Interview Archive

The Evolution of a Collection

Sheila Markham in Conversation with Chris Kohler

I was lucky to come into contact with the world of secondhand books at a very impressionable age. I was fifteen and had just started smoking. As this was frowned upon at my boarding school in York, I needed to find somewhere with a little more privacy. In due course I drifted into the bookshops of York and found that, not only could I smoke, but the books were quite interesting. My English master had introduced me to Laurence Sterne, who intrigued me as his reputation rested on two books, and he had lived in York. On my last day of school in the summer of 1960, I spent some prize money on an eighteenth century edition of Tristram Shandy. It had ‘six volumes only’ pencilled in the first volume and was priced accordingly. This discovery gave me enormous pleasure as I knew that, although Sterne’s book had originally come out in nine volumes, my copy of a slightly later reprint was complete in six volumes. I left the bookshop clutching my prize with glee.

My father was an accountant in London and it was decided that I should work for him while I thought of what to do with my life. Every lunch hour I would gravitate towards secondhand bookshops and, by December 1960, I had decided that I wanted to work for a bookseller. My parents were very supportive and, early in the New Year, I began looking for a job and getting nowhere because of my lack of experience. I tried Josephs and they said no and sent me to Foyles who said no so I proceeded to Maggs and Quaritch, two more noes, before I finally reached Bertram Rota where I burst into tears of frustration. They didn’t have a job, but told me exactly what to do: I was to go back to Joseph’s and tell Sam that I was desperate to become a bookseller and wouldn’t be wasting his time. So I went back, with some misgivings, and had to brave big surly Sam Joseph who, after a bit of huffing and puffing, took me through to the back room to meet his brother. I repeated what I had been told to say, and Jack gave me a job, starting the following Monday on £6 a week. It was February 1961 and I was eighteen years old.

I loved everything about the job from my first day. The work was hard, the repartee was sharp and the outcome was an obsession with secondhand bookselling. The Josephs tended to be rather abrupt with customers, but their favourites were ushered through the shop into the office, or taken down to the warehouse in Great Newport Street. Dealers came from all over the world and we also had a lot of show business visitors – acquaintances from Sam Joseph’s previous life when he had been married to Binnie Barnes, a Hollywood actress. Walt Disney and Sophie Tucker used to visit the shop.

Jack would take me to the London auctions and pick out a book and tell me what was important about it. After the sale, dealers would come back to the shop for the knock-out, which Jack would conduct in the back office. At some point, the buzzer would sound which was my signal to come in and take orders for tea and coffee. When I returned with a tray from Lyon’s tea shop, I would be let in to the smoke-filled room and Jack would peel a pound note off the top of the pile of cash on the table and give it to me as a tip. As I have commented elsewhere on the ring in London, it was made up of ‘Joseph’s, Marks, Thomas Thorp (London), Francis Edwards, Frank Hammond, Charles Traylen and Dawson’s’, (Out of Print and Into Profit, edited by Giles Mandelbrote, 2006).

Meanwhile I discovered that I would inherit £1,000 from my grandmother on my twenty-first birthday, and decided this sum was enough to start my own business. Jack had been very generous with his knowledge and was sorry to lose me just as I was beginning to earn my wages. But he understood the give-and-take of the apprenticeship system, having been sent in his youth to work for a German bookseller. I was living with my parents in Dorking, and set off with my cheque book on my first book buying trip around the country. Many of the books I had handled at Joseph’s were to be found considerably cheaper in the provinces, and I thought to myself, ‘this is the life’.

The next stage was to buy a secondhand typewriter and duplicating machine and issue my first catalogue, putting together a mailing list based on reference books in Dorking Public Library, and an advertisement in the Times Literary Supplement. The catalogue did fairly badly, but I learnt a valuable lesson - an unknown pipsqueak working out of his bedroom in the provinces cannot hope to achieve the same price for a book as a top West End dealer.

