The Antiquarian, a short story by Steven Elvy at
Paolo Chiabrando

The Antiquarian

The Antiquarian

written by: Steven Elvy



I hadn’t travelled by bus for ages. I live only two minutes from the tube station, you see, and on the rare occasions when I had to get anywhere – anywhere of any distance that I couldn’t walk to or grab a cab to that is – that had been my preferred mode of transport for . . . well, for ages.

And I’d also had to look back through my old diaries to try and work out the last time I’d driven a car and, funnily enough, it was exactly five years ago, almost to the day. Yes. It was that long ago that I’d finally bitten the bullet and got shot of the wheels. Too much of a luxury, really, for the odd occasions I was actually using the car, to warrant it, you see? And the cost! Couldn’t justify it to myself, you understand. What with the road tax, the insurance, and the exorbitant rent they charge for garaging around here, of course . . .

I’m rambling a bit now, aren’t I? Sorry, I’ll try and get back on track, as it were. Begin again, shall we?

Perhaps we should start with an introduction. My name is . . . well that doesn’t really seem important, does it? After all, I don’t know your name so why in the blazes should you be interested in mine? Call me Ishmael, perhaps. Sorry, literary joke. Which really is a bit more to the point, I suppose. That’s what I do, you see; the circles I move within. I’m an antiquarian book dealer. That’s antique books to you, my friend.

I’ve been in the book trade for . . . now let me think. Good Lord, forty-seven years! Cripes. Yes, nineteen seventy-six was when I started. James Callaghan had just become prime minister at the age of sixty-four and I remember the press had made a bit of a hullabaloo about it. Apparently he was the oldest PM we’d had since Churchill. It’s a funny coincidence that, actually, because that’s the same age I am now. I wonder if Mr Callaghan felt he was over the hill. I certainly don’t, thank you very much indeed.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I don’t kid myself I’m in my prime. But I’m not in my dotage, either. I’m a bit creaky first thing in the morning, of course, that I will own up to. It takes me a bit to get going, if you understand. But once I’m up and moving about the flat a bit, after I’ve had my coffee and a quick jump in the shower, why, you’d think I was the proverbial spring chicken!

I don’t mean to imply I’m doing cart-wheels or high kicks in my carpet slippers, of course. For one thing, the flat isn’t really designed for indoor acrobatics.

You could perhaps portray it as pokey, but I prefer to describe it to you more accurately as bijou. I’ve got a good sized sitting room with a kitchen area just off which is adequate for my culinary purposes (I usually dine out three or four times a week, anyway – this part of North London is awash with restaurant choices) and . . . What was I saying? Oh, yes, the flat – I was telling you about it, wasn’t I. Well, yes, simply put, it comprises of living room, kitchenette (yes, that’s the word for it), a nice little bathroom with a bath and a shower, my bedroom of course, and another room I euphemistically call my study, although in truth it’s only a big cupboard, but certainly large enough for my desk and a chair and . . . Now how the hell did we get on to all of this? Oh, yes, that was it: the bus! I was saying I hadn’t been on one for ages.

And you see the other thing was, at one time, I always drove everywhere. Couldn’t imagine being without my car in those days. Lovely little MG I used to have, racing green, a soft canvass top I could put down on a sunny day. Tootling down the A1, arm on the door sill, wind blowing in my hair (when I had hair). Ah, wonderful times . . . And another’s soft hand resting on my knee and then snaking forward to turn up the radio, the two of us singing along tunelessly to The Eagles or Fleetwood Mac-

Oh, God . . . how I wish . . .

What was that you said?

Sorry. No, no, you’re quite right. One shouldn’t dwell on the past. It’s only the present that matters, of course it is; the present and the future and looking forward to making new memories; Carpe Diem – and all that nonsense.

Yes, I’m fine, thank you very much. Just blow my nose . . . OK.

