Peter Eaton in
conversation with Sheila Markham
All the hoops in Peter Eatons croquet lawn have been widened to
spare his guests frustration. The man himself is not so easy to
approach, guarded by a pair of spirited dachshunds yapping horribly
behind a door marked Funeral Office. Once in, the tape recorder
whirred ominously, settled down, clicked and annoyed the dogs and their
master who barked, Thats a bloody silly question,
and the interview was under way.
Bookselling has altered. There are a lot of aristocrats in it
now. When I started, there were only about three who had been to Oxford.
It was always considered a trade and not a profession. There were a
lot of working class who just went in because they saw a picking. Several
that I knew would buy books in sales, tied up in bundles it could
have been coal and they didnt even open them, and used
to sell them at a profit without looking at them. I dont suppose
looking would have made much difference.
In the early days, there were a lot of people who did this, and
there were a lot of crooks. I know a chap who was a buyer for a shop
in Charing Cross Road. Hed rip out the title-page and shout at
the auctioneer, "Its not perfect", and put the page
in his pocket, buy the book cheaply and then stick it back in.
I was talking to the librarian of Rochdale, where they had a statue
of Hitler in the town square, and people used to throw books at Hitler
for a waste paper drive. This librarian picked out one or two incunabula
like that. There were a lot of pickings in those days.
I got sacked from twelve jobs in eighteen months: I was a waiter
and I spilt the soup; I couldnt sweep up a fac-tory floor. I was
incapable of doing it either I was too slow or too clumsy. I can
only be a bookseller, though I was never trained and was completely
lost amongst the crowd. Nobody would employ me.
In 1945 Peter Eaton moved from his barrow in Portobello Road to premises
in Kensington Church Street, previously occupied by a wet fish shop.
It took some months for the local shoppers to desist from asking him
for a pound of cod. When I bought the shop, they were giving them
away. Half the shops in London were empty because of the War. Royalty
used to come in because it was in Kensington Church Street. The next
street is Millionaires Row. At the top was a great socialist,
George Strauss, who I started the Tribune with, and at the bottom was
the Royal Palace, and between the two you got everything. I had lots
of royal customers and ambas-sadors by the ton.
I used to keep all my military books in the cellar with the rats.
Who the hell wants to fight for king and country? Patriotism of any
description is a danger. You set up barriers and these cause war. People
join the army because they dont need to think. Baden-Powell once
said, "A dull lad who can obey orders is better than a sharp one
who cannot". 'For the size of the shop, it had more important people
than any other building in the world Russell Flint, Augustus
John, and Dylan Thomas would come in. Dylan Thomas was a bastard, coming
in drunk once and trying to pull the bloody shop to pieces. Hed
been to Augustus John to have his portrait painted, and just wanted
to be big.
'I bought so many books that we had to stick them in warehouses. I finished
up having four basements full in Chis-wick and all over London, where
I could store them cheap, and it seemed silly. It took us two years
to find Lilies. Weatherheads, the booksellers in Aylesbury, said,
"You ought to buy Lilies Ha, Ha, Ha!" We saw it and
bought it, and everybody thought I was mad. It was a crazy thing to
do, but all I was concerned about was somewhere to put the books.
This was in 1969 when the house was in a state of complete dilapidation.
The present building dates from 1870, although the site has been occupied
since the twelfth century, and was designed by George Devey, a favourite
of John Betjeman. Situated in the village of Weedon in Buckinghamshire,
the house is surrounded by magnificent woods in which Oliver Cromwell
is said to have planned his final battle for the capture of Oxford.
More recently, Stanley Kubrick spent a day investigating the spot as
a possible location for Clockwork Orange.
Lilies is now home to what is probably Englands largest bookshop
a title it has earned on the strength of its nineteen book-crammed
rooms. A major collection of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite paintings
vie for any available patches of blank wall. Innumerable glass-cases
compete for the floor space to display Peter Eatons private museum
the most eloquent testimony to his collecting energy and compulsion
to acquire just about anything that can possibly be displayed under
glass. The resulting mixture of cultural disintegra-tion all but defies
description: bits and pieces from Tutankhamons tomb, a scrap of
the Empress Josephines wedding dress, a sliver of the worlds
first gramophone record, looking remarkably like a piece of Bacofoil
and of which it would be all too easy to miss the romance without its
owners brusque instruction. And so it goes on: King George VIs
ration book with used coupons, a lavatory roll stamped with Mrs. Thatchers
I should think 80 per cent of our visitors at Lilies are trade.
