An essential archive of book-trade history,
with biographical information available nowhere else
In 1991 Barry Shaw, editor of Bookdealer, invited me to write a series of profiles of antiquarian booksellers for publication in his magazine. At the time, I had spent twelve years in the trade, and had been fortunate to meet some of its most influential and colourful personalities in a field renowned for eccentricity. When the project was first suggested, it appealed to me as an opportunity to indulge my curiosity about the ‘human’ side of the trade – how people got into it, and, once there, how they made it work for them. As the profiles reveal, there are a hundred ways to sell a book and perhaps as many different routes into the trade. The project continued for a decade until Bookdealer ceased publication in 2010, by which time I had contributed 117 profiles of antiquarian booksellers to its pages. In 2011, Nicolas Barker invited me to begin a new series for The Book Collector, and the project continues to this day under the editorship of James Fergusson. What I didn’t realise at the outset was that the antiquarian book trade was about to be transformed by technological developments. When I set out to interview the subject of my first profile in March 1991, I had no idea that Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues were experimenting with a prototype of the World Wide Web. For this reason the profiles are arranged in chronological order so as to demonstrate the momentous pace of change, with which their subjects had to contend. This arrangement has the unintentional effect of highlighting changes in my journalistic style. After the first dozen interviews, I decided to adopt a monologue style in which the profiles draw entirely on the subject’s own words. Sally Edgecombe’s is the first such example and, by no coincidence, one of my favourite profiles. I began to relax and, more importantly, I think my subjects did too.
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.
We are here to seduce people, and that’s what I try to do with my catalogues.
Since about 1500, books have gone downhill until around 1950 when they perked up again.
The printing and design of booksellers’ catalogues is very important. We are, after all, supposed to have a bit of an eye for a book.
The secret to success in this business is a great memory for books you have seen before, and flair to recognise books you haven’t seen before.
Ideally, a new person should start in a busy general bookshop. Even dusting the stock teaches you a lot about relative scarcity – how often do you dust the same book? That tells you something about supply and demand.
There’s a lot of prejudice against women in the trade, but I’ve just been too busy to notice
Luck and periodic hard work, usually for no more than a few months a year. That’s when I do it all and then wonder why I did it.
It is not improbable that a general interest in letters may increase as the genre approaches extinction, which it very nearly has according to a leader in The Times on 1 August 1991, ‘Incontrovertibly, the art of letter-writing is dying.’
I never worry about stock not shifting. It usually means the right person hasn’t come along and one day he’ll walk in and say, ‘I’ve been looking for that for years!’ And I’ll say, ‘We’ve had it for years! Where have you been?’
You need to develop a passion for and knowledge of a particular field. All the best dealers are like jackdaws, hiding away bits of information until they become useful.
I’m reluctant to see computers in a prominent position in a bookshop. It’s rather like turkeys cultivating cranberries.
If I could run the shop on air, I would. Unfortunately, one has to know so much about money these days, and I’m just not interested in it - except in so far as it allows me to buy more books.
There are far more book collectors in France, Germany and Italy in particular. Books are still a minority interest in this country.
I still have the standard bookseller’s fantasy of that telephone call, ‘Mr Hollander, my husband just died. He’s been collecting horrible old illuminated manuscripts. Can you come and take them away?’
I’ve always loved buying in bulk, and driving round London with the car so full I could only see out of the side mirrors.
We’ve been very happy in bookselling - whatever Nial may have told you about wanting to run a bordello in Istanbul.
Buy the best copy available. You should never have to apologise for the condition of a book.
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’s going to be.
You can learn so much about a person simply by going through their books. I always think buying a library is rather like buying someone’s life.
It’s important for me to be engaged in a field where I can make a contribution. My interest in the history of engineering has become something of a crusade.
Customers are pleasantly surprised to find old and new books together - presumably they tend to think of them as two separate categories. As far as I’m concerned, books are books - they’re good or they’re bad and that’s all that matters.
A shortage of customers is certainly not the problem - we simply cannot find the books. They’re so thinly spread out these days.
It’s an extraordinary fact that more and more people are trying to make a living out of fewer and fewer books.
I joined Francis Edwards straight from school in 1969, and spent my first month dusting the shelves. This was considered a good way of becoming acquainted with the stock.
Ask me how to improve the book trade at a stroke and I’ll tell you to close down all the auction houses.
Being hyperactive and self-confident, while vital ingredients, do make it almost certain that you will fail with some people and run into others.
I’m probably known as ‘that mad Dutch woman with her vellum’.
I regret to this day having given the Queen a discount.
I originally trained as a doctor. Compared to medicine, the worst thing you can do in bookselling is drop a book or lose money.
By the mid-1980s, it was almost too easy to make a lot of money.
It’s scientifically untenable but I like to think there’s a genetic bent towards the love of the rare and the old.
Ideally I would have read every book in the shop and only have books that I enjoy.
Cataloguing is a lot more than just listing titles, dates and prices. You can make a book much more attractive by describing it a certain way.
What you like is not important. It’s what your clients like that matters.
There’s a lot of difference between being able to catalogue nicely and knowing what is a saleable book.
A dealer should always stop a good customer from buying the wrong book.
As one starts to get older, one’s customers should look younger. But they don’t and I suppose one should be worried about the advancing age of many book collectors.
If you never make mistakes, you’re not taking enough chances.
A book is worth what you can sell it for.
Every town in Australia with a population over 10,000 will have at least one new bookshop and/or a remainder shop. You may also find a secondhand bookshop, either selling Mills & Boon for the farmers’ wives - if you saw the farmers you would know why - or selling something more serious.
