Ralph and Gillian Stone in conversation with Sheila Markham
In 1968 Ralph was managing director of a chain of groceries in Dundee.
We lived in St Andrews where on occasions he might be introduced as
Mr Stone. Hes a -er- grocer. He thought they had visions
of him in a white coat beating butter pats and slicing bacon. There
was no secondhand bookshop and Pat Hunter and Margaret Squires and I
started selling books in the market. We each put £5 into the kitty,
set up, and unpacked some of the books we had already accumulated. St
Andrews just swooped on them. There was a real thirst for books and
things went from strength to strength. We ploughed everything back for
the first year and soon started the Quarto Bookshop which is going strong
and Margaret is still there. Pats husband, Geoff got a chair at
Bangor and for a while she ran a small bookshop in Caernarvon.
I learnt a tremendous amount from the actual buying and selling of books
and from reading catalogues, particularly from Blackwells and
Thins. Old Mr McNaughtan told me over lunch during a Glasgow auction
many useful points about the book trade, and gave good advice about
pricing books not too expensive but not too cheap. He told me
he specialised in books that sell. I remember reading an
ABA advertisement in The Clique stating the aims and objects and standards
of the Associa-tion. I entirely agreed. So I wrote and asked for guidance
as I was new to the business and wanted to become a good bookseller.
They replied it was not their job and that I should come back in five
years. Anyway Mr McArthur the libra-rian of St Andrews University was
extremely generous with his knowledge and introduced me (I think my
partners may have already known) to the use of bibliographies. I learnt
from an old bookseller in Leeds the etiquette of announcing myself on
entering a fellow booksellers premises.
After Id had three years at Quarto, Ralphs company was taken
over and he got another job which meant moving the entire family down
to Devon we had five children aged from eight to eighteen. I
came out of Quarto with a tiny capital and a few books and started a
small postal business from home in Dartington, trading as G. Stone.
One day on the spur of the moment I set up in Totnes market and took
£10 not as good as St Andrews.
Ralph fell out with his new boss in just ten months in Devon. This was
in May 1972 and the moment had come to start bookselling together. To
find a name Ralph scribbled down anything to do with books Page,
Leaf, Print and then, suddenly Titles and that was it. We gave a party
to celebrate and Ralph broke his Achilles tendon doing his own version
of a Highland Fling. With his leg in plaster to the thigh we drove our
camper van to Sotheby's Pulborough, slept in the car park, and spent
half his tin handshake on our opening stock for Titles.
I must admit I had never really taken Gillians work terribly seriously.
It always amused me in St Andrews when she and her partners all
highly intelligent women came back from market and emptied their
takings on the table. They kept their money in a bus conductors
leather pouch with multitiers for different coins. But I was soon to
discover that they took more than Gillian and I managed to achieve later
in Totnes or Newton Abbot markets.
Anyway we got our first major pur-chases back from Pulborough and put
them in the garage, which I had shelved after returning the company
car. We did the markets then had a shop in Torquay for a year before
settling in a big house with a barn in Totnes. In 1973 we started doing
book fairs at the National Book League in Albemarle Street initially.
There were twelve exhibitors at the first fair we did. We built up an
average of over thirty fairs a year during the 'seventies and owe a
great deal of our development to the experience we gained and to the
customers we acquired all over the country through them. It was all
a hectic programme and we didnt have a holiday for the first five
years and the entire family was dressed from charity shops.
Very early on Gillian started doing catalogues. Our first catalogue
was of horse books and we methodically mailed it out to every stud and
every hunt secretary in the South West counties. We did not get one
single order. Then she catalogued some of the books we had bought at
Pulborough, including a Paris Ulysses and quite a lot of topography.
This did much better. We did catalogues of Books on the Environment
years before the subject caught on. And as a result of an American customer
who farmed in North Devon we started specialising in Agriculture. David
Low became friendly and was extremely helpful to us. We always did a
Christmas catalogue too because trade went dead before Christmas in
Devon. Years later when we moved to Shipton-under--Wychwood we still
had a lot of the horse books and they all sold within six months.
Shipton was lovely with the shop on the village green The Old
Post Bookshop the oldest Post Office in England according to
the Guinness Book of Records. But in 1981 we got the lease of our present
shop in Oxford, and though we ran the two shops for a couple years it
was all getting a bit much so we decided to concentrate on Turl Street
in Oxford. It's in such a wonderful position just round the corner
from the Bodleian and many of the colleges.
I very much enjoy working in the shop and dealing with the customers
although there are some we can happily do without. Over the years we
have collecte-d quite a few sayings for Bookworm Droppings, that marvellous
anthology of extraordinary remarks overheard in bookshops. The other
day someone came and asked Sheila Fairfield, our colleague in the shop,
Can you direct me to a secondhand bookshop?
We always try to keep certain books in stock. For example Seven Pillars
of Wisdom is always in demand. When Gillian first started bookselling
the first trade edition sold for £5 or £6 and nowadays it
goes for anything between £25 and, in a dust-jacket, £100
or £400 in Japan! The Rubaiyat of Omar Khay-yam always
sells, and secondhand Galsworthy never does. Our all time bestseller
in the Turl is a slim pamphlet by Professor Mayr-Harting, one of the
few new books we stock, called What to do in the Penwith Peninsula in
less than Clement Weather. It sells at 99p.
