I am the son of a bibliomaniac father and a Russian mother. My parents met in Russia at the end of the First World War. During the ’20s and ’30s my father’s business activities were based in the Baltic states and I was born in Riga in 1927. My father was a man given throughout his life to making grand gestures. He could not resist buying books. On one occasion he bought a major seventeenth-century library, containing 15,000 books and no less than five copies of the first edition of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. He put STC in my hands and told me to catalogue the library. I was seventeen at the time and although I had no idea that I would one day go into the book trade, it was a marvellous flying start.
Many of my father’s friends were writers and our home was filled with modern first editions and literary magazines. Since an early age I have read a book a day. I would go mad if I didn’t read at night – it’s the only way I can switch off. When I was a teenager, my teacher at Dartington Hall suggested that my father do two things for me – buy me a typewriter, as my handwriting was appalling, and a subscription to the London Library. We lived not far from St James’s Square and I spent a lot of my youth in the Reading Room.
During the second wave of the Blitz, I was despatched to St Deiniol’s Residential Library in Flintshire. Founded by W.E. Gladstone as a place of study, my father had come across it in an article in the Evening Standard. During the War it became a refuge for a number of very interesting people, particularly Continental academics. I also met Dr Thomas Jones of the Gregynog Press who gave me an understanding of the trials of running a private press and an appreciation for modern illustrated books. My idea of paradise would be to live in a residential library, reading favourite texts in books from the Nonesuch and Golden Cockerel presses.
After reading History at Cambridge, I tried to go down the usual literary route. Malcolm Muggeridge offered me a job as a leader writer on the Daily Telegraph. Before I could start the job, newsprint was rationed under the post-War Labour administration and the Telegraph could not expand as planned. There was no job for me, so I tried to get into publishing, the BBC and The Observer – only to be told by David Astor that I should start on a provincial paper. I was already married to Patricia and we had our first child, so the prospect of going to Warrington on thirty quid a week was not really on. I went back to the Cambridge appointments board and they found me a job with the FBI. This always amused my children, but in fact it was only the Federation of British Industry, as it was called before the CBI. That was the start of thirty-five years in industry, which I do not remember with much affection, but it’s difficult to give up a regular salary when you have eight children. (It wasn’t considered immoral in those days....)
In 1950 I had inherited my father’s library and, as our children started to grow up and we were faced with school fees, I decided to sell some of the books. An elderly German bookseller became a regular customer and from that time to this I have never seen anybody look at books with such painstaking care and knowledge. We had a long refectory table at home and he would make piles of books and spend a couple of days collating them. He always paid fair prices and, to my mind, represented the best type of scholarly Continental bookseller.
On the Continent bookselling is a respectable profession on a par with being a doctor or an academic. Somehow dealers manage to combine intellectual capacity with a business sense – a combination that is not so common in the English book trade. Some of our most successful dealers are not readers – and they don’t need to be. The book is just another commodity from which they can make a profit.
In 1985 I took early retirement at the age of 58. We were living in Rye at the time and I decided that I would like to open a bookshop. I got a good lease on an excellent property in the conservation area of the town. The first thing I did was to make a business plan. Within two weeks of opening the shop, I had exceeded my sales forecast by ten times. I had been expecting a very slow ‘burn’, but in fact bookshops either succeed or they don’t. Obviously you cannot become a Maggs overnight, but it is a different matter if you open a provincial bookshop in a literate environment with a good tourist trade.
In Rye tourism is closely associated with three literary figures – Henry James, E.F. Benson and the American poet, Conrad Aiken. The Reavells ran the new bookshop in the town, and it was Cynthia Reavell who almost single-handedly revived interest in Fred Benson. Not only did she get Mapp & Lucia on television, but all Benson’s major novels are now back in print.
For my own part, I sponsored the annual Henry James Lecture at the Rye Arts Festival, and I have tried to revive interest in the poetry of Conrad Aiken who lived in the town for twenty years. We celebrated his centenary with the publication of a memoir written by his children. As a publishing venture, it was a complete failure. Nobody told me that you cannot sell a book that has no title on the spine. Fundamentally Rye is a very good place for a bookshop. It was good for selling, and there was an amazing quantity of good material to buy. It was a bad day that did not bring in a significant collection or at least a little gem. In the halcyon days of the mid-’80s, the stock just walked in through the door.
