Booksellers and collectors are stereotyped as quiet, nerdy, bookish sorts, but the reality is they are just as likely to be adventurers, visionaries, activists, oddballs, provocateurs, and even scoundrels.
Covent Garden Bookshop was run by one such colorful figure. Dr. N.C. Nothmann supposedly fled his Nazi-occupied homeland of Lithuania by walking to Italy. From there he traveled to England and became a doctor. After a number of years he started the Redridge Book Service, a mail order service, which led to him opening the Bookshop in 1965. Nothmann’s specialty was modern first editions, and he was genuinely innovative in his approach to marketing and selling them. But he was also notorious for his sketchy business dealings, enough so that some others in the industry refused to work with him. Nonetheless his bookselling empire expanded, until he was running the Bookshop, Covendell Books (specializing in antiquarian volumes), the Late Night Bookshop (supposedly the first in London to stay open so late), and the Covent Garden Press.
And what was his real name, anyway? The catalogs list Dr. N.C. Nothmann and Mrs. P.R. Nothmann (his wife, Ruth) as the proprietors, but in his memoir The Barrow in Newport Court (Hungry Hornet Press, 2011), Anthony Sillem, who worked for the Bookshop in its final years, called him Dr. Simon Nothmann. A brief reference in John Baxter’s A Pound of Paper (Doubleday, 2002) says this “notorious fly dealer” was Arnold Nothmann. None of these names share an initial, and they are unlikely to be nicknames. It’s possible he changed his birth name to downplay his religion or ethnicity, but that would only account for one extra name. His notoriety (and subsequent actions) suggest there could be a more sinister reason for the multiple names, but if he really was trying to hide his identity, why change only the first name?
Whatever his name was, in the end Nothmann’s financial risks caught up with him. His loans were called in and his businesses and their contents were seized. The record gets murkier here, but according to Sillem, bankruptcy didn’t appeal to Nothmann so he moved to Germany and stayed with a former customer. Apparently he borrowed quite a bit of money from this customer, bought a Mercedes Benz, had it shipped to Ireland, but then moved with his family to America to avoid his creditors. What further adventures he had is unknown.
By Janalyn Martínez