Sheila Markham

in conversation

The originality of Sheila Markham’s conversations with the antiquarian book trade is the privileged insight they give into the quirky yet fascinating world of rare books, demonstrating how very much alive it is today.

She allows every bookseller his or her own monologue to talk about what interests them in their job, how they fell in love with books, or their views on the current state of the trade. Each bookseller has an individual voice – be it modest, earnest, anxious, ironic, zestful, measured, proud, humorous, business-like, secretive or nonchalant.

- Michael Meredith


Sheila Markham’s role is that of a silent recording angel, benign and encouraging, bringing forth occasional glissandos of egotism and ambition, wistful memories of happier or more profitable times, and occasional revelations of life in the real world as Buddhist monk, fashion photographer, drystone waller, bus driver, actor or pedagogue.

- Paul Grinke


An invaluable mine of fact, anecdote, memories, few lies and no statistics. Thank God for all the persons that Sheila Markham has immortalized, and all the rest that she has yet to reach.

- Nicolas Barker


Sketch by the Victorian artist John Leech

I’ll have the one at the bottom, please.

James Fleming

This sketch by the Victorian artist John Leech (Mary Evans Picture Library) appears on the dust-jacket of the two volumes of Sheila Markham’s conversations with the antiquarian book trade published in 2004 and 2014.

The sketch lends itself to a caption competition. If you would like to enter, please send your suggestion to

The Voice of Experience
Customers are pleasantly surprised to find old and new books together - presumably they tend to think of them as two separate categories. As far as I’m concerned, books are books - they’re good or they’re bad and that’s all that matters. 

Sarah Anderson

Interview of the week Graham Weiner

Graham Weiner

The book trade is a nice hideout for misfits, but you can’t be completely mad to run a business. 

Read on ...

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The Death of a Secret Scholar

Posted on 02/06/2018 at 11:06

The sudden death of Ian Jackson (1951-2018), California bookseller and member of the Editorial Board of The Book Collector, deprived the trade of one of its most erudite members. A lone-wolf eccentric, Jackson belonged to the select group of booksellers and collectors that Iain Sinclair calls the ‘secret scholars’. The Summer 2018 number of The Book Collector contains the Editor, James Fergusson’s handsome tribute to his colleague, and reminiscences of Ian Jackson contributed by his numerous friends and admirers. It was an honour to be invited to contribute the following brief appreciation.

After quoting a Latin tag in the House of Commons, Sir Winston Churchill said, ‘I translate for the sake of Honourable Members who were at Eton’. Ian Jackson made no such concessions to the readers of his catalogues, correspondence and stream of scholarly publications. And so my pen friendship with Ian, a self-proclaimed Epicurean humourist, adept in several modern and two ancient languages, was always going to be an intellectual challenge. Although we never met in person, over the years I formed an impression from his letters and occasional photographs of an existence not far removed from the miniatures in a medieval book of hours. Biblical in appearance, Jackson’s daily life appeared to follow the cycle of seasonal activities, pruning vines, chopping wood, collecting walnuts and - if not actually slaughtering it – feasting on a fatted domestic animal with visiting scholars and bibliophiles of the highest distinction. When corresponding by email with Ian, it was always a surprise to receive a reply in what I calculated to be the middle of the Californian night. Pacific Standard Time had no meaning for Ian, who told me that he ran his business according to Cluniac hours. None the wiser, I learnt not to be surprised by the timing or content of communications from Berkeley – until the Valentine cards started arriving. On investigation, I discovered that numerous people, male and female, received these cards, of which there was a selection of designs of carefully calibrated obscenity. After expressing some surprise, I was downgraded to the blandest design before falling off the list altogether. Fortunately Ian continued to send elegantly inscribed copies of his quirky catalogues and other highly imaginative publications, often beautifully illustrated by his wife, Ann Arnold. His biographical and bibliographical tribute to Bernard Rosenthal, who died last year, might almost stand as a fitting memorial to them both. Written in the style of Pierre Bayle, it is an astonishing scholarly exercise that only Ian Jackson could pull off without shooting himself in the footnote.

Fisher and Sperr's Back Room

Posted on 25/03/2018 at 12:03

No self-respecting secondhand bookshop is without a back room, the inner sanctum reserved for favoured customers, where the bookseller keeps his most precious finds.

Many readers will remember Fisher and Sperr’s bookshop in Highgate High Street, over which John Sperr presided until his death in 2010. Professor Mark Mazower, the distinguished historian of twentieth-century Europe, grew up in North London and attributes his book-buying addiction to Fisher and Sperr’s shop. A favoured customer, he describes a visit to John Sperr’s back room in his account of the momentous upheavals of twentieth-century Europe told through the memories of a single family – his own.

‘In Highgate, I found myself thinking about Fisher and Sperr, an antiquarian bookshop on the high street next door to the Hilltop Beauty Salon. Why it had come into my mind I am not sure – maybe because nothing preserves defeated ideas better than an old bookshop, which keeps intact the possibility of their discovery and reincarnation. And perhaps for that reason I remembered how dismayed I was only a few months after Dad’s death when a dusty green curtain appeared across the familiar bow window to mark John Sperr’s passing (in 2010).

The shop had been there for so long I had somehow assumed it would go on forever; Mr.Fisher had disappeared years ago, but John Sperr had manned the desk to the end. He had become forbiddingly deaf and barked at visitors, but once you had his confidence, the key came out, the cavernous back room with its treasures was grudgingly unlocked, and the light was turned on. Inside it was always freezing and the books were crammed high, gathering dust and rarely touched. 

One afternoon I found a small leather-bound edition of the Anthologia Lyrica Graeca, its title page bearing in a precise but minuscule schoolboy hand the signature “V.E.Rieu” and the date “Nov.10th 1902”. I bought it because I had heard of Rieu, who would later become the first translator of Homer in paperback and the founder of Penguin Classics, the great disseminator of the world’s learning. He had lived and died nearby, leaving his library to be dispersed and then reassembled in a bookdealer’s afterlife.’ 

Mark Mazower

What You Did Not Tell. A Russian Past and the Journey Home

London, Allen Lane, 2017.

A Poland & Steery Co-production