Then came Black Wednesday 1987. My best customers evaporated overnight. Suddenly everything was different and something had to be done fast. Gone were the days when the ‘green welly’ brigade would buy a copy of Hasted’s Kent for £1,500 – without thinking twice. The first thing I did was to fall back on the classic role of the provincial bookseller – dropping prices and becoming a supplier to the London trade. One of my strong subjects was Military History – Rye was a good place for buying from retired generals. Dealers would beat a track to my door, including Peter de Lotz who started coming down with Anthony Hall and David Mayou. I believe that’s how the London trade discovered me, and it was almost like the ‘green welly’ days again. Secondly, we started a book search service, which my then assistant swiftly turned into a profitable business. Repositioning in this manner saved our bacon.
And then I did a really stupid thing. I have always bought paintings and been brought up with them. I was educated at Dartington Hall which gave me a very good grounding in the visual arts, and my wife is a painter. In 1989 I opened a map and print gallery in Tenterden, which I had identified as the most suitable location in the area. Rye is where the books are, but the money is in Tenterden. By eleven in the morning, the high street is lined with new BMWs belonging to young wives going shopping with gold cards. They were usually furnishing second homes or buying wedding presents, and would typically dash into the gallery and buy a map for a wedding on the following Saturday.
The map business is quite unlike the book trade in that there are wholesalers who carry stock and can supply the appropriate map by return post. The small advertisements at the back of the IMCoS magazine were quite invaluable and I found it a very nice trade. But I completely failed as a print seller. Perhaps my taste was not in fashion, or something else was wrong. As Tenterden has a steam railway, I thought it would make sense to open the gallery with an exhibition of early railway prints. I only sold one and couldn’t understand it. So I asked a local journalist for some advice and she sent a couple of young colleagues to visit the gallery independently and to report on their impressions. They thought it was either a dentist’s waiting room or a solicitor’s office – it was too tidy and expensive-looking and should be jumbled up a bit. So I re-arranged the gallery and, as soon as it looked untidy, people started coming in. It’s rather the same with catalogue production – people think they might find a bargain in a poorly produced piece of two-finger typing.
I had good people working for me in the gallery and, although I enjoyed the sociability of running the bookshop, my attention was too divided to concentrate on doing catalogues or, indeed, doing any one thing properly. I had too many balls in the air and, in 1993, I closed the bookshop and the gallery to become a specialist dealer, trading from home, at bookfairs and through catalogue sales. This time it was not market forces that worked the change so much as a personal predilection for cataloguing.
I had recently bought large collections of Churchill and Henry James, and these formed the basis of several catalogues aimed mainly at known private collectors and those who responded to our advertisements in the TLS. The second string to our bow was specialisation in a field in which there were very few competitors in Britain, but for which there was a known institutional demand – French, German and Russian literature, Continental illustrators and modern Russian art.
Again, recent purchases helped to get this department off the ground. With the end of Communism there was not only a growing interest in the Russian avant garde in the West, but a great deal of new material was coming to light, and a spate of secondary works on the subject were being published.
There are probably more new millionaires among the Russians than any other nation. Some are living in London but not many are collecting books. Although there are quite a lot of books coming out of Russia, there is a high risk that they may have been stolen from libraries. Most of my Russian material comes from academics in this country, many of whom spent their early working lives in Russia.
Today, another six years on, these are still our main specialities, and the subject of catalogues issued every six to eight weeks. From time to time we add, or subtract, subjects that may reflect a new interest or a recent purchase. Book selling never stands still; it is never boring. When you least expect it, someone offers you a marvellous collection, just waiting to be catalogued and successfully redistributed. In fact that is our raison d’ être: it is up to us to redistribute books in the best possible way – best for the books as well as for ourselves.
Catalogue bookselling is a curious art form. The best examples are true value added publications in which the books described are themselves interesting and placed in context with a known provenance. As a History graduate, my secondary approach to books is to see them in context. This is what gives a book (or an edition) its intrinsic value. The rest is fashion.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in June 1999
I’m still a specialist bookdealer, but one affected by two major changes. Firstly (a minus), the market for Russian books has shrunk as fewer schools and universities teach Russian. Moreover as Slavonic Studies shrink, retiring academics and institutions dispose of their collections, and so supplies are rising as demand falls. Only the rarest texts now count. Secondly (a plus), my daughter, Sophy, has quite independently become a dealer in modern firsts. She has an office in my house and we share a computer system. So I have someone to manage my internet business efficiently.
Afterword added in 2004