Waiting for Gutenberg
in conversation with Sheila Markham
I joined Francis Edwards straight from school in 1969. In those days
it was still a marvellous old shop in Marylebone High Street. My first
boss was Herbert Edwards, the nephew of Francis Ed-wards junior, whose
father had started the business in 1855. I was put into the travel department
and spent my first month dusting the shelves. This was considered a
good way of becoming acquainted with the stock. Everything was rather
old-fashioned, but I could sense quite clearly that it was a useful
apprenticeship and that I was learning a great many things of long-term
Gradually I moved into cataloguing and learned how to use reference
books. I remember being particularly struck by Percy Muirs books
on points. It was quite astonishing to me that you could find out so
much about books from their bibliographical peculiarities, mistakes
on dust-jackets and so on. I was also taught the basic rules of cataloguing,
which I still try to follow in my own catalogues today. For example,
in most cases it isnt necessary to give a long list of bibliographical
references. The cus-tomer will assume that the book is present in all
the usual places, so its much more effective to say what the book
After a couple of years at Francis Edwards, I began to realise that
I was not going to climb the ladder - there were just too many people
ahead of me. So I began to look around for another job, and an opportunity
came up rather unexpectedly. The Bibliomites were still flourishing
in those days - this was a social club for booksellers employees
- and one of our outings was a visit to Colin Franklins home at
Culham. He had recently set up as an antiquarian bookseller, with beautiful
books in the most wonderful surroundings. The thought of living in the
country and dealing in books seemed a magical combination and I wanted
to find out how it was done.
So I wrote to thank Colin for a lovely day and asked if there was any
chance of a job. To my surprise, there was and I moved to Culham in
1972 and stayed for eighteen months. Of course I had pictured myself
cataloguing books and going to auctions, but Colin is a very individual
bookseller and likes to do these things himself. So I became more of
a factotum, taking his sons to watch Oxford United, which I had not
While I was there, I struck up a friendship with an antique dealer who
also lived in Culham. She had a weekly stall at Bath Antiques Market
and I occasionally went down to see her. Faith Legge also had a stall
selling books there. But she was about to move to Suffolk and wanted
to reduce her attendance at the market. In due course an opportunity
arose for me to take over her stall for three out of every four weeks.
So I decided to leave Colin Franklin and to become a market trader.
By chance my parents had just moved to Bath and I was able to stay with
them for the first six months. Every Wednesday I sold books at the market,
and made some extra money at the weekend working as a wine waiter. Gradually
my book business began to expand. Then, in the long hot summer of 1976,
I met my wife, Sophie Dupré, the manuscript specialist, and nearly
went bankrupt as a result of taking too much time off.
In 1979, we both happened to be visiting Francis Edwards and bumped
into Alan Mitchell. He told us of his plans to take over the shop with
the help of a bank and a couple of partners, and asked if we would be
prepared to come and work there. It was an interesting dilemma - on
the one hand, our daughter had just been born and we had recently bought
a house in Bath; on the other hand, it seemed an excellent opportunity
to expand both our businesses. So we accepted Alans offer and
moved up to London.
I became a partner in Francis Edwards and it was a very exciting time
with lots of ideas in the air. In particular, we launched a book investment
scheme. Of course, we didnt know at the time that we were expanding
into a recession. The money and the books began to run out, and we got
to a point where we could no longer manage. The bank gave us a month
to carry on trying, but it was no good and the receivers were called
Cynical old booksellers will always say that you cant buy books
for investment because the prices may well go down - as indeed they
did in the 1930s. And there is always the argument that you should only
buy a book because you like it - the financial aspect should always
be a secondary consideration. Nevertheless the scheme worked as far
as it went, and certainly helped to expand Francis Edwards clientele.
But we also got involved in a nasty legal battle with ABMR when it published
an article by Christian Verbeke, containing some rather disparaging
remarks about the scheme. The legal costs were enormous on both sides
and, in retrospect, I dont think we should have bothered to take
up the battle. The scorn of our elders would have disappeared in time.
Of course part of the trouble was that we were all so young, and a lot
of the older generation remembered the firm the way it had been.
Then Leon Morelli came along and spent good money on Francis Edwards.
