Classic Literature | 27 November 2015Rare Books Uncovered: A Prewar Stockpile in Brussels Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens are nice; bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens are nice, too, but brown paper packages tied up with strings… these are definitely rare book collector Martin Stone’s favorite things. Collectors and bibliophiles appreciate the scarcity and rarity of their finds, but would never in a thousand years expect to stumble upon coveted rare titles in like-new condition, and yet that is exactly what happened to Martin Stone. In today’s age of ebooks and digital files, it’s hard to imagine oneself owning a one-of-a-kind find, published longer ago than you have been alive, and surviving in the Twenty-First Century with perfectly preserved pages. Stone’s story is one such story, and is one of many collected in Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places. A Prewar Stockpile in Brussels (Martin Stone’s Story) Martin Stone had a recurring daydream. His reverie was set in the French Riviera, of course, where the English guitarist and book scout often traveled to chase collectible volumes left by English and American expatriates in the early twentieth century. The first stop was always his friend’s bookshop in Cannes, but then he would swing by a “scrubby semi-antique shop in the back end of town, which is not grand,” he said, adding, “The front of Cannes is all very posh, and the back is almost sinister.” The antiques shop closed ages ago, but it had continued to rattle Stone’s unconscious. “My waking dream is that I go past this shop and it’s suddenly, miraculously open and when I go inside there’s all this stuff which is in brand-new condition because it’s been shut for the last fifty or sixty years,” he said. That’s the kind of fantasy that appeals to treasure hunters the world over, and Stone is a legendary rare book hunter. He has been “running” (as the English say) books for decades, first in London and now in Paris, though his wandering knows no geographic border. His friend, author and former bookseller Iain Sinclair, is supposed to have immortalized Stone as the dyspeptic book scout Nicholas Lane in his novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987). Lane was described as follows: “He was a great bookman: not a great bookseller, he could never be contacted, his stock was impossible to view—not certainly, a great book buyer, his cheques were notoriously Amazonian. A great bookman, simply that. A legend.” Another friend, collector John Baxter, wrote extensively about their hot pursuit of modern first editions in and around London’s street markets in the 1970s in his memoir, A Pound of Paper (2002). Baxter met Stone at a north London flea market after picking up some rare volumes of his idol, Graham Greene. When the American edition of his book was published, Baxter brought Stone to California’s Bay Area for a combination promotional tour and antiquarian quest. Stone uncovered a signed first edition of Joe Gores’ 1975 novel, Hammett, in one shop, and Baxter turned up a Samuel Beckett first edition for $5.50 in another. No doubt they also spent time at Berkeley’s Serendipity Books. Its celebrated owner, Peter B. Howard, was a great fan of Stone’s, so much so that he wrote and had printed a limited-edition portfolio called Martin Stone, Bookscout in 2000. (A copy of the folio-sized, first limited edition is worth $5,000). But like many scouts—the few still standing—Stone is enigmatic. His Internet presence is minimal; he is, he conceded, “resolutely Dickensian.” He has never sold a book online and “hardly ever” bought one on the web either. Google him and the results are scant—a couple of interviews, a cameo in a 2009 CBS television segment on French bibliomaniacs, and a stub Wikipedia page that highlights his musical career. (When Brian Jones left the Rolling Stones in 1969, the very talented Stone was proposed as a successor, and he still records with writer/musician Michael Moorcock.) Such is the way with book scouts. They go about their jobs discreetly, and the only way to get ahold of them is to know someone who knows them. Or, in Stone’s case, to attend the one event each year where he exhibits his cumulative prizes, the London International Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia, typically held in late May. Stone has ferreted countless sleepers from the most humble locations— and he is renowned for his uncanny ability to not only locate them but also to remember them. When asked to name a “best” find over the years, he described one epiphanic experience seven years ago that outranked even his more lucrative scores. It was, he said, “a dream come true.” But this dream takes place in Belgium, not France. “There was in the heart of Brussels a very grand bookshop, perhaps the greatest bookshop in a city known for books, called Tulkens,” he began. Located at 21 Rue du Chéne, Librairie (Florimond) Tulkens was an institution in the city, having succeeded another bookshop, Louis de Meuleneere, early in the twentieth century. For a time there were basically two shops, one of them presenting fine antiquarian stock, the other specializing in decorative arts and art reference books. “At the outbreak of the first World War, the Germans came into Brussels and conquered Belgium, and they set up their headquarters bang opposite Tulkens’ shop,” Stone continued. “Tulkens, horrified, immediately got his staff to close the shop and put the shutters up.” The Germans promptly demanded that the shop reopen because, Stone said, they were worried that rats would run rampant in the empty shop and then stray into their HQ. So Tulkens instructed his staff to take all the books from the shop, wrap them in brown paper parcels, and stash them on the upper floors of the townhouse. The ground-floor store was thus open, if unoccupied. When the war ended, the books were returned to the shelves, but then, in the 1930s, the decorative arts section folded. The booksellers again packed up the unsold volumes, wrapped them in brown paper, and stowed them upstairs. In 