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At some stage it dawned on me that it was silly to try to ape the big boys in London. I needed to specialise in something and I chose English Literature. The mid 1960s coincided with the great expansion of university libraries in North America, and I began to receive an increasing number of institutional orders. At about the same time, I became aware of Robin Alston and his Scolar Press’s English Linguistics 1500-1800, a series of 365 facsimile reprints of major texts for the study of the English language. Robin had invented the Prismascope, a device which enabled an early printed book to be photographed without opening it more than 45 degrees. This development helped to allay the fears of rare book librarians about the risk of damage to fragile originals.

As a respected academic, Robin had an entré into scholarly libraries where the original editions were to be found. I thought the reprint programme was a fantastic idea and went up to Leeds to meet Robin and to offer my services as an unofficial salesman and, ultimately, I sold a major part of the print run. An entire set of reprints sold for £2,600 over a period of a few years. I received a 25% discount and eventually sold 125 sets. Several new titles would be published once a month for which I had to invoice and pack 125 orders. For a few years I almost gave up secondhand bookselling to concentrate on the Scolar Press reprints. The cash flow was amazing, and I was making contact with institutional libraries all over the world.

A turning point came in 1967 when I bought a collection of uniformly bound early Socialist pamphlets. It struck me as a bit of fun, and I bought them for £200 in a sale at Hodgson’s. I sent a catalogue of the collection, priced at £700, to some libraries on my mailing list and received seventeen firm orders. That changed my life. Collections were the thing. I was soon trading successfully, and moved into offices in Dorking High Street. I was employing staff by that stage and, while we continued to sell individual rare books, the emphasis was on collections.

By the late 1960s, my accountant father was keen to think of ways to reduce my tax bill. We explored the idea of setting up business in a tax haven, and for a few years I ran my original business in Dorking and a second business called Guernsey Books in the Channel Islands. My colleague Lyn Elliott looked after the business in Guernsey, and I came over once a month to rubber-stamp decisions in order to comply with company law. When the Chancellor of the day closed a relevant tax loophole in the early 1970s, we closed down Guernsey Books and moved the stock back to Dorking. It coincided with the death of Lyn’s husband and her returning to Surrey where she was able to continue to work for us in Dorking.

Although Lyn did a fantastic job cataloguing the collections, we always invited a respected academic to write an introduction to give it the seal of approval. In 1972 my future wife, Michèle, responded to one of my advertisements in the TLS for someone to write an introduction to a catalogue of eighteenth century books. She was American and a newly minted PhD but, as I was looking for an established scholar, she didn’t get the job. However she had an interesting CV, and I invited her to contact me if she ever came to England, and that is how we eventually met and married. Within a year, she started working in the business and, since Lyn’s departure about fifteen years ago, she has been responsible for all the cataloguing.

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>The concept of a collection bookseller is a largely twentieth century phenomenon. Collections of books and manuscripts were traditionally assembled by private collectors and passed into institutional ownership by gift or sale. The earliest examples of dealer-assembled book collections were offered for sale at the end of the nineteenth century by J.Pearson, a company founded in the 1860s. To be a collection bookseller, you need an idea, the patience to pursue it, and not least the confidence to throw money at it. The gamble is always the same – will the collection as a whole be greater than the sum of its parts? A key to success for smaller collections is that they have to be repeatable. You need to have a secure source of supply so that you can go out and build the collection again.

When we received multiple orders, we would offer to put together another collection within about six weeks. It suits institutional libraries to acquire ready-made subject collections, and a number of booksellers – notably Noel Bolingbroke-Kent and later Kennys in Ireland - were making a living supplying this seemingly insatiable market, particularly in Japan. The composition of each of our collections on a specific subject might not be exactly the same every time. But we would ensure that the important authors were always represented. Typically we would be working on three types of collection at the same time – our small standard collections of about 200 titles; large-size collections, such as British Poetry of the Romantic Period and a John Milton collection; and mega projects such as the Kohler Darwin collection. The profits from the sale of standard collections would help to fund large-size collections and so on. We aimed for a selling price of two to three-and-a-half times cost, and sometimes more for standard collections. This is a very capital intensive business, and we have at most times been heavily indebted to the bank.

