The Disembowelling of Phantoms
by Marius Kociejowski


William Hoffer

“A man with his hair combed back looks like a man who is going somewhere.” This was not so much an observation from the Commander of TANKS as an injunction for me to do likewise. I do not have, nor have I ever possessed, a comb. The reader may infer from this whatever he wishes. Another ghost enters, a ghost noisier than most, a ghost hungry for a fix, a ghost that rules by decree. William Hoffer was an antiquarian bookseller in Vancouver, a small publisher of poetry and prose, including some of my own, and the Commander-in-Chief of TANKS, a pseudo-military operation he devised in order to rid the world of arts bureaucracies and the collaborators who keep them in place. A fierce opponent of government subsidies, he sought to expose the system of favours that pervades every area of the arts in Canada and elsewhere. I became, during that short but heroic age, District Commissioner for Europe. We sent each other regular communiqués from our respective fronts, casualty figures and so forth, dwelling on our own dashing manoeuvres. Small silver tanks were awarded to heroes.¹ Hoffer wore a gold one. There were, apparently, four others to be given to the most distinguished fighters in the cause, but it seems that nobody could meet his stringent ideas of excellence. There were, of course, neither tanks nor casualties. We falsified figures. We pronounced as dead people who were still very much alive. And the front was wherever we decided it was. I think it’s fair to say we were the merrily driven slaves of dubious enthusiasm. Should the reader conclude that Hoffer was wholly objectionable, the case can be made that to those whom he liked he could be wholly likeable. A man of Swiftian wit, he could make the glasses on the table dance. As to those whom he disliked, with them he could be cruel and unreasonable. What makes it particularly difficult to write about him is that no two people agree on his difficult nature.

My friend Norm Sibum makes a decent go of it in his essay “William Hoffer and the Theology of Snooker” (Des Antipodes, 2011) in which he employs the analogy of snooker, a single evening’s game in particular, as the key to Hoffer’s psyche. Sibum is a poet, and during the 1970s he was Hoffer’s protégé, which had both its good and its bad side. Support is one thing, control another: it got so Hoffer would vet the women in Sibum’s life. The two spent many hours together in the bookshop on Water Street in Gastown.² There was a single occasion when Sibum drank with him at the No5 Orange, a strip club where Bill, as I shall now address him, liked to do his business accounts, the writhing bodies on stage providing not so much an erotic as a sympathetic working atmosphere. A “true democracy” was how he described the place. And then there was the Old Europa restaurant, whose owner disliked Bill, possibly because he was Hungarian and Bill Jewish, possibly because of the latter’s insulin rages. Bill suffered badly from diabetes, insulin shock a common feature of his life. When he was in a fix, and the service slow, he’d shoot up in the booth, which disconcerted the rest of the clientele. I remember occasions when he came to dinner at our place, almost frantic that we begin immediately on the first course. And finally there was the snooker hall where one evening he and Sibum had their high noon and, a familiar trope of western movies, one man measured the other. Bill, on occasion, wore a cowboy hat, which sat oddly on his very Semitic features.

“Theology was entertainment,” Sibum writes. “Snooker was, after all, theological. Snooker, within its rectangular confines, in the arrangement of the snooker balls at the outset of each game, had a vague cruciate aspect.” And then, most craftily, switching from the first to the second person singular, Sibum applies this to the art of bookselling although maybe not quite in the language of the stolid Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association: “If playing snooker was your religion, your default position, the collecting and selling of books was the secular expression of some creed or another, I’m not sure which. Or rather, it was the exercise of reason as opposed to faith. It was Aristotle as opposed to St Francis, Confucius as opposed to a squatting Buddhist wailing away on weird instruments. Perhaps, more precisely, it was politics. Civilization at stake, the arts of the book trade were imperilled too. The bookseller should hold himself apart from the consumerist hell we were all of us falling into head over heels; yet he should conduct himself as an honourable capitalist honouring proper market values. It was your romanticism.”

