No poetry or theology, but a very nice line in ready cash

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The Independent Online
I hadn't seen Jack for years. In fact almost all I knew about him was that his name was Jack - I didn't even know he was called Jack Lane until I read his obituary the other day. He was always Jack to me, a gruff, friendly, elderly figure who was one of the men in charge of Gaston's bookshop, and as I read through his obituary (which was hardly about books at all), a slice of my Fleet Street life came back unannounced.

I never worked in Fleet Street in the sense of being a daily journalist, but 20 years ago the Punch offices were just 200 yards to the south of Fleet Street and Gaston's bookshop was about the same distance to the north up Chancery Lane. What was odd about Thomas J Gaston's (have I remembered the name and the initials right?) was that it was the only bookshop I have ever encountered which was not open to the public. There was a notice in the window saying "Librarians And Suppliers Only". This was because Gaston's bought all the books they could from reviewers, who were the suppliers, and sold them to librarians, who were the librarians. If you did go in, you would find books, certainly, but what struck your eye first was piles of books marked Durham Library, Plaistow Library, Devizes Library ...

It was a classic meeting of supply and demand. Libraries wanted books at less than trade price. Reviewers were given books which they mostly didn't want, once reviewed. So the reviewers sold the books to Gaston's at about half price and Gaston's sold them on at about two-thirds price, and everyone was happy, except perhaps the author and publisher.

I didn't review many books, but I was the literary editor of Punch which meant nothing more than that I commissioned the book reviews and therefore could lay my hands on more books than the average reviewer. Each week publishers would send us copies of new books and although we could only review a fraction of them, they kept sending them, and I would like to say a heartfelt thank you rather belatedly.

If the books were very nice and useful or just decorative, we might put them on the Punch bookshelves - in fact I remember finding a lovely first edition of the Savoy Cocktail Book from the late 1920s which still had a review slip inside saying "Please do not review this book before July 12 1929." Obviously Gaston's did not exist on July 12 1929, or the chaps in those days were too gentlemanly to take advantage, but in my day there was a great deal of stuff that simply cried out to be taken out and passed on to a good home, at a profit. First novels, political memoirs, ghosted sporting lives - all went on the little journey up to Fleet Street, across that famous (and lethal) thoroughfare and up Chancery Lane, where Jack or Frank would look up and say, "Oh, hello, Miles - what have you got for us today?"

Then they would skim through the books and give me cash. There is nothing quite like being paid in cash. Occasionally I have been paid in cash for doing musical jobs, and once for an after dinner speech, but the magic autumn leaves that fell from Gaston's float were the best of all, and helped to save my life at the time, as Punch was a desperately mean employer.

Although this shifting of books felt slightly shady, it did involve a love of books as well. Jack knew what would sell and what would not sell ("No Poetry Or Theology," was another notice that adorned the shop) and also knew what to read.

"Have you tried this? It's actually rather good," he would say, waving a new arrival at me, and very often I would buy it from him (also at half price) and be glad I had done so. Occasionally we would go out for a drink together, especially at Christmas time, and I remember once being accompanied by him and the travelling rep from Mitchell Beazley. (It was not just poverty-stricken reviewers and literary gents who went to Gaston's: the salesmen with left-over books on their hands went there too.) I asked the rep, curiously, what books he couldn't shift and he showed me among other things a colour book on vegetables (how to grow them as well as how to cook them) which I admired and which he gave me because it was Christmas and which I have used more than any other cook book since then, I think.

But the thing I most remember about Jack, never mentioned in his obituary, was his collection of apostrophes. He delighted in spotting misused apostrophes. Things like"The Jones'es cat" had him chortling with fury. Before I transacted my books, I usually had to hear his latest. "I spotted a wonderful one in the Old Kent Road the other day," he would say. "A double misuse ! A cafe called `Joes Eat's'! They'd left the apostrophe out of Joes but they'd put one in Eat's! The cretins! It made my day."

I am sorry he is dead, but I am glad I spotted his obituary. That made my day too.