In a recent issue of the London Magazine – England’s oldest literary periodical – there is an essay by Will Stone on the fate of antiquarian bookshops as their lights go out all over Europe. It’s an impassioned argument for their importance, and a plea for their survival as rare fauna in our cultural landscape. “They should be valued, visited and relished, not as relics to be admired or as a novelty cabinet of curiosities, but as intellectually aligned companions and educators, mentors, and more than anything as wise friends whose storehouse of words might guide us out of our ingrained ways of feeling and thinking.”
To mark the New Year, I have uploaded a number of interviews to the online archive, where they appear for the first time. The new material includes interviews with John Loska of Colin Page Books, Larry Ilott of Cobnar Books and Peter Budek of The Eagle Bookshop, whose website is one of the most engaging in the secondhand book trade.
The sudden death of Ian Jackson (1951-2018), California bookseller and member of the Editorial Board of The Book Collector, deprived the trade of one of its most erudite members. A lone-wolf eccentric, Jackson belonged to the select group of booksellers and collectors that Iain Sinclair calls the ‘secret scholars’. The Summer 2018 number of The Book Collector contains the Editor, James Fergusson’s handsome tribute to his colleague, and reminiscences of Ian Jackson contributed by his numerous friends and admirers. It was an honour to be invited to contribute the following brief appreciation.
After quoting a Latin tag in the House of Commons, Sir Winston Churchill said, ‘I translate for the sake of Honourable Members who were at Eton’. Ian Jackson made no such concessions to the readers of his catalogues, correspondence and stream of scholarly publications. And so my pen friendship with Ian, a self-proclaimed Epicurean humourist, adept in several modern and two ancient languages, was always going to be an intellectual challenge. Although we never met in person, over the years I formed an impression from his letters and occasional photographs of an existence not far removed from the miniatures in a medieval book of hours. Biblical in appearance, Jackson’s daily life appeared to follow the cycle of seasonal activities, pruning vines, chopping wood, collecting walnuts and - if not actually slaughtering it – feasting on a fatted domestic animal with visiting scholars and bibliophiles of the highest distinction. When corresponding by email with Ian, it was always a surprise to receive a reply in what I calculated to be the middle of the Californian night. Pacific Standard Time had no meaning for Ian, who told me that he ran his business according to Cluniac hours. None the wiser, I learnt not to be surprised by the timing or content of communications from Berkeley – until the Valentine cards started arriving. On investigation, I discovered that numerous people, male and female, received these cards, of which there was a selection of designs of carefully calibrated obscenity. After expressing some surprise, I was downgraded to the blandest design before falling off the list altogether. Fortunately Ian continued to send elegantly inscribed copies of his quirky catalogues and other highly imaginative publications, often beautifully illustrated by his wife, Ann Arnold. His biographical and bibliographical tribute to Bernard Rosenthal, who died last year, might almost stand as a fitting memorial to them both. Written in the style of Pierre Bayle, it is an astonishing scholarly exercise that only Ian Jackson could pull off without shooting himself in the footnote.
No self-respecting secondhand bookshop is without a back room, the inner sanctum reserved for favoured customers, where the bookseller keeps his most precious finds.
Many readers will remember Fisher and Sperr’s bookshop in Highgate High Street, over which John Sperr presided until his death in 2010. Professor Mark Mazower, the distinguished historian of twentieth-century Europe, grew up in North London and attributes his book-buying addiction to Fisher and Sperr’s shop. A favoured customer, he describes a visit to John Sperr’s back room in his account of the momentous upheavals of twentieth-century Europe told through the memories of a single family – his own.
‘In Highgate, I found myself thinking about Fisher and Sperr, an antiquarian bookshop on the high street next door to the Hilltop Beauty Salon. Why it had come into my mind I am not sure – maybe because nothing preserves defeated ideas better than an old bookshop, which keeps intact the possibility of their discovery and reincarnation. And perhaps for that reason I remembered how dismayed I was only a few months after Dad’s death when a dusty green curtain appeared across the familiar bow window to mark John Sperr’s passing (in 2010).