1995, the elder Tulkens died, and the shop carried on under his stepson’s command. By 2008 he had decided to cease operations, so he called in a specialty bookseller to begin liquidating the stock. That bookseller, in turn, called Stone and asked if he would be interested in some very nice French literature. Stone had visited the shop before it closed: the large, opulent front room was decorated with Persian carpets and chandeliers, and it held fine bindings and “rather pompous sets” of standard authors, but what the public could see was just “the tip of iceberg.” He hopped a train to Brussels. “One day I go out there and my eyes popped out of my head! What can I say?” What awaited him was an immense collection—“I can’t tell you how huge, double-banked up to the ceiling,” he said—of books wrapped in brown paper. All were published pre-1933 and yet were in stunning condition, having sat protected and undisturbed in Tulkens’ upper floors and back rooms since the 1930s. “I would pull out a parcel and it would say ‘A&C Black Paris,’ and I would open it up and inside would be four pristine, brand-new copies of the large-paper edition of the A&C Black Book on Paris, fine in the dust jacket.” A&C Black, an English firm now owned by Bloomsbury Publishing, publishes reference works, and its early, illustrated books are highly collectible, with prices for an immaculate first edition such as this, in a dust jacket, running in excess of $500. The next bundle revealed six copies of another turn-of-the-century tome in the finest condition possible, and so on. “It was heart stopping,” recalled Stone. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” “There were some tremendous rarities,” he said. “But essentially the rarity had to do with condition. These were books that were just fresh as a daisy, as though they had been published yesterday, but the date was 1899 or 1903, and some of them were in multiples. It was just extraordinary.” Every other week for eighteen months, Stone took an early morning train from Paris to Brussels, unwrapped parcels, and constructed piles of books he wanted. After lunch, the proprietor would appraise his selections. “The pricing was completely random, completely higgledy-piggledy,” he said. “I grew to realize that it didn’t matter . . . I would just buy them anyway.” Although Stone keeps a larger stock—about fifteen thousand volumes—than most itinerant book scouts, he had to hire trucks and rent storage space to accommodate this acquisition. He chose from decorative arts, art reference, occult titles, literature, and many other categories among the 150,000 volumes for sale. “There were some tremendous rarities,” he said. “But essentially the rarity had to do with condition. These were books that were just fresh as a daisy, as though they had been published yesterday, but the date was 1899 or 1903, and some of them were in multiples. It was just extraordinary.” At first, selling them proved tricky. Stone explained, “When I finally began putting them into the marketplace, there was an initial hesitancy because people thought, ‘I collect A&C Black books, I’ve got one hundred and eighty of them, and now here are fifteen titles that are all in dust jackets. If I buy these, it makes the rest of my collection look like shit. They’re too good!’” But that soon passed. No one book was worth more than about $2,000, he allowed, so it wasn’t a get-rich-quick scheme—had it been pre-1900 books in jackets, he quipped, “You wouldn’t even be talking to me because I’d be on an island somewhere!” More than anything, Stone’s experience in Brussels was a personal and professional thrill, the literal realization of a dream. When it was all finished, he felt quite sad about it, he said. “I thought, that’s me done for this lifetime. I shall never see the like of it ever again. . . . Where’s the next one? I can’t expect it.” And yet he presses on. His Saturday morning alarm is set for 5:30 a.m. so he can hit the Paris flea markets early. In March 2015, that diligence paid off when he purchased, for just over $3, a French edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales containing an original photograph of Andersen. There is one known copy in the world, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. “That was a nice buy,” he said. “So you never know.” With a suitcase full of rare books and a string of appointments with private clients, Stone prevails in the radically changed secondhand-book market, where those with a superficial knowledge of books and an Internet connection can pose as experts. (He invoked the classic Oscar Wilde quote: “Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”) He avoids that element as much as he can, seeking out unique or extremely rare items under the radar. “I’m a dreadful businessman, but I’m very assiduous about looking for stuff,” he said. “There’s little point for me in buying a book for which there are forty copies available online.” In the end, his philosophy of book scouting is absolutely simple: “I look,” he said. “That is the great pleasure.” Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: Feed your inner bibliophile with this volume on unearthed rare and antiquarian books. Few collectors are as passionate or as dogged in the pursuit of their quarry as collectors of rare books. In Rare Books Uncovered, expert on rare and antiquarian books Rebecca Rego Barry recounts the stories of remarkable discoveries from the world of book collecting. Read about the family whose discovery in their attic of a copy of Action Comics No. 1–the first appearance of Superman-saved their home from foreclosure. Or the Salt Lake City bookseller who volunteered for a local fundraiser–and came across a 500-year-old copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Or the collector who, while browsing his local thrift shop, found a collectible copy of Calvary in China–inscribed by the author to the collector’s grandfather. These tales and many others will entertain and inspire casual collectors and hardcore bibliomaniacs alike. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.