So . . . as I was saying: the bus. Yes, all very different now, from when I was a lad, the arrangements and everything. I catch the 234 at the stop across the road and it’s just a thirty minute journey to Friern Barnet, where William has his bookshop. It’s a single-decker and the usual morning driver is a smiling man who wears a turban and tinted glasses. I always bid him a good morning and he always replies with, ‘Thank you. Move down the bus, please.’ Oh, I know what you’re thinking, but he isn’t being unpleasant or unfriendly; I’ve made the journey time enough now to note that he says these words, by rote it seems, to any passenger who addresses him with a morning greeting. And he always beams them a smile at the same time. And I’ve also observed, rather unfortunately, that only a small number of my fellow travellers do actually wish him a good morning, or even utter a single word to him in fact, the majority simply showing their mobile phones to the electronic device, taking their ticket as the machine beeps, and then moving past him in silence. It always seems rather rude to me, not acknowledging the driver in any way. I suppose the point is that, as it’s all automated now, it’s as if the driver has ceased to be a human being and simply become part of the automated mechanism. But seeing this sort of behaviour always brings to mind that phrase, “Manners cost nothing” . . . or is it, “Manners maketh man?” Oh well, something about manners, anyway.

Anyway, I’ve been making this journey, back and forth, for nearly a month now and, I must say, I find it really quite enjoyable. For half an hour in the morning and again in the early evening on my return, I can sit down, reasonably comfortably, with absolutely nothing to do but look out the window watching the world go by.

Do you know, I’ve lived in this part of North London for all my life, but I now realise that I’ve never really looked at it before. I’ve simply been blinkered. It was just there. Now I’m discovering landmarks I was completely oblivious to, and it’s like being on holiday, like visiting somewhere for the first time.

No, no, no. I don’t mean anything monumental! It’s not as if I’m suddenly discovering the Muswell Hill Marbles or the New Barnet Pyramids – or a herd of wildebeest stampeding from Totteridge Lane, or anything like that. No, I just mean I’m taking in new sights . . . Seeing new shops, old buildings and pubs and restaurants I was previously unaware of, that’s all. That’s all I meant.

And when I’m not taking in the sights, I settle to observing the other passengers. It’s pretty much the same bunch each day and I’ve not been able to help myself from imagining who they are and the sort of lives they lead and I’ve given many of them individual names. There’s the schoolboy, fourteen or fifteen I would guess, a good six feet tall, immaculate in his Oxford blue blazer, white shirt and tie and shiny black brogues – he’s Little Lord Fauntleroy. Then there’s the middle-aged man who gets on after two stops – a bit scruffy in faded blue jeans and white tee-shirt and a hooded cagoule – who has a nervous habit as soon as he sits down of tapping the palms of his hands on his knees to some imagined musical rhythm, starting slowly and then gaining momentum, until eventually a complete orchestral concerto emerges and then he’s tip tapping away towards some monumental symphonic crescendo; he’s Little Drummer Boy. Oh, and then there’s the Goth couple – I think they are a couple but I’m not entirely sure which is male and which is female, or maybe they’re both the same sex – both dressed all in black with coaled eyes and fringes covering half their faces; I’ve donned them Goth One and Goth Two. Oh and then there’s . . . Well, I could go on, but I can see your eyes glazing over.

Anyway, you’re probably wondering why I’m making these bus journeys in the first place – aren’t you?

Well, it’s because of my old friend William – you remember I mentioned he had a book shop? Well, William – the poor old bugger – has had to have a hip replacement. No, I was shocked, too! He’s only my age. Just goes to show, doesn’t it. You just never know what lies in wait.

I’ve known William for thirty years. We’ve done some business together over those years, of course, on the occasions when he’s come to me looking for rare editions for one of his customers, or he’s helped me in cataloguing some obscure book collection, and we’ve accompanied each other to literary events and book festivals up and down the country and so on. But he’s more than just a business acquaintance, he’s a real pal. He’s probably– no, he’s definitely – my closest friend; now, anyway.

So when he asked me if I would mind the shop for him for a couple of months, what was I to say?


I don’t mind admitting it to you, but I was a little nervous about taking it all on, the responsibility of it all and meeting new people and everything. Yes, I know: a ridiculous notion in a man of my age. But I couldn’t help that first day at school feeling of queasy apprehension, the slight tingling in the old tummy, you know? The collywobbles?