Meanwhile, all the staff were given notice to quit, including Sophie
and myself. We were also out of a home, having lost the money we had
invested in Francis Edwards, most of which had been put up against our
house in London. To cut a long story short, we had to get out and moved
down to our present house in Calne which we were able to buy rather
In the event, Leon Morelli invited me back to Francis Edwards as manager.
I remember he offered me a choice of two salaries, one with profits
and one without - which was £4,000 higher. As I needed every penny,
I chose the higher figure and began commuting to London from our new
home in Wiltshire. Actually I wasnt at all convinced there would
be any profits in the first year. You can throw money at a firm but
you cant necessarily turn it round in one year. After eighteen
months, Morelli began a think twice about running an expensive high
street premises. At the time the rent in Marylebone High Street was
£35,000, with rates of £10,000 on top. So he decided to
move the flag-ship name of Francis Edwards down to Hay-on-Wye. I was
offered the chance of going there , but by that stage, we were very
happy living in Calne, and Sophie had already built up quite a thriving
business from home. So we decided not to move again and I started my
own business with the severance pay from Leon Morelli.
Neither of us ever considered opening a shop - in a Wiltshire village,
it would be rather like a doctors surgery, with people constantly
coming in to discuss their problems. Running a shop is a tremendous
tie and, anyway, we had done the shop scene and it was a real breath
of fresh air to live and work at home.
I have continued to specialise in trave] books and, over the years,
acquired a bit of a corner in books on Mauritius and the Indian Ocean.
This came about rather by chance, when a customer of mine in Mauritius
died and his library came up for sale there. Sophie and I heard about
it just in time and decided to fly out on a whim. It was quite an extraordinary
sale, conducted in French with prices in piastres, an old sugar and
slave currenc-y. Whenever I managed to buy a book, the auctioneer appealed
to the room, 'Gentlemen, please. This is a foreigner. Any more bids?'
The sale was mainly attended by private collectors and, although I only
bought a few books, I came away with a lot of good contacts.
For the last eight years or so, Ive been appearing on television
in the BBC's Antiques Road Show. It all started when I happened to remark
to a friend what a pity it was that nobody ever talked about books.
He was involved with the programme as a picture expert and recruited
me to deal with any books that came along. Over the years, its
become a very popular programme, with viewing figures just short of
'Coronation Street'. You never know what will turn up and I always go
along armed with Book Auction Records and the Dictionary of National
Of course Im on familiar territory with travel books and recently
a woman came in with a complete set of Cooks voyages, which I
can talk about standing on my head. When I first joined Francis Edwards,
there was a vast stack of odd volumes of Cook and it was one of my jobs
to see if any sets could be made up. Funnily enough, the set which came
up on the Road Show still contained Francis Edwards coded cost
price of £45. It was a particularly nice set, which I valued at
£8,500. After the programme went out, dealers rang up asking me
how they could get hold of it. Of course I cant give that sort
of information, nor have I ever made any money out of the books on the
show. Obviously that would compromise my role as an impartial valuer.
You do hear dealers complaining that the programme has done the trade
a lot of harm. Why should precious informa-tion be shared with the general
public? Personally, I disagree with this attitude. Its rather
like saying What a pity people write bibliographies.
Its always interesting to see how the standard of material differs
as you travel around the country. For example, if you do a programme
in a commuter town, the standard often drops dramatically. People tend
to move frequently, turning out their attics on a regular basis before
antiques and books have time to accumulate. However, a place like Somerset
is always a good bet - farmers often have the space to store things
and tend not to move around so much. On the other hand, in cities like
Bath and Edinburgh, people tend to know exactly what theyve got
and dont particularly want it paraded on television.
Im pleased to say that the quality of the books on the programme
has been steadily improving, although I still see more 'Rupert' annuals
than STC-type books. In fact, Ive had to do my homework on Rupert
and can recom-mend a biography - if you can call it that, by George
Perry. To a certain extent, I try to anticipate what might turn up and
equip myself with a few relevant facts. Im sure one day someone
will ask me about the typographical use of the letter f for s. So Ive
prepared my answer on that and now Im just longing for an opportunity
to explain it. But you cant be prepared for everything and I just
wonder what I would say if someone walked in with an unrecorded copy
of the Gutenberg Bible.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in June 1994