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This article is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

The Mermaid Catalogues Peter Davidson
Peter Scupham and Margaret Steward’s Mermaid Books is a very wonderful and very strange enterprise: it is a most effective niche bookseller for topography, antiquarian books, and literature, and at the same time it is a wild poetic enterprise, so much opposed to the commercial genius of this age as to have a flavour of revolution or surrealism. The enterprise has no internet presence whatsoever. All business is done by means of catalogues which are themselves minor but beguiling works of art. They take the form of nicely printed pamphlets, their covers adorned with a mosaic of puzzle quotations. Many of their pages are not devoted to selling things at all, but to varied gratuitous delights and diversions: Christmas competitions with generous prizes of books and prints, occasional poems of Peter’s father’s or his own, a page of inter-war visual puzzles that has taken his eye. Books are described in wonderful detail, regardless of how much they cost: as much elegant writing and top-class bile is lavished on selling a book priced at £5 as on the description of the most expensive antiquarian items. Business is conducted by telephone, briskly and cheerfully. I am always surprised and heartened by how quickly the books sell, even if I ring on the day when the catalogue arrives. Very often when the bill comes, there is an unsolicited discount in view of the cost of the postage.

Apart from their elegance, surrealism and accuracy, the catalogues are honest to a fault. The smallest defects become occasions for a celebration of candour between friends, ...


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