You see, I’ve not only lived alone for the past fifteen-odd years, I’ve also run my business from home, almost entirely with phone, post, email and Internet, and I wondered how I would feel about firstly travelling to Friern Barnet each day and secondly having to interact with a group of complete strangers, cooped up, entrapped – face to face, eyeball to eyeball, as it were.

No, no, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to paint a picture of myself as some kind of Howard Hughes reclusive hermit. Far from it, I can assure you! Why, I’m out of the flat nearly as much as I’m in it. I’ve already told you that I eat out most evenings, and at least once a month I’ll hop on the tube into Town and take in a show, or perhaps see a play at the National . . .

Why are you looking at me like that? Yes, like that – like I’m fibbing or something?

All I mean is – the point I’m trying to make – is that I’m a very contented, self-reliant, independent sort of person. Over the years I’ve developed a certain life-style, a certain routine that I’m comfortable with. And I didn’t relish the prospect of any of that being upset or interrupted. That’s all. That’s all I meant.

William had briefed me, of course, in manner of speaking. We’d had dinner in a quiet little Italian restaurant we both liked in Southgate, all gingham tablecloths and dripping candles in old wine bottles, tall breadsticks in a slender glass on each table. I’d arrived early and had ordered a bottle of Chianti which the waiter had opened and then left to breath by my elbow.

I half stood and shook William’s hand when he arrived and came to the table, in that rather formal way we always did. He sat down opposite me with some difficulty, wincing. He’s a big man, not much taller than me, but with shoulders like a stevedore and a huge stomach he carries around like a pet turtle and-

What? I beg your pardon? Now, why did you say that?

No! I am not being unkind; I’m simply describing to you what William looks like, that’s all. I’m very fond of William, I’ll have you know.

Anyway, suffice it to say, poor old William wasn’t in the best of spirits that evening. His doctor had him on a strict diet and so, while I tucked into my funghi montebaldo followed by a generous plate of lasagne al forno and topped off with a delicious tiramisu, he simply chased some salad leaves around his plate and would only agree to a half a glass of the rather excellent Chianti. I had to drink the rest of the bottle by myself and, oh boy, did I know about it the next morning . . . But I digress.

I had rather hoped that William was going to thoroughly brief me on all aspects of his book shop, however as it turned out he was far more absorbed in his impending hip operation and we barely touched upon the subject. In fact, he was somewhat blasé about any of the questions I put to him about the running of his business during his absence and what was expected of me. He gave me the names of his troupe of employees and simply said if I got stuck with anything, then one of them would know what to do.


And now, four weeks on, I have to admit that William’s supposed indifference to my concerns was perfectly understandable. The place runs with the precision of a Swiss clock. The only puzzling aspect that remained was what the hell I was doing there at all.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me; I’m not expressing any regrets – far from it. It’s been a most interesting few weeks. William’s merry band of employees is a pleasant enough bunch and they’ve all kept me entertained no end.

The first person I was to meet was Kooky. Yes, I know. But that’s her name. She’s originally from Latvia and came to England as a student back in two-thousand and five, worked for William as a Saturday girl and has stayed ever since. She did tell me her real name but it’s almost unpronounceable, certainly by me, hence she is Kooky.

Kooky’s English is excellent but for the fact that she has a bizarre way of interpreting certain words. William she calls Walliam and the book shop is the bock shoop. She’s a striking looking young woman, with a lithe athletic body and a lovely face with high cheekbones and electric blue eyes. Personally, I secretly wished she hadn’t felt the need to tamper with the bountiful grace nature had already bestowed upon her by adding the adornments of the nose-ring and the piercings in her eyebrows and all over her ears – but that’s just me. Yes: I’m sixty-four.

In the weeks since I’ve known Kooky, her shoulder-length hair has transitioned from aquamarine-blue to yellow to green to orange. This week, it’s silver.