This is all quite excellent but, without wishing to better my colleague, I submit there may be a more accurate place in which to locate Bill’s character and that is in the ancient Chinese game of Go. The most complicated game in existence, the number of legal board positions exceeds, so I read somewhere, the number of atoms in the observable universe. I should think that would just about accommodate Bill, give or take a few particles. The object of the game is to outdo one’s opponent by surrounding as much territory as possible. It is for Go players rather more than a game; it is life itself. Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, must have played; Machiavelli, who also wrote a book called The Art of War, would surely have played had he known of it. When it becomes spiritual warfare then it is time for the player to pay close attention to the heart’s occurrences. I broke mine at the chessboard. Bill broke his at the Go board. (There is no explaining this to one who does not participate in either game.) Wang Jixin, a notable Go player of the Tang dynasty, formulated the Ten Golden Rules of Go, the last of which enjoins the player to seek peace and to avoid fighting in an isolated or weak situation. If Bill had more closely observed the tenth rule, he might not have gone for broke. And indeed he might have inflicted more casualties. He must have been pretty good though or at the very least as good as his own description of himself as “the best Caucasian Go player in town.” A former assistant of his, Cheryl Cooper, cannot remember him ever losing a game. She recalls the free-standing Go table with its two jars of black and white stones respectively, which followed him from his first bookshop to his last one, and the strange characters who would show up out of nowhere. The games, if the players were of equal stature, would go on for days at a time. A black stone sitting on its grid was the design Bill adopted for his business card and letterhead.

“He was always strategizing,” Cheryl tells me, “always in war mode, always surrounding the territory of his opponents.”

She goes on to produce a most telling anecdote.

“He once told me he could follow the trajectory of rumours, who said what when and to whom and how much the story changed, because he himself had started the original rumour with the express purpose of seeing who betrayed him.”

I remember being disturbed by the way he could cut through, and frustrate, other people’s moves. I’m speaking of life, not Go, although for players of it they are inseparable. I was largely spared the manipulative side of his nature. It might have been different had I been in Canada, where he was at his most extreme. When he came to England he put on his best face. For one thing he was up against an older breed of bookseller. Also there were people here who appreciated his savage wit and intelligence. One of them, Susan Biltcliffe, who worked for the bookseller Peter Eaton, became his lover, or, rather, the woman with whom he sailed under a flag of convenience.

The game of Go is applicable to bookselling or, more precisely, book buying, which is where the greater strategy lies. You don’t sell a book, you let it go. Buying, on the other hand, is the art of the possible. As soon as one enters a room of books one enters uncharted territory and the thing is to be able to meet the other person’s expectations without sacrificing too many of one’s own pieces. The most awful thing is to make an offer that is refused, there being very little way forward and even less of one back. A wise offer is that which allows for a margin of compromise between buyer and seller and in this, of course, a certain amount of psychology comes into play. As a rule one has but a single chance at securing a decent collection and, more often than not, one can tell in advance whether the seller is going to quibble. One offers just a bit less in order to allow for a bit more. You can usually spot the difficult ones. Bill was, predictably, very good at it. And what he was even better at, surely the mark of a distinguished bookseller, was reading significance into books otherwise dull to the eye. “I am a bookseller,” he writes in one of his pieces, “a man who has literature in his profession. I am a successful bookseller at the midpoint of my professional life. The apprenticeship of an antiquarian bookseller is long. It is generally assumed that twenty years is too short a time to justify the unselfconscious use of the term bookseller. My profession is old, it has old rules. Honesty is a prerequisite, not an accomplishment. Because a bookseller has so many opportunities to be dishonest, it is simply the case that dishonest booksellers are not tolerated by the profession. One can always find exceptions, but even those are rare in the small community of professional booksellers through the world.”

The first time Bill came into Bertram Rota was to seek out first editions of Canadian authors, which, given his antipathy for the greater part of his country’s literature, may be viewed as hypocrisy. I believe it was otherwise and that he would not allow prejudice to get in the way of selling a book. Almost immediately he fell upon a copy of All That Is Mine Demand: War Poems of Nordhal Grieg (1944). I tried to save him from error.

“Grieg is not Canadian,” I said. “He’s Norwegian.”

Bill looked at me with something like pity in his eyes. I was then given a brief lesson in Canadian literature. Grieg’s novel The Ship Sails On (1927) had been a great influence on Malcolm Lowry’s first book Ultramarine (1933) and Lowry, although English, by virtue of living in Canada, albeit briefly, has been co-opted as a Canadian author. So there. I stood corrected. We became friends, improbable friends maybe, but friends all the same.

Bill gave me two books. They were expressions of who he was, which, I suppose, is one of the things that makes a gift a gift. The first was a modern edition of Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, a stab at which left me more perplexed than before. It was, for Bill, a manual on how to behave. The other was Wesley W Stout’s Tanks Are Mighty Fine Things, published by the Chrysler Corporation in 1946 as a commemoration of its contribution to the American war effort. Chrysler’s Sherman M4 dominated its German equivalents, the Tiger and the Panther, which, although bigger and mightier, were quickly overrun by the smaller, faster American tank. A good historical parallel would be the defeat of the Spanish Armada by smaller, faster English ships. The book is inscribed on the title page: “Office Copy—London Command—from William Hoffer cmdr of Tanks (retired). Nov 10, 1988.” The first title appealed to his sanity, the second his madness, which is not to suggest there is any great distance between the two mental states, only that one cost him more.

