The Patron Saint of Booksellers

Posted by Wally O Neill on

St John of God is the patron Saint of booksellers. He’s also the patron Saint of the mentally ill. That probably speaks volumes.

The Book Buddha nods off behind a row of exquisite leather-bound folios across the hall from me. Another book fair with more book sellers than book buyers.

Why do we put ourselves through this torture?

Packing up boxes of books, driving across the country, only to be met with an indifferent and, often, non-existent audience.

As you sit among a room of books, books for every conceivable taste, without a potential reader in sight, the terrible thought must enter your head – Maybe no one gives a damn anymore. Maybe it is the booklover, and not the bookseller, that is going extinct.

A slightly rural version of Pat Kenny manifests before me. He ignores my books and all social norms, launching into a mad tirade.

“I had a friend in the German army in the last war,” he spits, a blood vessel about to burst out of his temple, “He rejoined in ’55. I asked him why had he? After seeing so much hardship. He said he wanted to give those blasted Bolsheviks another good licking, eh? What do you think of that? Isn’t he proved right now by God?”

“Hello,” I counter, trying to force a smile, while covering the big ‘Red Books’ sign. No point in aggregating the situation.

“Is there a book fair on here today?” he mutters, suddenly seeming to become aware of his surroundings.

“Maybe. Its hard to tell.”

Bookselling has existed in some form for 2,500 years. There’s been a demand that’s constituted booksellers since before what we would classify as books even existed.

The Book of Jeremiah records how Baruch the Scribe transcribes the prophets words and then duplicates copies, selling them to interested parties. The proto-bookseller. In 300 BC libraries appeared. This caused adventuring types to venture across the known world, collecting scrolls and parchments to sell to these new institutions.

In 48BC the Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries in the ancient world. The great thinkers of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets from all civilisations came to study and exchange ideas. As many as 700,000 scrolls filled the shelves, all of them collected by booksellers.

According to several authors, the Library of Alexandria was 'accidentally' destroyed by Julius Caesar during the Roman siege of Alexandria in that same year. Perhaps the first case of book burning and the political censorship of books.
Towards the end of the Roman Empire, it became popular to have personal libraries in your home, which greatly popularised the taberna librarii (the Librarians shop).

“Are ya gone asleep or what?” the Book Buddha grins. He’s standing over me now clutching a fiver in his hand. “One of your customers left this for you, even though you wouldn’t find many of that species in this place. Another secret book fair.”

“I was just thinking. Thousands of years of a trade will hardly disappear in a generation? We’ll hardly be the last booksellers?”

“No,” he cries, then seems to consider the possibility for a moment. “Well I won’t be anyway. You’re younger than me.”

“Did you know St John of God is the patron Saint of booksellers?”

“It’s a bit late in the game to be looking for divine intervention Wally,” he smiles. “Unless he can send a lightening bolt into Amazon, I’d say we’re on our own.”

When he was forty years old, João Duarte Cidade, who would one day become known as St John of God, attempted to become a martyr in North Africa helping Christian slaves. At this stage he was a sacked soldier and unemployable shepard. Martyrdom seemed like a good idea.

Instead, he settled on becoming a book peddler in Gibraltar and, after huge success, opened a bookshop in Granada in 1538.

Things looked good for poor auld João.

Until he took a turn, ran through the streets pulling out his hair and giving away his book inventory, and eventually was locked away in a hospital.

Madness and bookselling. Bookselling and madness. It’s a thin line between them.

Some people work for a pay cheque, forever striving for financial stability and independence from the rat race. Others are moved by more altruistic motives. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Teach the ignorant. Protect the weak.

People break days by selling heroin, bombing hospitals, stealing unreleased TV shows, photographing gorillas and winning talent shows.

Then some of us like to sell second hand books out of the back of vans, sheds and other glamourous venues. We are driven by undiagnosed and overwhelming feelings of intense love and wonder for books that have already been read. Ours is the romantic life of haggling over the price of a battered copy of Ulysses, frantically searching for one last copy of the dork diaries for a young customer as if it were the holy grail and spend months wondering if you’ve reached nirvana or just had a nervous breakdown.

Selling the greatest books ever produced by human culture poses a number of questions;

What makes a great read?

Why does Fifty Shades of Grey outsell Virginia Woolf?

Who would win in a fight between Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson?

Does Harry Potter contain the meaning of life?

Madness and bookselling. Bookselling and madness.

“Excuse me,” a gentle old woman interrupts my daydreams, “Would you have a bible for sale?”

It’s amazing how few bookdealers will stock bibles these days, either because of superstitious fears or because they don’t want to seem unfashionable. I sell all books. Out of personal ethics and economic necessity.

“Yes,” I say, handing the old woman an 1860 bible and finally thinking I’ve met someone normal at this bookfair.

“It’s damaged,” she says politely, without even opening the cover.

“Damaged? I don’t think so....”

“It’s missing passages and others are mistranslated.”

“Mmm, I see. But you haven’t even looked inside the cover?”

“I don’t need to,” she smiles. “All bibles are changed.”

“This one was written one hundred and sixty years ago.”

“Doesn’t matter. Time is an illusion when you’re dealing with the dark one.”

“I see. Do you want to buy the bible ma’am?”

“No, it’s damaged.”

“Right so.”

She continues to stand in front of me, silently staring into my soul, smiling and nodding her head complacently.

“Would you like to buy another book?” I finally ask to break the never ending silence.

“No, I’m not fond of reading.”

Madness and bookselling.

“Have you heard about St John of God? He’s the patron saint of booksellers.”

“And the mentally ill,” she growls, “And the dying. Fitting really.... for a bookseller...”

Bookselling and madness.