Kooky’s girlfriend is Melanie, a small, bird-like and very earnest woman who comes in three afternoons a week and who is the bookkeeper. I would put her age at late forties or early fifties. She has two teenage sons who she refers to as “the little shits” and seems to dote over. Melanie has an intense way of looking at you that on first impression is somewhat disconcerting. Her deep brown eyes appear to be boring through your skull to see into your brain. I wasn’t sure if I was going to take to Melanie, but as I got to know and understand her more I realised that her direct way of speaking and her apparent air of aloof superiority hid a far more complex person beneath. Seeing her with Kooky and the obvious affection they shared only strengthened my opinion.

Archie is still a bit of a puzzle to me. His full name is Archibald Whitney-Hughes, which I know because that is how he introduced himself to me, shaking my hand and bowing at the waist like a Prussian cavalry officer. I half expected him to click his heels. Archie is probably my age or even older. He has a whiff of the Old Etonian about him and that certain manner of speech that goes with it, something like a ham actor trying to do Shakespeare. His eyes are deep brown and moist and he looks at you rather imploringly, like a seal pup. Kooky treats him like an infant, but in a kindly way, and Archie appears so besotted by her that I think if she told him to go and stand in the rain in the middle of the busy road outside he would only pause to get his overcoat, trilby hat and umbrella before obeying.

The fourth member of the little group is Dylan, or “Dylan the Adonis,” as Melanie calls him. He’s nineteen or twenty, with skinny shoulders, floppy blond hair and pop star good looks of the David Cassidy sort and who Kooky and Melanie tease relentlessly with far from subtle – and often quite outrageous -sexual innuendo. Dylan’s only response is to simply blush a deep crimson and turn away while blinking his eyes rapidly, which causes the women to respond with, “Ah, isn’t he cute,” and ruffle his hair or pinch his bottom. Dylan is one of the most insecure young men I’ve ever met and my heart constantly goes out to him, but at the same time I’m mildly infuriated by his apparent lack of backbone or gumption.

So those are my fellow workers.


The book shop is a Victorian double-fronted building on two floors with bow windows either side of a tall glass-panelled front door. There are three windows on the first storey and it’s through one of these that I often look out on the busy surrounding streets as I sit at William’s desk, idly watching the traffic and the pedestrians as they go about their daily business.

It’s Tuesday afternoon and Melanie is in today, busy tapping away on her laptop at her own desk by the second window. We had a brief chat when she first arrived, exchanging pleasantries, and she told me some of what “the little shits” had been up to, one of them getting an A plus at school for his English essay and the other scoring a hat trick for the school’s football team. But soon she was hard at it, her fingers dancing across her keyboard, and I’ve not had a peep out of her since as she concentrates on doing whatever it is she does – sums, I suppose.

When I’m not staring out the window, I’ve been fairly busy myself. I’ve got some items coming up for sale at Chiswick Auctions including a 1562 edition of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographia and a 1964 first edition of Chairman Mao’s Quotations, or The Little Red Book as it is known, and I’ve been phoning some of my contacts to try and garner some interest.

I was down in the back of the shop this morning, shirtsleeves rolled up, helping Dylan and Archie unpack and shelve a new delivery of hard backs. I say help, but in reality it was Dylan who did most of the work while Archie and I stood around ineffectually supervising. But then Kooky came through and gave Archie some new instructions and took him back with her to the front of the shop and, after lingering for a few more minutes, I too left Dylan to it and went back upstairs.

Most days are like this. The shop opens at nine-thirty but the four of us – Kooky, Archie, Dylan and I – are all here by just after nine, standing around with our coffees and chatting. Often, Kooky will outline certain duties for Archie and Dylan such as changing the window displays or inventorying some of the obsolete stock due for return to the wholesaler, but mostly we natter about inconsequential things like certain books we’ve read or want to read, films or plays we’ve seen, restaurants we’ve visited and recipes we want to try out. It’s all very convivial.