Neither of us likes customers. Theyre a bloody nuis-ance. Like
everything else, therere a lot of things in life youve got
to put up with. I let the staff deal with them. Christ no! Ive
no interest in the personal touch. They either want the books or they
dont. You could buy 50 books in the time you're talking to them.
Peter Eaton has enjoyed spectacular success in buying and selling books
in staggering quantity. He bought Queen Victorias books from Kensington
Palace, and part or all of the libraries of George Bernard Shaw, H.
G. Wells, Marie Stopes and R. H. Tawney. He also discovered in Portobello
Road Churchills manuscript notes for his books of the Second World
War. The Japanese have honoured him by naming after him a major university
collection on Robert Owen and the Co-operative movement. As an ardent
socialist and champion of the womens movement, Peter Eaton has
not unnaturally specialised in the writ-ings of both Owen and Stopes.
You would think that all booksellers dealing in books and intellectual
things would be socialist, but very few of them are. Theyre boring,
most of them - talking bloody books and how much they made. Its
all commercial. There are some Ive been quite friendly with over
a period I like Anthony (Rota), but I dont agree with him;
Dring, who just died at Quaritch, I used to get on with him, and old
(Clifford) Maggs. He used to come up to me after (ABA) meetings and
say, "I wish Id done that". They must be repressed socialists.
I dont want to be president of the ABA. If you start going
through all the presidents, the majority were not socialist. Mind you,
there were great ones in the past like Percy Muir. Its a good
organisation, though, fighting for the rights of the bookseller. Like
all trade unions, it looks after the workers.
I think earlier booksellers were a load of crooks. But its
greatly improved. Theres a more cultured class coming into it,
and a more international aspect to it now. Countries are opening up.
Look at Korea, for example. Things are being collected that were never
collected before, making new markets.
I think Im ahead of my time all the time. Ive worked
on Womens Lib and Ive worked hard for socialism, and I think
thats more important than bookselling. I am an intellectual and
I ask so many questions. Just like a scientist, I ask "Why, why,
why?" Through asking questions and reading, I found out that all
cultured people are socialist, and I thought "Well, Christ Almighty,
if I am not a socialist, I want my brains tested". All this nonsense
about work being ennobling the average working person dies at
about 50 to 60, and people who dont work live till 70 or 80. If
you stop asking "Why?" youre finished.
They should make women equal to men in law for a start. Theres
really nothing to be frightened about. Its fear with men. There
are some funny tendencies in men theyre stupid, if they
werent the world would be a better place.
Peter Eatons abiding interest in Marie Stopes work resulted
in the formation of four large collections, and a bibliography written
with Marilyn Warnick and published by Croom Helm in 1977, Marie Stopes:
a Bibliographical List of Her Books. This study was based on his own
collection and those of the University of California at Santa Bar-bara
and the University of New York at Stony Brook.
When Marie Stopes died in 1958 at the age of seventy-eight, it must
have come as quite a shock as she had confidently expected to live for
a hundred and fifty years. She was a bit touched, Marie Stopes
but a great pioneer. She thought she was the greatest poet in
the world and that her poetry would live longer than all her birth control
and what have you.
Marriage is a funny thing. Margarets my third wife. Shes
related to Florence Nightingale and General Gordon. I met her at nineteen
at a Polytechnic dance in Regent Street. She runs the business now.
She trained herself got a mania for buying bloody books
sink everything to buy.
My first marriage was a war one. It didnt last because she
fell in love with a Greek who was trained up to be the Prime Minister
of Cyprus. But the old Archbishop (Makarios) didnt pack up and
her husband died. My second marriage was to a very good socialist, who
ran a school in England where kids could do as they liked. The kids
used to bet who could lay the matron. Of course, the health authorities
came and eventually it was closed down not because it was progressive,
but for health reasons. It was unhygienic.
I enjoy my friends. Very few are in bookselling. Most are cultured
people. I could have been a professor or a scientist, but I didnt
have the opportunity as I wasnt educated, so I couldnt really
Fifty years after walking to London from Lancashire, Peter Eaton really
is something, and very much still at the helm of a business of such
attraction that someone once offered him a South Sea island in exchange.
He still enjoys loud music and fast women, and dislikes
hunting, shooting and tuna fish. And when his last hour
finally comes, it will do so on one of Lilies more whimsical exhibits
the clock that belonged to the people who put the engine
in the boat Shelley drowned in.'
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in March 1991