It's good to know that there are still curmudgeonly booksellers around - you might have thought the second-hand book business was too precarious for shopowners to indulge the profound misanthropy that tends to go with the job. This chap in the Yorkshire town of Hawes - the 'Basil Fawlty of booksellers' - has been in the papers this week, and good luck to him, I say: partly because anyone obliged to deal with the 'general public' on a daily basis has my sympathy, but also because one of the pleasures of second-hand book buying (or browsing) is that, when you open the door of an unfamiliar bookshop, you never know what you're going to find - and that applies as much to the bookseller as the stock. It's perhaps the last wholly unpredictable retail experience left to us in an increasingly standardised world. There are even some perfectly amiable, socially functioning booksellers (e.g. the owner of The Bookshop in Wirksworth) - they are not all 'men of a certain age who had been disappointed in life. Books were their only solace - friends who never let you down.'
That sweeping characterisation was written by the book trade legend known as Driff Field, or Drif, or Driffield, or Dryfield, or even Dryfeld. An enigmatic figure, he achieved notoriety (and something dangerously like success) in the Eighties with his self-published guide to All the Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain, a uniquely exhaustive, frank and often scathing assessment of each and very shop, often including a little pen portrait of the owner: 'Owner has been unwell recently with bad back (possibly caused by turning it on the customers once too often).' The guide was actually a very useful tool in those pre-internet days, when hunting down books was a hard slog, and the entries pack a lot of information into few words: 'V. erratic but will answer if you ring bell. Med sz low key Nat Hist bk shp. Farts. Rumoured to be closing down.'
A book trade 'runner' with an uncanny eye for rarities, Driff was a tall, dark man who fancied he looked like Raymond Carver - indeed he used a picture of Carver as his author photo. He had a habit of walking into a shop, looming over the unfortunate owner sitting at his desk, letting a tense silence build, then asking, 'Do you have any books on death?'
Driff appears as a character in Iain Sinclair's White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings, and pops up in several of Sinclair's later works. He also made an appearance in The Cardinal and the Corpse, an 'occult documentary' made for Channel 4 by Chris Petit that seems to have sunk without trace. Driff, playing himself, was determined to prove that a pulp novel called The Cardinal and the Corpse was written pseudonymously by Flann O'Brien (or rather Brian O'Nolan).
Enigmatic to the end, Driff disappeared some years ago, and no one knows even whether he is alive or dead.