Bookselling is the most humane, sociable, ill-organised, yet absorbing form of commerce to be found anywhere.
My collecting interests do not clash with those of my customers. But when they do, it is sometimes hard for me to predict whether, in the ensuing struggle, the bookseller or the collector will triumph.
The most enjoyable aspect of bookselling is the opportunity to learn something new every day. Booksellers often live to a great age and this is probably due to the mental stimulation.
Someone described warfare as long periods of boredom punctuated by sheer terror, which is very much my experience of auctions.
Lebanon was a huge source of old books before the troubles began in 1975. When I was a student it was still a very open country and we were able to buy – under the counter – rather risqué material from an avant garde bookshop on Bliss Street. There were houses full of books in Beirut and I sometimes wonder where they are now.
The stimulation of dealing in modern firsts comes not so much from the content of the books as from the aesthetic pleasure of finding rarities - and finding them in attractive condition.
Booksellers are judged, by their peers at least, solely on the strength of their stock. You can criticise a bookseller’s wife, his wardrobe or his personal hygiene. But if you criticise his stock, he will never speak to you again.
Booksellers tend to be very generous with their knowledge and I never miss a chance to talk and read about the trade. In fact I never make manoeuvres of any variety without speaking to a number of people in the trade whom I respect.
When I buy a book I can probably put four or five customers’ names to it immediately. There is a great satisfaction in finding the right home for a book.
The secret to any form of bookselling is to have a clear idea, even if you cannot articulate it, as to what an object is worth.
Collecting requires limitation, otherwise the activity becomes a mere amassing of material without direction.
When I first started, I was told by a very eminent figure in the trade that it was a waste of time to read books – my job was to sell them. And if I sold enough, I would be able to employ people who were well-read. This was typical of the old school of bookselling.
A bookseller’s career is the record of what he has handled – whether he buys or sells it, discovers or values it, or simply offers advice.
It is quite common to find no old or rare books in the home of a sophisticated antiques collector. When I comment on this, the explanation is always the same, ‘Don’t you need special conditions to look after books?’ I explain that as long as you are comfortable, the books are comfortable.
I do like to feel that our business not only pays the wages of our staff, but also increases access to knowledge.
Bookselling has to be a passion - it does not always make sense as a purely commercial activity.
I like my books to be meaty; I dislike anything that smells of the dilettante.
I love to take an empty space and turn it into a thriving bookshop. Ideally I would happily spend my time setting up bookshops for other people.
When I look at financially successful businesses, there always seems to be a certain ‘regularity’ of stock. But I like to buy something I have never seen before; the filter of interesting material inevitably brings one into contact with interesting collectors.
The book trade is a nice hideout for misfits, but you can’t be completely mad to run a business.
It’s fabulous to handle great books, but you have to know what to do with the ordinary ones as well. I look at books from every angle and try to see all their different possibilities.
We need to spread the message that books can be appreciated on many levels for many different reasons. In a sense we are prisoners of our own mystique.
The nice thing about bookselling is that it is Christmas every day - there is always something exciting in the post.
Don’t forget the cheap books or the people who are able to buy them. So many dealers spend their time running after books that only mega-rich people can buy.
A good guide to rarity is to consult an elderly dealer on a book in his specialist field. If he hasn’t seen a copy for thirty-five years, the book is rare.
Some booksellers are persuasive recommenders – it’s a huge gift. I find it very difficult to sell books verbally. Things tend to go better if I walk away from the customer.
In the field of children's books, nostalgia is the key factor in collecting. People tend to buy the books that they read as children.
We had far too much staff – some rather eccentric – and a customer once inquired, ‘Is this an occupational therapy centre or a bookshop?’
A good catalogue is rather like a coat hanger, on which you can hang interesting material.
When I decided to go into bookselling full-time, one of the doyens of the Montreal antiquarian book trade, Grant Woolmer said, 'You'd better get in a lot of groceries ahead of time'. His point was that Montreal wasn't a great place to sell books.
I really feel blessed because this is a business that you can do any way you want.
What worries us most about the book trade at the moment is that there is not much apprenticeship going on. How is the next generation going to learn the trade if everybody is too busy to teach?
You make your shop what you are. Every bookshop takes on the character of the person running it.
Erudite people don’t necessarily make the most successful booksellers. You must have a commercial brain.
I went into bookselling thinking that it would do until I got a ‘proper’ job when the children grew up. This shows a terrible contempt for bookselling, but it is more a reflection of the portfolio life that many women tend to have, with many part-time occupations.
It would probably have been better for the book trade if the Internet had never been invented: it has spread the game too wide.
My ambition was to climb the ladder, selling increasingly expensive books. If you love books, you want to handle the best.
I like dealing in books that present a bit of a challenge to the imagination, obscure books, or books that require careful researching to yield their value.
Since the coming of the internet, it’s much less rewarding to forage for books in faraway places.
To succeed in bookselling or, indeed, in anything, you must work within your own limits as a person. Don’t try to become what you are not. I’m not an aggressive salesman, but I keep my ear to the ground.
Training for the rare book business in Japan largely consists of watching the boss.
I particularly like buying secondhand books and finding the right home for them. People tend to forget that booksellers are essentially book buyers.
As a bookseller, I would like to be remembered for my catalogues. How long do personal memories last – perhaps one generation, but not much more?
The internet has made it possible to do a lifetime’s browsing in seconds.
I cannot imagine a time when one of my clients will start to tremble and perspire holding in his hands a first electronic version of Don Quijote de la Mancha.
Young people will be drawn into collecting by looking at books on the web, and developing a hunger for the real thing.