So why did he who abhorred so much of his country’s literature specialize in Canadian literature? A sublimely rude answer can be found in his essay “Cheap Sons of Bitches: Memoirs of the Book Trade” (1988)³: “I became a dealer in Canadian literature somewhat opportunistically, and because, when I first commenced bookselling, I was worried that I wouldn’t want to sell books that I actually liked, Canadian literature recommended itself.” When he bought three thousand volumes of Canadiana in Iver, in Buckinghamshire, he had them shipped to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as far from Vancouver as he could manage. “I flew across Canada to sort them out,” he wrote me. “The thought of adding more volumes of Canadiana to the local ecosystem was sufficiently abhorrent to me that breaking them in the East seemed best.” In A Statement (1987), which he published under the imprint of the “final judgement construction company,” he writes: “I have encountered nothing good or interesting in what passes for Canadian culture. Not only are our authors not really authors, but neither are our booksellers really booksellers, our distributors really distributors, our reviewers really reviewers or our readers really readers. At the moment the most urgent ‘cultural’ debate in British Columbia relates to dirt bike racing somewhere in the hinterland. The dance critic at the Vancouver Province, a cretin at the best of times, most recently devoted himself to a celebration of Dirty Dancing, thinking perhaps to make something Canadian of it by the laying on of his bloody Canadian hands. I am reminded I chose to become a bookseller in quest of shelter from the imbeciles I knew in my university days, thinking then, as I do now, that superior human beings tend to frequent bookshops.” And then he goes on to write: “Contrary to what some of you may believe, my concern about the state of the arts in Canada is real; I have no argument with that real literature and art Canadians have made in the past. I am (and feel) Canadian. I will not leave this country on any account.” Certainly in our conversation, once he got beyond tirade or was sufficiently anaesthetised with wine, he did give the impression of one who cared deeply about literature. Sobriety put him in a less sympathetic mode.

Confrontational he most certainly was, but if you met him head-on he would back down not in fear but with the thought that here perhaps was someone he could talk to. A child of the Canadian prairies, it was there that Bill honed his own rhetorical style. Once more, Cheryl is my guide: Bill told her how as a child he’d watch for hours on end evangelical TV preachers. These were of a specific prairie vintage and, unlike their neighbours to the south, promulgated a socialist programme. Tommy Douglas, who founded the New Democratic Party, began as a preacher. Bill was much further to the left than him, being rooted in Marxism and radical student politics, and as we all know, Marxists are most adept at capitalist ventures.

Bill’s father, Abram, was probably the only man he ever truly feared. A physician and psychiatrist who, depending on which side of the fence you were, was either a charlatan or a scientific visionary cheated of the Nobel Prize. He was a pioneer of orthomolecular psychiatry, megavitamin therapy the be-all for mental illness, vitamin C his weapon of choice. The rebel psychiatrist and author of The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), Thomas Szasz, accused Dr Abram Hoffer of “pure quackery.” The medical establishment trounced him. All I know is that I would choose orange juice over Prozac any time. Bill’s mother, Rose, was co-author of Everybody’s Favourite (Orthomolecular) Muffin Book (1980). Abram, together with his wife and colleagues, experimented in the medical use of LSD, which he advanced as a cure for alcoholism. I wonder how many experiments it took for him to arrive at that conclusion. Most troublingly, the father administered LSD to the son. Whether this was under strict laboratory control or within the confines of home is not known. Bill claimed he was given it when he was three, but then he also claimed it was in his early teens.

Poets, mostly bad ones, were the chief targets of Bill’s ire. One could build an argument for poetry being, in his mind, the purest of art forms and therefore the most corruptible, but I suspect the main thrust of his campaign against poets had its roots in his inability to ever be one himself. This is not to say he didn’t try; there is a typescript of an unpublished collection called The Plague Year. As publisher, he followed his fancies. As bookseller, he had a witch-finder’s nose. As critic, he swung between the erratic and the precise. When he hit, he hit hard. Pity the poet whose intellect he described as being akin to a very thin layer of ice covering a very large lake. Pity the poet he described as walking about like some Greek god nobody has ever heard of. Pity the poet he described as “a lump of lead that believes itself to be an intricate construction of glass threads that exchange light in ways never before known either to glass or lead.” And then there was the suppressed one-line obituary notice in which he wrote that although he had been saddened to hear of the manner by which a certain poet was silenced, he was grateful for the silence nonetheless. Clearly he was not a man to be allowed airtime. The support he gave to several poets was, perhaps, a resolving of an inner conflict, but in this, as in much else, he probably pushed too far. He sought control over what they wrote and in doing so traded critical acumen for a rather blunt and rusty knife.

