Saturday, 8 February 2014

Antiquarian Associations: Bookhounds of London

I was going to talk about Night's Black Agents again - and will, soon enough - but Ken Hite posted an article that intrigued me. It's the Center & Clarke Newsletter from UCLA, and on the 9th page it starts talking about Ye Sette of Odd Volumes. I don't propose to talk about that here - though I do recommend you read the newsletter - but about something else that cropped up as I was reading it.

At one point the article talks about Bertram Rota, Booksellers. I wondered if it still exists, and Google tells me it does, though it no longer has a London storefront and does most of its business online. However on perusing its site I noticed that it claimed among its plaudits that Anthony Rota, presumably the current owner, is a past president of the ABA. So what is the ABA, I asked myself?

Once again, Google has the answer. The Antiquarian Booksellers Association is a trade body, founded in 1906, for dealers in antiquarian and rare books. "Members are elected solely on the basis of proven experience, expertise and integrity," says the ABA. "They are expected to observe the highest professional and ethical standards and to foster the mutual trust and respect that exists between the trade and the public." It currently boasts something in the region of 250 members in the UK and abroad, all experts in their trade. It doesn't have any specific bookbinding contacts, and admits it is hesitant to recommend any particular binder, "as we don't have any control over their quality, or any real knowledge of their product." Nor does it really want to recommend an auctioneer or auction house, as those are its competition. As far as the ABA's concerned, it's all about the books and nothing but.

Which means it maintains a database of lost or stolen books, and while naturally it lacks any significant information about what was going on in the 1930s, it's safe to assume the ABA was doing much the same then as it does now. That may intrigue certain player characters; if nothing else, it's a good way of checking the provenance of certain rare volumes, and can help avoid trouble. Or foment it, if the character was the one doing the stealing. It also keeps a library, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary; a .pdf of its contents can be found here. That does suggest it wouldn't have been around during the typical Bookhounds campaign, but it's likely the ABA had the beginnings of a library before the current one was founded. Its collection of links is also worth a look, if you want to learn more about the book trade. It isn't the only booksellers trade association - it isn't even the only one with the acronym ABA - but from a Bookhounds point of view, it's the only one that matters.

What does this suggest? From a fictional standpoint, of course; I accept that, from here on out, whatever is said may not reflect the actual practices of the ABA.

Well to begin with, membership of the ABA must be rather like getting into the Michelin Guide. It's all very well having a store front and shelves of books, but how does the discerning customer track you down? While it's not operating on a one to three star system - une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage - the ABA badge is a sign a quality, one that customers trust. With that discreetly displayed in your official literature your fortune is, if not assured, at least much more likely than it otherwise would be. From a game mechanic point of view, the ABA is unlikely to be interested in any shop with less than 3 Credit Rating, and even most of the 3-point places are probably on the outside looking in.

It also suggests that someone must vet these establishments, and their proprietors. Again taking a leaf out of the pages of Michelin, the vetting process is probably anonymous. You don't know who might be judging you, or your expertise; these silent observers flit from shop to shop, evaluating its quality and the expertise of its staff and owners.

Finally - and this is purely from a Trail perspective - it also suggests the possibility of an organization within the ABA, devoted to occult studies. After all, in this universe magic is real, certain books have a power all their own, and strange, terrible things are known to have happened to those who unwarily ventured into bookselling's murkier corners. The ABA would be well aware of this. Whether or not the ABA has acknowledged occultists and cultists within its ranks, or just a few rather well-informed experts, is probably going to depend on whether your game is Pulp or Purist. In Pulp almost anything goes, but in Purist there's only going to be one or two people 'in the know' when it comes to the uncanny. "It's not the sort of thing we talk about," an ABA member might say, "but if you really want an expert opinion on that text, you should show it to Smythe. It's his bailiwick."

So after all that, an example ABA expert:

Edward Smythe

Physical: Short, thin, in his early 40s. Dark wire-brush hair, always slightly unkempt; he's forever trying to brush it into submission, and it never takes. Hands like a concert pianist, which he takes obsessive care over.

Arabesque: Smythe is an intelligent overachiever from a poor family, whose scholarships and academic prowess pushed him into the realm of books. He occasionally dreams of a large castle with hundreds of rooms, all of which he has access to save one. He knows the door of that one room as well as the door to his own home, and sometimes he wonders what might happen if he saw it in the waking world. His eyes are wide, and filled with dreams; at times, say his friends and contemporaries, he sees things which aren't there.

Technicolor: Smythe is a ghost-hunter. It's not something he likes to broadcast, as it would hurt his reputation, but he's worked with Harry Price and other famous psychic researchers. He's put down three hauntings so far, in addition to all the usual frauds and 'ghost sightings' that turn out to be faulty water pipes and the creaking of old houses. It's whispered that, in addition to the ABA, Smythe is also a member in good standing of a secret occult society, but it's not the kind of thing a chap like Smythe would ever talk about.

Sordid: Smythe, while not a forger himself, is on good terms with many who are. It helps him in his work and, its said, he has been known to let pass a questionable tome or two, at the right price. He doesn't do it often, for fear of being caught, and in Smythe's case 'the right price' isn't coin of the realm. But as for what it is, you'd have to talk to Smythe to find out, and let him touch you. Those hands of his seem to have a mind of their own, sometimes.

Tainted:  A man can't do as Smythe has done and not come into contact with the Dust Things. Smythe is hag-ridden each night, and in order to survive has come to certain accommodations with his mistress. Pockets full of dust, he goes out into London, spreading he knows not what; it's the only way to stay sane.

Three Things: A very slight Liverpudlian accent, which he does his best to cover over with rich, BBC-quality tones. He has a morbid fear of cats, and can't bear to be in the same room with one. He always carries a cane; the Arabesque version uses it as a kind of divining rod, while in Technicolor it's probably a sword cane.

Credit Rating: 4

General Abilities: Athletics 4, Auction 8, Fleeing 5, Health 6, [Magic 6, if Keeper chooses], Scuffling 3, Weapons 5

Areas of Expertise: Art (Engraving), Art (Printing), Craft (Papermaking), Languages, Occult.

Alertness: +0

Stealth: -1


  1. Wasn't it Dan Harms who posted the article?

  2. Actually, now you say it, I'm not sure. Possibly it was a RT? In any case, many thanks to whoever put it out there.

  3. Their recent news feed is a goldmine:

    "As it turns out, making even a near-perfect copy of the most important item in American bibliographic history is not a good way to get quick cash."