Rick Gekoski’s Tales of Rare Books & Rare People

Courtesy of Rick Gekoski

Author and rare book dealer Rick Gekoski.

Rick Gekoski is both a book dealer and a writer, often applying his pen and his wit to the cloistered world of rare books, manuscripts, and archives. His latest, published in the UK earlier this month, is called Guarded by Dragons, a reference to a Saul Bellow quote he uses as the book’s epigraph, “Every treasure is guarded by dragons. That’s how you can tell it’s valuable.”   

Gekoski knows what’s valuable; his nearly fifty years in the trade have taught him that time and again. This collection of essays offers a cache of engaging tales, very much in the mode of his previous nonfiction, Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books (2004) and Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir (2009). He begins with some D.H. Lawrence first editions bought cheaply from a Brooklyn bookseller that forced him to decide whether he was a collector or a dealer. Once that decision is made, we set off on a dozen journeys with him.

Courtesy of Constable

Considering all the hubbub over Sylvia Plath’s belongings sold at auction in 2018 and again these past few weeks, Gekoski’s chapter on selling her copy of The Great Gatsby in the spring of 1985—to Matthew J. Bruccoli no less—is particularly rousing. Here Gekoski spins a tale within a tale about how fellow collector Maurice Neville once tried to barter a brand new Jaguar for Bruccoli’s first edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls inscribed by both Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Anyway, apparently Ted Hughes and his second wife believed the Gatsby to have been stolen, leaving Gekoski holding the bag as it were.

Gekoski seems prone to these types of misadventures, which is probably all the better for his writing career. He is an incredibly gifted storyteller who spins yarns with broad literary appeal, largely avoiding the soulless ‘bought this, sold that’ narrative that bookseller memoirs too often rake over. That said, if you want to know how he bought/sold nine pristine first editions of Ulysses, look no further.  

He chronicles personal escapades with Graham Greene, Dr. James Watson, and John Fowles, the latter of whom he describes as overvalued (and antisemitic). “The French Lieutenant’s Woman stormed the gates of the Eng-Lit syllabus: how very exciting, how utterly post-modern! Can you believe it, there are three different endings! It made those slavering American academics quiver with delight as they set examination questions comparing Fowles to Tolstoy.” Oof, that comment hits close to home for those of us with paperback copies of said novel, brimming with undergraduate underlining, on their shelves.

Whether bidding at high-stakes auctions or rummaging through dank cellar cabinets, Gekoski never fails to amuse and to amaze. Guarded by Dragons is a bibliophilic treasure.