The Buxton Book Fair at the Pavilion Gardens, now under the management of Jane Millington, has been a monthly feature of the social calendar of the Derbyshire spa town for decades. Featuring a mixture of antiquarian, second hand and out of print books, maps and postcards, it attracts exhibitors and dealers UK-wide. Here I recount an incident during its previous incarnation, under the stewardship of Sally and Steve Kowalski, round about the turn of the millennium.
It had been a dark and stormy night that Saturday evening, breaking into an overcast Sunday morning. Heavy rain had caused flash floods, blocked roads into town, and threatened the cancellation of the monthly fair. Many regular exhibitors simply failed to show up. Few bookworms braved the inclement weather to shift through the stacks at the event's opening.
I should warn sensitive souls that, for some time, exhibitors' most valuable books tended to disappear into thin air, usually at the beginning of each fair. The organisers had hired security to patrol the hall, but the problem persisted to such an extent that booksellers started suspecting each other. Some even dropped out.
To backtrack a little bit, I had recently purchased in Macclesfield a tremendous nineteenth-century fiction collection, from my now late friend Colin Tucker. I left what I considered 'lesser items' out of that deal, which Colin brought to the Buxton fair. Still having his breakfast at the adjoining café, he had left in charge the lady from across the aisle, who was quietly dozing off in his chair.
On my early round of the hall, I noticed a tall gentleman in a lengthy green gabardine, handling a copy of Bleak House, one I had previously passed up. Thinking I ought to have another look at it, I was inspecting Colin's stand alongside him, waiting for my turn if he failed to make an offer. Next thing I knew, the man's hands had fallen by his sides and he was legging it for the exit. I looked at the shelf, but the book's place remained resolutely bare. I caught up with the fleeing gentleman and exclaimed: "Excuse me, the book!"
He turned and looked down at me, saw the flint in my eyes, and in a legerdemain of breathless execution brought out the book from one of the overcoat's myriad inside pockets. He handed it to me. To the unexpressed question still at my lips, he replied: "I was just looking for the seller," and continued on his stride.
Drawing courage from my rising pulse rate, I called out to a group of booksellers gathered nearby: "This gentleman just stole this book from Colin's stand". They crowded around him, he tried to flee, but principally amongst them, Shane from the Northeast – in his bikie leather gear – told him: "You're not going anywhere, mate! Sit down and wait for the cops". I left them to it and went to get Colin. Word must have reached him already, for he was hurrying back, leaning on his trusty walking stick.
In time the police arrived, took the man away, statements were taken, and Colin noticed yet another Dickens item missing from his stand. I suggested he asked the policemen to search the thief's car boot, where they eventually found it. No court case eventuated, as he confessed all.
At the next book fair, the police laid out a table at the entrance, for booksellers to identify and collect their missing tomes. I was also asked to attend by the organisers, and presented on the hall's dais with a £300 book token. I could spend it at the stand of any of the booksellers, who had collectively contributed to the fund in thanks to my totally fluky services. Happily, my friendship with Sally and Steve endures to this day.