Nor were booksellers spared his wrath. Pity the unsuspecting bookseller who had sent him a catalogue: “I examined it with what charity I have surplus,” Bill responded, “but it wasn’t enough to prevent a prevalence of simply organic illness in its consequence. I withdraw my invitation of last year. I don’t want to know you or to see you. Stay in your silly place and do whatever it is you use in place of honest brooding. I will prevent your entry into my honourable trade. You are no bookseller, you never will be one. You are what you seem, a fool with no future. I do not leap rashly to this conclusion. I have considered it all day. It is evening now. […] I grant you your pacifism, indeed, I congratulate you for it. You made the right move; you qualify yourself to consort with cowards. Remove me from your mailing list. I have removed you from mine. I will be grateful not to hear your name again. I have more important things to do than to encourage cockroaches to play at being human.” Nor would he encourage humans to be booksellers. One hapless character in Vancouver, thinking he might enter the trade, walked into Bill’s shop and offered to work for nothing, to which the response was that those people who offer to work for nothing are worth just that.

If there was poetry in Bill it was not in his poems, where every word hobbled across the page, but in his letters. I took pleasure in stealing from them: “It’s a universe all rusty fish-hooks and spiritual collapse”; this, ironically enough, appears in the poem of mine that he hated most. John Hudson’s printing of it, Doctor Honoris Causa (1991), saw him expelled from Bill’s court. After he died, I wrote a poem for Bill, which, again, contains the spoils of my looting sprees: “Wicked men gnaw at their own ankles,” “…lovers who seem to stand for lovers, / Children who seem to stand for children,” … “What gastric condition leads to such grimaces,” etc. There are, reportedly, collectors of Bill’s correspondence and there’s a mighty heap of it at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana, including the letters he wrote to his close friend and mentor, Peter Howard of Serendipity Books. Some of the best letters to me are those in which he describes everyday events in the bookshop. “It has started to rain; the crazed inhabitants of the street are being flushed out, and stagger past the shop with their huge heads grimly positioned a foot or so off centre. Indians, postgraduate drunks. The dark menace of the shop’s black iron bars and recessed entrance keep them out; occasionally one will crawl up the stairs and gape, like a sea creature accidentally hauled to the surface. I walked up to the corner store, wandering through the antique shop across the street. The talk is about a pimp murdered in a club a few hundred feet from here, at midnight. Anything is preferable to Salman Rushdie.”⁴

What distinguished Bill from many of his tribe was that he could be just as ruthless in the business of not selling a book. Cheryl provides an example. One day a man brought a book to the desk for purchase and after looking it over Bill asked him why he wanted to buy it. Unsatisfied with the response, he told him, “I can’t sell this to you. You are not worthy of it.” Bill put into practice what most booksellers think but rarely activate. Yes, it is painful to sell a book one likes to someone one dislikes. I am happy to say that on occasion I’ve refused to sell a book to a customer. Another story concerns a man who wandered into Bill’s shop, asking for books on astrology. According to his assistant of the time, Bill strong-armed the man out of the place.

“Out of here,” he told him, “and don’t ever come back.”

Bill turned to see the shocked expression on his assistant’s face.

“What’s your problem?”

“The man you threw out…” she stuttered.

“Yes,” he barked, “what of it?”

“That was Leonard Cohen.”

Argument, Hoffer claimed, was a poor substitute for action. “I don’t want your ideas about literature,” he cried. “I want body counts!” The day would come when “war criminals,” as he dubbed his foes, would crawl towards, climb onto and willingly immolate themselves upon heaps of smouldering bodies. There was no area so delicate he did not risk being puerile. Once, at a party in London, catching sight of a buxom woman who choked the room with her perfume, he pointed to her, crying, “There, there is the dolphin to which we’ll attach our missiles!” At his best, though, he could be brilliant: “We live in an age in which intellectuals have imagined that miracles could be made with the mind alone. A writer isn’t someone who writes, he is someone who is read. An architect without a carpenter is nothing but a dreamer. Regarding it, I decided that I must be a carpenter more importantly than I could ever be an architect. There is more honour in architecture, or at least there was once.”

