Interview Archive

Running Titles

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. He’s 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. Pat’s 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 Blackwell’s and Thin’s. 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 bookseller’s premises.

After I’d had three years at Quarto, Ralph’s 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 Gillian’s 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 conductor’s 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 didn’t 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 you’re going to make 90% of your sales from 10% of your stock and you’re 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, that’s a return. Can’t we get in on this?’ They don’t realise the matrix behind all the special items. They also don’t 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 Mrs Alabaster.

The shop is open Monday to Saturday, but Ralph and I always try to give ourselves Monday off. In practice this doesn’t 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 Bookseller’s Guide.

We haven’t 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. I’ve 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 there’s a lot of competition for buying in Oxford. Academic libraries do come up, but we haven’t really got into the habit of don-watching. Anyway there’s 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, let’s put by small books. They’ll 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 I’ve often thought it wouldn’t 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 you’ve 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, we’ve done one at the Park Lane Hotel, but I can’t say I welcome that belly-of-the-earth feeling when you’re 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 can’t afford to do that. Apart from the high investment in stock and the overheads, there’s 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 show’s called It’s Staring you Right in the Face and it’s on at the Pleasaunce Theatre. What’s more we’ve 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, ‘You’ll 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 isn’t, there’s probably something wrong.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in August 1993