A Plea for the Young Elvis, or; What Have They Done with Ed?

by Tom Congalton

Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007

Those philatelists among you might remember that in 1992 the U.S. Postal Service decided to issue a 29-cent postage stamp honoring the late Elvis Presley, and released unto the public two competing designs. One was of Young Elvis: slick, sleek, and saucy; the other of Old Elvis: pill-popping, bloated, bespangled, and bejumpsuited; and invited the American public to determine which would be the final product.

This, of course, engendered, at least among certain segments of the population, an interest and enthusiasm that mostly surpassed that aroused by a typical American Presidential election. Reportedly over a million Americans voted, and did so overwhelmingly, for Young Elvis.

What does this have to do with rare books? Not much, I fear. Is this then, just an aerie fantasia concocted to eat up column inches? Well, duh"¦

However, it does put me in mind of the recent dramatic makeover of my fellow RARE columnist Edward Maggs. My first, and to date only, visit to the august home of the fabled Maggs Brothers, on Berkeley Square, was a very few years ago in the company of Boston bookseller and wag Peter Stern.

As one ascends the stairway to the second floor, one might get the feeling that one is getting something of the old fish-eye from a succession of framed portraits of antiquarian Maggs' ancestors that rather forbiddingly greet you, or as Peter helpfully identified them for me: "This is Mordecai Maggs, Moise Maggs, Gandalf Maggs, Tupac Maggs, Biggie Maggs, oh, and one mustn't forget the black sheep of the family, old Slick Willy Maggs."

Upon reaching the head of the stairs one is likely to meet with the good-natured and rather incongruous visage of the current scion and director, Ed Maggs. Unlike his solemn and focused bookseller ancestors, determined as they were to supply choice volumes to several successive generations of equally steely-eyed empire builders, Ed, or at least Young Ed, looked and acted rather more like a character out of a Monty Python skit.

Traditionally bookselling and book collecting have been havens for eccentricity, and nothing about Young Ed would lead one to believe that this state of affairs had much changed. I should here note that I don't know Ed particularly well. Beyond the odd pleasantry passed at far-flung book fairs, and the occasional modest business transaction, my social interaction with Ed has been confined to a single lunch at the near-ruinously expensive London eatery The Square, where a splendid meal was enjoyed, and good humor prevailed.

However, I did note that while Ed was the best of company, his rich and plumy accent, combined with a walrus-like moustache that resisted all attempts at lip-reading, made it nearly impossible to understand more than about half of what he said. Rather like a trumpet filtered through a feather duster, one was pretty sure what direction and from whence the sound was emitted, but was not entirely cognizant of what that sound was meant to convey. This of course left plenty of room for the imagination, and combined with Ed's boisterous laughter, and the liberal imbibing of a good wine, one was inclined to observe that some very witty bon mots indeed were being bestowed upon his fellow diners.

Me: "Ed, what do you think of the current situation in Iraq?"

Ed: "Fuh, fuh, heh, heh, bleh, huh, fuff, HA, HA, HA!"

Rest of the diners: "HA, HA, HA!"

One was obligated either to laugh along, or look confused alone. As usual, I chose laughter.

However, in the past year, Ed has appeared, as evidenced by his author photo in this magazine, more or less barbered, and without his moustache. This has been something of a boon to communication with him, but has also placed him more in line with his solemn ancestors, as though he were vying for a reserved a spot in the Portrait Gallery of dour Maggses.

Now, while I understand pretty much everything Ed says, and it is no less good-natured, I rather miss being able to substitute my own interpretations. In the interest of more salubrious lunchtime conversation, I plead with him — bring back the Young Ed!

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2007 issue of Rare Book Review.