I usually stay down in the shop with Archie and Dylan for the first hour or so and help with any chores or perhaps even serve some customers, while Kooky goes upstairs to the office to sit at her desk by the third window. There is a steady footfall of book buying customers coming in throughout the week, but I knew it was the online sales and marketing that were responsible for generating the lion’s share of William’s profits, and this is what Kooky was primarily engaged in.

You’re probably thinking that it all sounds rather dull – and perhaps it is – but we do get some excitement. Well perhaps not excitement, necessarily, but variety at least.

Last week we had a book signing and it was quite an event. The author of the hour was a Mr Arthur Peabody, an inhabitant of Arnos Grove, an octogenarian who has self-published a book about the marsh warbler and its fascinating summer visits from southern Africa to south-east England. The beguiling title of the opus was The Marsh Warbler Has Landed.

Archie and Dylan had spent the morning constructing an eye-catching window display of Mr Peabody’s books, complete with artificial foliage and a stuffed version of the actual subject matter – brought along for the event by the author himself – which Archie had attached at a jaunty angle to one of the books’ spine. Mr Peabody then read out some of the more exciting extracts of his slim volume to an invited audience of eight, staff not included. Mr Peabody then sat behind the desk that Dylan had brought downstairs for the purpose while he slowly and very deliberately signed copies of his book for the eager purchasers. In all, we sold seven, staff not included.

And only last week I accompanied Kooky and Archie to the Friary Sacred Heart Primary School where the two of them gave a spirited reading of an abridged version of James and the Giant Peach to an entranced audience of eight to ten- year olds. Archie read the narrative as if it was the Gettysburg Address and Kooky took over to provide all of the characters’ voices, The Earthworm, Aunt Sponge, Mr Centipede, and so on.

In spite of her distinctly unique way of pronouncing certain words, and although all of the characters she rendered sounded strangely identical, I could see that Kooky was a big hit. I think the nose ring and tartan hair contributed. Anyway, she and Archie received a rapturous round of applause accompanied by some exuberant wolf-whistles from their discerning patrons at the merciful conclusion to the event.


Oh, I have some great news! William has returned! It’s been only seven weeks since he had his op and the poor old thing is still using a cane, but at least he’s off the crutches and he’s mobile again. I thought you’d be pleased.

To celebrate, Kooky and Melanie insisted on holding a dinner party in his honour. The whole gang was there and it was quite a hoot.

We started with beetroot soup and, although I was initially sceptical, I can assure you it is actually quite delicious. For the main course we had some sort of stew – they did say the name of it but I’m blessed if I can remember – which consisted of grey peas, onions and fat chunks of bacon in a thick sauce and served with mashed potatoes. Not the most appetising looking dish I’ve ever seen, but nice enough if you like that sort of thing.

Kooky and Melanie’s house is a substantial nineteen-seventy’s semi-detached in a quiet suburban road in North Finchley. I had half expected their home to be something between a Parisian garret and a kibbutz, but in reality it’s quite ordinary and homely, decorated in muted pastel shades and furnished very traditionally.

We sat at a large oak dining table in their comfortable living room and William was given pride of place at one end and Melanie faced him at the other. Kooky performed dual duties as chef and head waitress, bustling in and out of the kitchen and bringing us little appetisers like bowls of olives and fried calamari in between courses. She was ably assisted by “the little shits,” two perfectly charming and well behaved young men who quietly and efficiently performed their tasks and hardly uttered a word throughout.

I sat midway down the table, with Archie to my left and Dylan to my right and opposite, when they weren’t on kitchen or serving duties, was Kooky with the boys either side of her.

William was on good form, quaffing red wine and waxing lyrical about how magnificent the food was, gesticulating with his fork to emphasise a point, making us all laugh with grisly details about his operation and hospital confinement. He’d grown a bushy white beard since I’d last seen him and he now looked like a cross between Father Christmas and Orson Welles.

Looking around the table, I took a contemplative moment to observe these people who had so recently become a part of my life. They were all so very different from each other – in personality, in background – and all so very different from me. But at that moment I felt such a strong bond, such a feeling of belonging. A feeling I hadn’t experienced for . . . well, for years.