The shop had been there for so long I had somehow assumed it would go on forever; Mr.Fisher had disappeared years ago, but John Sperr had manned the desk to the end. He had become forbiddingly deaf and barked at visitors, but once you had his confidence, the key came out, the cavernous back room with its treasures was grudgingly unlocked, and the light was turned on. Inside it was always freezing and the books were crammed high, gathering dust and rarely touched.
One afternoon I found a small leather-bound edition of the Anthologia Lyrica Graeca, its title page bearing in a precise but minuscule schoolboy hand the signature “V.E.Rieu” and the date “Nov.10th 1902”. I bought it because I had heard of Rieu, who would later become the first translator of Homer in paperback and the founder of Penguin Classics, the great disseminator of the world’s learning. He had lived and died nearby, leaving his library to be dispersed and then reassembled in a bookdealer’s afterlife.’
What You Did Not Tell. A Russian Past and the Journey Home
London, Allen Lane, 2017.
2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of ILAB, and the 60th anniversary of the ABA’s first book fair.
The Danish bookseller, Einar Gronholt-Pedersen, was President of the Danske Antikvarboghandlerforening when it hosted the congress in Copenhagen, at which the ILAB was formally incorporated in September 1948. Here he is in a photograph from 1969, inspecting a book on the ‘Under £5’ stand at the ABA fair, held at the National Book League in Albemarle Street, London.
The ABA held its first book fair at the National Book League in 1958, where it continued to hold fairs until 1970, by which time the number of exhibitors had risen from 28 to 45.
Solomon ‘Inky’ Pottesman, collector of incunabula, was a regular and memorable visitor at the ABA book fair in its early days. As depicted in this photograph from 1973, Pottesman was never without a brown paper parcel, which he carried by the string.
Keith Fletcher took these photographs when he was in his twenties and early thirties, working with his father, Bill Fletcher, in the family bookshop in Cecil Court. Interviews with both father and son may be found on this website.
The two photographs, here published for the first time, belong to an extraordinary collection of Keith’s photography documenting various book fairs and ILAB congresses that he attended as a young man.
Keith Fletcher is a Past President and a current Patron of the ABA.
Twenty-two years have gone by since I first interviewed Stuart Bennett - long enough for much to have changed in his business. Here are Stuart's thoughts as another year comes to an end.
"Has the antiquarian book business slowed down, or have I? Maybe my problem is the decreasing amount of unusual or high-quality antiquarian literature coming onto the market, although I and others had plenty of adrenalin when Robert Pirie’s extraordinary collection came up at Sotheby’s New York at the end of 2015.
"In 2009, towards the end of my term as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, I was interviewed for the ABAA website and – perhaps reflecting on my pending sixtieth birthday and the fact that the majority of ABAA members were then at least as old as the Association itself (founded in 1949) – I remarked that over the next ten or fifteen years membership would implode and what was left of the ABAA would look around and ask “what happened?”
"I have grown more optimistic since then, mostly out of admiration for my younger bookselling colleagues and their generation of collectors and curators. There are fewer of them than there were in predecessor generations, and fewer still who share my affection for really old English books. But those who do are enormously impressive, and the energy and enthusiasm of educators such as those at Rare Book Schools in Virginia and California, Indiana University, the Colorado and York Antiquarian Book Seminars, and elsewhere, along with their growing number of students, should mean that the torch stays alight for at least another generation."
John Saumarez Smith has just added an afterword to his interview, which was originally conducted in 2003. The afterword coincides with the publication of a catalogue with the codeword ‘SWANSONG’. In the introduction to the catalogue, John writes, ‘When the Swan has Sung, I very much hope to keep in touch with those of you who have supported me since my departure from [Heywood Hill,] Curzon Street. Booksellers don’t retire but hope to continue to share their pleasure in books with their bookish friends’.
Welcome to the new design of my website. I hope that you will find it a more engaging experience, and that you will return from time to time as I plan to introduce new features with the collaboration of my colleagues in the trade, to whom this website is devoted.
I’ve been asked this question many times, and usually the answer is that they don’t want to be interviewed, or that I should come back in a few years’ time. Meanwhile perhaps the best thing I can do is to let their catalogues speak for them, starting with Susanne Schulz-Falster’s outstanding catalogue on bookbinding and paper manufacture, produced jointly with Michael Banzhaf.