Our standard collections were put together predominantly from within the trade. First of all I would identify a subject and learn about the key books, sometimes including new books, particularly on a subject of topical interest where you need to have the latest thinking represented. For our ecology and environmental crisis collections I would go to Hay on Wye where I knew where to find what I needed and then to London to buy the relevant new books. Other good subjects for our standard collections included British business histories, the history and development of newspapers in Britain, women’s health, and two series of university histories – American and European. The title of a collection is very important. When we found that women’s health wasn’t selling, we re-branded it sex and society, and it flew off the shelf.

I went to Japan for the first time in 1978, a year after we had started selling collections to the Japanese. There were already a few Dutch booksellers there, but I was one of the first British dealers to do the rounds of Yushodo, Maruzen, Kinokuniya and Far Eastern. A lot of my colleagues got into the habit of visiting Japan annually, but I preferred to build up our relationship by fax and letter and, in the early days, by telex. I have always been more comfortable selling at one remove, and we prided ourselves on the high standard of our catalogues with their scholarly introductions. Sales of collections are usually made by sending catalogues to Japanese booksellers who then sell to institutional libraries. We used the scatter shot approach, sending catalogues to twenty or so Japanese booksellers at the same time. Usually we would wait until the catalogue had been out for three weeks before reserving a collection, although we came to learn which dealers were most likely to convert reservations into orders.

The big firms had their own salesmen who went around the universities with our catalogues, to which they usually added a few preliminary leaves and a Japanese translation of the introduction. They loved statistics, and for really big collections it was always a selling point to be able to compare the collection favourably with, say, the holdings of the Bodleian or the British Library. The academics were incredibly powerful within their institutions and, while the librarian made out the purchase order, it was always the professor who made the decision.

By allocating ISBNs to our best catalogues, they found their way into copyright libraries and were accessible to anyone who wanted them. We did this with the catalogue of a collection of John Milton; it was one of our best collections and Kinokuniya sold it to a Japanese library. The Bodleian came to hear about it and was very excited about a number of items in it. They asked to be put in touch with the Japanese buyer on a purely scholarly basis to exchange bibliographical information. I put their request to Kinokuniya and there was complete silence. In my experience the western tradition of scholarly cooperation does not exist in Japan. Their institutional libraries have accumulated some vitally important material and it is important that this should be made available on a friendly basis to the scholarly world at large.

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The peak of the Japanese market was in the mid 1980s when it was possible to build up and sell collections on a specific theme repeatedly, averaging between thirty to forty sales a year. This figure dropped to zero by the end of the 1990s when the Japanese economic bubble burst. The disappearance of Japan from the market didn’t particularly affect me as a businessman, because we had been investing all the profits from the glory days into the making of a great Darwin collection. All booksellers need fuel to stoke the furnace, books to keep the production line going. I remember wandering into the Guildhall Bookshop in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1985, and standing in front of a section labelled ‘Evolution’, and asking myself if it had the makings of a collection – no big deal, just another string to our bow. I bought 74 books for £95, and this was the origin of the Kohler Darwin collection on which we were to spend the next twenty years.

The Guildhall Bookshop was followed by visits to Graham Weiner, Brian Lake, Sotheran’s and the Harringtons where I bought the first of our 470 editions of the Origin of Species. By mid 1986 we had accumulated 300 volumes at a cost of £4,000. A visit to Eric Korn, the Darwin specialist, transformed the collection and took it on to a new level. By 1987 we were on our way to building one of our most important antiquarian collections, but we still had no inkling of the massive project into which it would develop.

Our original plan was to sell it in America, where we did actually trail the collection in the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, we decided to withdraw it from the market and to go ahead with our ambition to build the biggest Darwin collection in the world, investing profits from our other activities and borrowing ever more money. A number of the best items in the collection came from the Jeremy Norman sale at Sotheby’s on 11 December 1992. Jeremy had started to collect Darwin, and books on the history of evolution in the late 1960s, and the 400-lot sale of his property remains the greatest ever auction of such material.

Our collection was made up of three sections – every edition of every book in every language by Charles Darwin; books about Darwin and evolution, including the works of the pre-evolutionists, and the evolutionary biologists after Darwin; and, thirdly, 152 autograph letters relating to the above. As regards the first section, Darwin made many revisions to the text of the Origin of Species, and every edition needs therefore to be represented. Darwin was keen to have his book translated into foreign languages and he corresponded at length with translators. Eight different translators worked on the German editions of the Origin from 1860 to the present day and they are all represented in the collection. As to the second section, we decided to include the writings of Creationists and anti-Darwinians in general, mostly because such material was not represented in most academic libraries and deserved a place in the debate as a whole.

