – for instance, he recounted his adventures on trains – British Frail – with evident glee. On one visit to Scotland, he detrained several miles from his destination, retrieved his bike from the guard’s van, then cycled into town. He turned up just as the bookshop opened, wearing his habitual Aran sweater and tweed plus fours, then parked his transport against the shopfront. That famous bike featured on one of the book covers, and became his trademark, almost as much as his personal style – a suedehead haircut and bovver boots on one hand, and three-piece suit in green tweed on the other.
Drif marched purposefully into the shop and straight up to the desk – dealers are never tentative when they enter bookshops, unlike casual browsers, who open and close the door gingerly – then he asked dolefully, “Do you have anything about DEATH?” Whether or not he had a client who was keen to acquire books about mortality, this opening shot was designed to throw the unsuspecting bookshop owner. Tales like this gave Drif a disconcerting quality which fed his reputation for eccentricity and bloody-mindedness. He could be an absolute scourge: albeit the Tyneside dealer who Drif named “the rudest in Britain” found that business boomed after that recommendation.
Scotland fared better, perhaps because Drif enjoyed feeling he was abroad, and he returned time and again with optimism. From his 1992 book – “Aberdeen is such a different city to anywhere else in Britain; the books are not too great, but it does contain hope. Hope is the one quality that a secondhand bookshop cannot do without. It is more important than the actual books. What you need to visit a bookshop is the belief that there is a possibility that the bookshop may have what you are looking for. That is why it is that all unvisited bookshops are so tempting; you have not been disappointed by them yet.”
Aberdeen got off lightly, considering that he characterised Glasgow as Gotham City with leprosy; that it smelt like catfood diluted with vintage urine, and sounded like Billy Graham being sodomised. In fact, he had a weakness for the Far North simply because cheap books were to be had – “bargains known.” The serious point of the guides was to document all of the secondhand bookshops in Britain, pass comment on them, and perhaps recommend a few where bargains could be had, or where a speciality lay. As part of his dealing activities, he travelled the length of the country several times a year, so he spoke from experience – and the six editions of the Guide, from 1984 to 1995, chronicled the slow decline of the bookshop.
In 1991, he recounted the story of how he roused the owner of Winrams Bookshop in Rosemount at 10pm on a Sunday evening, and got her to open up the shop for him there and then. As a non-driver, he was accompanied on that buying trip by a former Israeli tank commander (or so he would have us believe), who drove him through Aberdeen’s streets at 60mph for a couple of hours before they spotted the shop. This chauffeur – always referred to as Raymond Carver – acted as his Greek chorus throughout the book, “What a toad, have you noticed how he is always keenest on middle-aged females?” Or the “League of Lady Booksellers”, as Drif fondly referred to them. By the fourth edition, Drif had mastered the form of the Guidebook and was playing around with Post-modernism.
How the story was told was just as important as the narrative, and that had long ago overtaken the substantive content of the guides. Drif’s usual style was to employ failed poets as drivers – although the exception was Iain Sinclair who has published several novels about London, and wrote Drif into the first, White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, as a disgruntled fixture of the book trade. Sinclair noted that as Drif began to believe his own hype, the guides became more anecdotal – which inevitably with Drif means autobiographical – until he came to the notice of the media. He appeared on Radio 4, discussing the death of the bookshop; later, his manuscript for a novel (described by Sinclair as “strange and driven”) came close to being published. Although Drif believed the media was interested because he was an example of the Great British Eccentric – he always characterised himself as an outsider – in fact he was an insider, deep in the London booktrade.
One example of that carefully-cultivated eccentricity was the reason why he showed up at Winrams late in the evening – his vegetarian diet. En route to Aberdeen, he stopped in Perth and attempted in several places to find a “veggie menu” – but only managed to get something to eat when he found a chip shop and ordered “everything vegetarian” from the menu. Thus he feasted on baked apple, followed by mushy peas with battered mushrooms and onion rings, with a banana fritter as dessert… Yet read past these amusing asides, and over the course of six books you can see Drif’s heart slowly being broken as the book trade atrophied, destroying the certainties of three decades of dealing.
Drif attributed the decline in bookshops’ quality to the fecklessness of their owners: the decline in bookshop numbers was due, he believed, to the rise of bookfairs, charity shops and the internet. All three are beneficial for bookhunters, since you don’t need to rely on expensive “booksearch” services (in fact, all they did was to put small wanted ad’s into Bookdealer magazine, and wait for their colleagues to report back with any copies they might have). Today, you can cut out the middleman, so the arrival of the internet was bad news for Drif. His main occupation – operating as an arbitrageur in the book trade, spotting bargain first editions in one shop, then punting them elsewhere at a higher price – no longer makes you a living.
He also believed that most bookshop proprietors do not treat book dealing as a business, more as a hobby with cachet. He was therefore dismayed, but not unsurprised, that the tally of shops run by professional dealers reduced each time he published a new edition of his guide. He went to war, metaphorically, on the “bookfairies” – dealers who only showed stock at bookfairs, but had no shops; and also the legions of charity shops which have sprung up in the last twenty years. In fact, Aberdeen was the winner of Drif’s contest in 1995 to find the British town with the most charity shops. Drif particularly disliked one shop in Rosemount Viaduct – “Oxfam’s Worst Bookshop: you can hear the dogs barking from the railway station” – dogs in this case being books considered unsaleable by the trade.
The internet helped to kill Drif’s Guides, just as it has helped to kill bookshops. By offering easy access to all the world’s books, the net has deprived us of the joy of browsing. Amazon is great if you know exactly what you’re looking for, but hopeless if you enjoy accidentally coming across books whose existence you knew nothing about. Similarly, the net is full of “bloggers” who voice their opinions about things, without having established their credentials first. The kind of person who “reviews” bookshops online falls into either of Drif’s first two categories of people who visit bookshops – a Reader or Collector, but never a Dealer. R and C are amateurs, but it takes a D to provide true insight. Fifteen years ago, Drif saw what was happening to the trade, and now both Aberdeen and Dundee only have a couple of bookshops. Even a decade ago, the former had Winram’s in Rosemount; King’s Quair, and the Old Clock Repair Shop in King Street; Bon Accord Books, and the Old Aberdeen Bookshop in Spital, and the Adelphi Bookshop, all selling secondhand stock; plus Bissets in Schoolhill, Dillons, and Waterstones in Union Street, selling new books. Similarly, ten years ago there was a shop in Perth specialising in secondhand architecture books – today no-one in Scotland fulfils that role.
After publishing the 1995 edition, Drif went AWOL. One report had him moving to Poland and going native; another dealer I spoke to believed he had gone to ground in North London, and was now fixing computers for a living in Crouch End. That struck me as strange, considering how he enjoyed being a Luddite, taking the train rather than learning to drive, and calling in favours in order to get someone to type the Guide for him…
Touchingly, the introduction to the 1995 Guide ends with a lament about how transient our place in history is, yet – “It will be through a book that I will survive.” That is as good an epigram, or perhaps epitaph, as you’ll ever read.