One thing about running a general secondhand bookshop is that youre
going to make 90% of your sales from 10% of your stock and youre
never quite sure which 10% it is going to be. Bankers and accountants
rarely grasp the impor-tance of mix. They tend to interpret
the appreciation on certain items as an indication of huge profits.
Then they say, By God, thats a return. Cant we get
in on this? They dont realise the matrix behind all the
special items. They also dont realise you can be a long time waiting
for the right customer.
As regards running a shop in Oxford - there is a huge diversity of customers
from dons to tourists, people from all the counties around, students
who want presents (Christmas is good in Oxford), summer students, members
of the confer-ences held in the colleges in vacations or even in term
time, so we try to have something for everyone. Far flung mem-bers of
the university come back for Gaudy Nights and visitors of all sorts
come to Oxford and do the bookshops. We even appear in a
Spanish novel by Xavier Marias, a nice young man who was at All Souls
a few years ago and came into the shop regularly. He picked up on a
habit some dons have of not seeing women, so that one might ask me a
question, and I might refer to Gillian who might supply the answer.
The supplementary question then comes back to me. This may go on two
or three times. The book is called All Souls and we feature as Mr and
The shop is open Monday to Saturday, but Ralph and I always try to give
ourselves Monday off. In practice this doesnt work, and although
we may not actually come in, I still think we work about twenty Mondays
a year. There is so much to be done and we always seem to have substituted
hard work for capital. Looking back I think we might have made a mistake
in not borrowing more money when we opened at Shipton- under-Wychwood.
That might have been just the right time to raise the level of our stock.
As it is we tend to concentrate on the £50-500 bracket for stock,
though we do attend major auctions and deal in multi-figure books on
commission. In the last few years we did have the pleasure of buying
books for a tycoon who wanted to recreate a marvellous country house
library. We bought some superb books mainly in the field of natural
history. It was a very exciting time. Checking and buying so much of
such quality over the period we were bound to gain greatly in knowledge
and experience. So much concentrated hands-on experience cer-tainly
helped when I was writing the natural history article in the new Scolar
Antiquarian Booksellers Guide.
We havent done so many catalogues in recent years as in the Devon
days, but we do occasional lists. At the moment we have stock banked
up waiting for time to get at the computer. Ive got the books
for another history of science list our last one was very successful.
And an agriculture catalogue, one of books on, by or about women, and
I want to do one on the history of environmental thought. Nowadays the
best books tend to go very quickly in the shop, so catalogues are secondary
to shop trade. We also do quite a lot of buying in the shop. In general
theres a lot of competition for buying in Oxford. Academic libraries
do come up, but we havent really got into the habit of don-watching.
Anyway theres a lot of playing one bookseller against another.
In some ways I prefer to buy at fairs or from other booksellers and
at auction. In theory we are both approaching retire-ment, but I expect
we shall go on working till we drop. One thing I have said to Ralph,
lets put by small books. Theyll be easier to handle in our
old age! Over the years Ralph, and to some extent I, must have shifted
many many tons of books.
Actually I hurt my back playing rugger and Ive often thought it
wouldnt be a bad idea for the PBFA to engage a resident chiropractor.
But that would be private health and many members would be absolutely
against that. There was a terrible outcry some years ago when someone
suggested a group sub-scription to BUPA. I suppose you have to remember
that the PBFA is an incred-ible amalgam of all points of view. Basically
youve got 600 mavericks and some are vociferous. I was Chairman
of the PBFA in the early 'eighties and, in retrospect, it was an enjoyable
time although there was a lot of hassle and I was lucky to have
the help of an excellent committee, particularly Mike Lee who was Secretary/Treasurer.
The PBFA was going through a period of enormous change, from which it
emerged ultimately as a proper trade association. I was Chairman of
the constitution committee which wrote a constitution for the Association
and piloted it through to adoption. The PBFA is a true trade association
touching on everything from marketing and benevolent activity to paper
bags and fax machines.
Apart from regularly doing Bath and Edinburgh ABA fairs, weve
done one at the Park Lane Hotel, but I cant say I welcome that
belly-of-the-earth feeling when youre down in the velvet dungeon
I mean the ballroom. You need to exhibit several years in a row
preferably in the same position to make much impact on the regular
visitors. We just cant afford to do that. Apart from the high
investment in stock and the overheads, theres a cost in being
absent from the shop. The move to the Gros-venor should be a great improvement
on the Park Lane and if we should have a particularly relevant 'buy'
we would consider it. The Russell fair is a short and sharp two days,
and Gillian was absolutely delighted with it this year. I was away in
Munich at the Theater der Welt Festival at that time, acting in a play
produced by two of our sons. They have their own production company
and will be putting on their latest show at the Edinburgh Festival next
month. I play a mid-European intellectual and a benign presence somewhat
akin to God. The shows called Its Staring you Right in the
Face and its on at the Pleasaunce Theatre. Whats more weve
got lots of help to run the shop in Oxford and will be showing all three
weeks at the Festival Book Fair in Chambers Street.
Title has been going now for twenty one years and our partnership has
survived though we are often in opposition over something or
other. I might say to Gillian, Youll never sell that book
at that price and often she does. Meanwhile I am busy putting
sleepers into the stock. Any partnership is a compound of anger and
delight and all stages in between. If it isnt, theres probably
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in August 1993