Michèle began to catalogue the collection around the year 2000, by which time the Internet had arrived in full force. It enabled us to fill very quickly a large number of the gaps in our section of books about Darwin. It also helped us to identify numerous minute variants in common editions of the Origin of Species. As one cannot always rely on a bookseller to describe his copy of a very common edition in the necessary detail, it was simpler to order every copy of Origin on the Internet for under ten dollars and sort it all out in our warehouse. We probably only added about half these purchases to the collection, but the process greatly increased our bibliographical knowledge.

For many years, the University of Toronto possessed the biggest Darwin collection in the world, which had come from Richard Freeman, Darwin’s bibliographer. This was followed in size by the collection of Warren Mohr whose books are now in the Huntington Library in California. We knew exactly what had to be done to overtake them. By about 2002 the price of our collection had gone over £1 million and we were beginning to lose our nerve. As we had no experience of selling at this level, we asked Quaritch, Maggs, and Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles if they would be interested in taking over a joint and several agency for the selling of the Kohler Darwin collection. We appointed them agents for one year, and their names appear on the title-page of the first edition of the catalogue, for which the introduction was written by Michael Ruse, the great Darwin scholar. Japan was excluded from the arrangement, where we had a separate agreement with Yushodo and Bunsei Shoin.

Quaritch started the ball rolling by offering the collection to Cambridge University Library. As Darwin’s alma mater, Cambridge would have been a good home for the collection but CUL declined the offer. David Brass at Heritage Book Shop had a go at selling the collection in the States, but nothing much came of it there or in Japan. After a year the agreement with our colleagues came to an end and we were happy to take back control of the collection.

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Our next thought was to approach the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. We had no contacts in the library, and our first step was to establish the quantity and condition of their Darwin holdings. We spent three days in the reading room, and later discovered that the staff had raised the alarm about a ‘suspicious elderly couple’, who, they thought, might to be book thieves. Meanwhile we had satisfied ourselves that the NHM’s copies of the expensive Darwin books were generally in poor condition and no threat to our collection. Our next step was to approach Dr George Beccaloni, curator of orthopteroid insects in the Museum’s Department of Entomology.

We already knew George through his interest in Alfred Russel Wallace. In 2002 he had acquired for the Museum important Wallace manuscripts, books and Lepidoptera specimens from the scientist’s surviving family. George kindly agreed to approach the NHM library on our behalf. We made it a condition of sale that the Museum buy all the “By Darwin” material and all the autograph letters but we allowed them to buy only those items from the “About Darwin” section that they needed as they already had a good half of this material. The price was £985,000.

The Museum’s Board of Trustees soon gave unanimous approval to proceed to try and get the collection. We agreed to reserve it for a year, during which the development office of the Museum mounted an appeal to raise funds for the most expensive acquisition in its 125-year history. A successful application was made to the National Heritage Memorial Fund for a grant of £712,000 and the development office did a brilliant job in raising the balance, inviting current members of the Darwin family and major benefactors of the Museum to attend private views of highlights from the collection. The deal was signed, sealed and delivered in April 2006.

Hitherto the library of the Natural History Museum had primarily existed for the use of their in-house scientists. The purchase of the Kohler Darwin collection will enable it to attract the interest of the wider academic community, not only as the ultimate Darwin resource, but also as one of the greatest collections of nineteenth century science in the world.

After selling the Darwin collection, Michèle and I wanted to retire. We sold our warehouse, John Loska bought our reference library, and most of our residual stock went to Dominic Winter Book Auctions. Now we are left with three collections with very few gaps to be filled – nineteenth century pamphlets on social and political history, English literature published outside England, and the history of publishing and bookselling in Britain. We can continue to work on them, or simply put them into auction. It’s Michèle’s decision as she does all the cataloguing. My idea of retirement is to sit in the garden and read a book at half past ten in the morning and not feel guilty about it.

Kohler Interviewed for The Bookdealer in September 2007