What was TANKS exactly? An answer may be found in the title of the second book Hoffer gave me. “The book was about clear purpose,” he writes, “the defeat of an enemy of human free-dom and dignity, however crudely represented and understood. There was an understanding of obligation in it, a recognition that there was a job to do…I realised that these were all qualities lacking in what we call culture these days.” And what was all this talk about “war criminals” and “war heroes”? We who supported him were the war heroes or, rather, his “armadillos,” which I suppose is a nice enough instance of nature imitating military hardware. “There is no way to abolish badness in the world,” he continues, “least of all by wishing it away, but the system made badness unimportant to the work it found itself supporting.” Was TANKS the making or the unmaking of him? I’d say both, simultaneously. Certainly it was madness of a kind, which cost him dearly, both in peace of mind and pocket, $100,000 finally.

The greatest offense to the greatest number of people was his use of the phrase “war criminal” to describe those benefiting from state subsidy or who sought and won favours or who profited in the vapid poeticising of their own measly existences. “I understand your distress at the manifesto,” he writes me, “because I am similarly distressed. It is evidence of our own war criminality that makes dignity more important than we can afford to let it be.” The objections flew at him from all direc-tions, academic and otherwise. While some were mere yelps, others were rea-sonable. Bill fought back all the more, adding, wherever possible, injury to insult. Puerile? Yes, of course it was. It was puerile in the way almost all fledg-ling literary movements and manifestos are. Sadly, though, the bird never got to fly or at least not far enough. It was not that objections couldn’t be made; it was that they were too easily made. We have since been beaten over the head with other people’s moral rectitude. What would Bill have to say to our current climate of self-righteousness? Woke and cancel culture? And he thought he saw the worst of it! I wonder if he can hear from where he is my nervous tapping of fingers on the keyboard. The language he used was in order to achieve an effect, which is one of the more doubtful aspects of any cultural revolution. Did I laugh? Yes, I did. Was my laughter allowable? That depends on whom I speak to. Was it wrong? Yes, probably. A lapse of taste? Certainly. “As we ask many to become intelligent,” he continues, “let us try to be a little more stupid. Remember Gorky and his heroes. This is a limited operation. In May, it will be history.” Was it though? Was it ever history? For something to be so it must first, if only for a moment, reach a pinnacle.


Where I disagreed with Bill was in his own dismissal of the worth of literature. “Literature is genuinely unimportant and always was,” he wrote to me on August 7, 1988, when perhaps he realized the blows he’d struck were blows struck at himself. “It is an affectation of the rich and self-important. Aristocratic democrats and democratic aristocrats are equally difficult to accept.” With this came the announcement, with something vaguely Keynesian in the wording, that he had been working on a new general system of bookselling and to this end had produced three definitions:

Booksellers are individuals who solve problems caused by books.

A good book is a book one has a use for.

The term “book collector” was invented by people who don’t buy books to describe people who do.

The first is acceptable, the third funny, the second an instance of the utilitarianism that blighted much of his thinking. Something, meanwhile, had begun to go badly wrong with him; it could not be put down to depression alone. If his campaign began with tanks, towards the end of it, when failure began to bite, he spoke of mysterious airships that would rise slowly from the ground, firing in all directions at once. TANKS had been a financial disaster, but, far worse than that, it had not achieved anything of lasting value. Canadian literature went on as before, unruffled, the same people winning the same prizes. What Bill had not bargained for is an innate Canadian ability to simply ignore. It broke him. Their regard, which he sought above all else, was the very thing denied him. “The war was not good for me,” he wrote on April 22, 1991. “Time, perhaps, to leave.” He once said to me that the only cure for Canada would be to remove the entire population and replace them with other people. I didn’t ask what plans he had for the deportees. It was time for a move, although nobody could have anticipated what that move would be.

—Excerpted and condensed from A Factotum in the Book Trade by Marius Kociejowski (Biblioasis, 2022). Reprinted in CNQ 111 (Spring/Summer 2022).

Marius Kociejowski is a Canadian-born poet, essayist, and travel writer living in England, where, until recently, he enjoyed a lifelong career as an antiquarian bookseller.

¹ Sadly I lost mine.
² The area got its name from “Gassy Jack” Deighton who opened a pub there in 1867. “Gassy” owes its origin to verbal flatulence and not, as some people might think, other causes.
³ The title, as Hoffer properly acknowledges, comes from the American poet Kenneth Rexroth who declared, “I’ve had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book.” It was John Metcalf who suggested it to him.
⁴ This was written at the time of the furore surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses (1988).

We post only a small fraction of our content online. To get access to the best in criticism, reviews, and fiction, subscribe!


Comments are closed.