Over the past weeks I had learned – in incremental pieces and snippets, like the forming of a patchwork quilt – so much more about my book shop comrades.

I knew now that Dylan had flunked out of a university place at Durham, unable to cope with the social and academic pressures he was suddenly faced with. His family had feared for his mental state of mind and his father, who knew William from their own university days, had despaired of what to do with his son until William had taken him on in the shop and slowly restored some order and security back into Dylan’s life.

Melanie, in one of our rare personal discussions as we sat at our separate desks on the first floor, had told me about the difficulties Kooky had had in obtaining a residency visa and that she had all but resigned herself to returning back to Latvia until William had taken charge of the matter and signed the necessary employment and sponsorship documents.

And Archie had supplied me with details about Melanie and her messy divorce from an abusive and violent husband, suddenly finding herself in a women’s refuge with two small boys, struggling to survive until William had stepped in and underwritten a mortgage guarantee that had enabled her to buy the house we were sitting in now.

And of Archie himself: sixty-eight years of age, financially comfortable after retirement from his forty-year career in the civil service and in a state of complete and utter misery after the death of his wife and companion of half a century, rattling around his home in Swiss Cottage, drowning his sorrows in gin and tonics, a solitary and miserable existence all he had to look forward to.

Yes, of course, William had stepped in with the job offer, assuring Archie how much William would appreciate it if he could just spare some of his valuable time as his experience and knowledge was just what the book shop was lacking.

Of course, it was Archie’s story I could relate to and empathise with the most, as I’m sure you have undoubtedly already deduced – you clever old stick, you.

And so I look around the table at my new family, Kooky and Melanie, Archie and Dylan, “the little shits” (who are anything but), and then over to William, in full flow, over the top, dominating the conversation and everything else.


It’s been four months now and – you won’t believe it – but I’m still here. Yes, I know, but there it is.

I don’t come every day, you understand, perhaps for only three or four days a week, but even so . . . Well, quite frankly, and I don’t mind telling you, it’s become a bit of a bind, actually, to be perfectly truthful and honest with you!

William doesn’t come in everyday either. Oh no. He says he’s decided to take things easier now, take a bit of a back seat, as it were.

Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him and he’s fully mobile and really back to his old self. More so, if anything; William’s new hip has put more than just an extra spring in his step. He’s taken up golf and – this will make you chuckle – he’s also up and bought himself a pied-de-terre in Brighton, so of course he now tends to spend a lot of time there as well.

Oh, and another thing: there is a rumour circulating that he now has a woman in toe – but I got that particular snippet of tittle-tattle from Archie so until William himself confirms anything I’m treating it as pure idle conjecture and nothing more.

Anyway, I have said to William – quite strongly, repeatedly and insistently – that I really and honestly can’t see why he still needs me to keep coming down here at all. But William has explained to me that – although he has complete faith in Kooky, Archie, Melanie and Dylan – he truly believes that my presence is that missing element that is otherwise lacking, that I alone am delivering that certain something that – although he finds it difficult to put into words, per se – makes the shop actually work; that, “Je ne sais quoi,” as he puts it.

And William has said, quite categorically, that the last thing he wants to do is to inconvenience me any further, but that he would personally be quite devastated if I decided I could no longer lend him my support.

So, what am I to do, I ask you? You can see that the last thing I want is to let William down.

And it’s not as if it’s awful. On my days here, I sit at William’s desk, mostly attending to my own antiquarian book business, and only occasionally do I feel the need to go down into the shop to lend a hand to Archie and Dylan. Kooky is up here with me most of the time and Melanie still comes in most afternoons, and I suppose it’s quite pleasant to have the company and all . . . Yes, that’s looking on the bright side.

Anyway, what it all boils down to – the crux of the matter is – William won’t budge and so I suppose I’ll just have to keep coming in and grin and bear it until-

Why are you looking at me like that? Yes, like that – with that little smile on your face as if you know something I don’t?!

Anyway, I’m very sorry but I simply haven’t got time for all this now; I must dash as I’ve a bus to catch in a few moments. ‘Bye.

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