The bookseller was sitting on a little pile of paper-wrapped parcels the height of a footstool, reading a collection of religious sermons: white-bearded, wearing a woollen coat over his salwar kameez against the spring cold. His potential customers, only two of them at the moment, were as lost in their books as he was in his. In the instant that I saw him, I decided that I would start a collection of my own: photographs of booksellers around the world.
He took no notice of me, fixed in his world of exhortation and religious certainty. I knelt down in the mud of the Kabul street and took his picture. Only then did he look up. 'As-salaam aleikum,' he murmured: peace be upon you. His head was back in his sermons while I was still getting out the correct response: 'Wa aleikum salaam.'
It's rarely an easy life, being a seller of books. They're heavy things in bulk (the bibliophile John Baxter called his memoir A Pound of Paper) and lugging them around is a big part of the job. The bookseller of Kabul's stall is an open one in the biggest avenue in the city. Every morning he has to unpack several hundred books, set them out in the blue-painted shelves he also has to bring. Then, 11 or 12 hours later, he reverses the whole operation. He has sheets of clear plastic in case it rains and, however enthralling the sermons might be, he has to watch out for the street urchins who are capable of stealing anything.
Booksellers are rarely in the business for the money alone. This is true even of grand dealers like Maggs Bros, whose premises are a superb 18th-century town house at 50 Berkeley Square in London. The prices of their treasures are sometimes enough to make you wince, though they are tolerant of wanderers like me who just want to see what, say, a first edition of Sir Richard Burton's The City of the Saints looks like. Burton, the dirty-minded old devil, only made the journey to the Mormons of Salt Lake City in 1860 to examine European polygamy at first hand. He came away distinctly unimpressed.
No 50 is, by all accounts, the most haunted house in London, and the Horror (at least in the form I read about it) is a kind of fog which comes rolling down the main staircase at night and drives you out of your mind — though not to the point where you might feel impelled to buy some of Maggs' more expensive items, though. I have never found any of the wonderfully unstuffy staff at Maggs who admit to having seen the Berkeley Square Horror, but halfway up the stairs, by the glass cases containing letters written by Elizabeth I, Berlioz and others, you can experience a certain frisson. I must go round there soon, and ask them if they'd mind my taking a photo of their staff for my bookseller project. Or of the Berkeley Square Horror, of course, if available.
Maggs is, as I say, remarkably tolerant of stray passers-by. In the 1960s, when I arrived in London from Cambridge and had to work for a living, booksellers were far more hostile. The actual selling of books seemed not to be a priority. 'Yes?' said the bent, nicotine-enveloped figure of Robert Block, as he opened the locked door of his shop near the British Museum by a couple of inches. 'Could I look round?' I asked. 'Tell me what you're looking for, then you can come in.' Fortunately I remembered two or three authors of turn-of-the-century detective stories. Since that was Block's great interest (he had known a lot of them personally), he opened up. Months later in our relationship he even offered me a cup of tea.
The bouquinistes at their stalls along the Quais in Paris are notoriously bad-tempered, but that's because of all the dopey tourists who pass by. I forgive them, anyway: once I bought a lovely 17th-century copy of Montaigne's Essaysthere for a couple of hundred old francs. Booksellers are usually pleasanter in Germany, and recently in Leipzig I negotiated a good price for a collection of George Grosz's cartoons, crammed with grotesque old men.
Only a couple of weeks ago I was in provincial China, checking out a grotty old antiques market. There were a thousand pictures of Mao Zedong, with or without the wise and charming Zhou Enlai or the beetle-browed gangster, Lin Biao. He staged a dramatic escape to Russia shortly before he was due to be arrested, but his plane crashed in the mountains. There were hundreds of Little Red Books, dozens of posters of pre-War singers and dancers in silk dresses. I couldn't resist buying a poster of the Gang of Four – back in the 70s, I did so much reporting on them.
What I really came for, though, was to photograph one of the stallholders. Gentle-faced, he sat in his book-filled cubicle reading his stock. He showed me the best things he owned: worm-eaten texts from the Qing dynasty, around 1700, and told me in the same breath that they weren't for sale: a speciality of booksellers the world over. Then I settled him in front of his stock and pressed the button.
Sadly, I managed to screw up the shot, and afterwards not even Photoshop can help. So far, then, my great collection of bookseller photographs contains just one example. But I'm working on it.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.