I’m 100% a book person. People might not like my style, and moan about my having a shop, an auction house and now a magazine. But at the end of the day, all my activities help to promote the trade. If I can create more book collectors, that’s good news for everybody.
I never regretted becoming a bookseller, but I wish that I had been to university. Maybe I have a rosy picture of student life, but sometimes it feels as if I had my youth taken away. I sold my first book in my bedroom when I was still a child. Edith Finer’s shop in Finchley Road was round the corner from my parents’ house. There were also lots of bookshops for me to visit in nearby Hampstead. I went to school in Highgate, which was very convenient for popping into Fisher & Sperr. I think that I gave the impression of someone who just wanted to get on with it. I certainly didn’t want anyone to take this little schoolboy under their wing. To my parents, bookselling seemed a nice thing to do. I wasn’t particularly academic and they didn’t object when I left school at sixteen.
My ambition was to climb the ladder, selling increasingly expensive books. If you love books, you want to handle the best. In September 1979 I took my first stand at Gray’s Antique Market. It was a great place to start because it gave me freedom – I could close the stand whenever I liked; it was very central; everyone passed through and I met some really good customers. The world was my oyster.
At the age of eighteen I went to Paris with Chris Dennistoun. Nowadays there are hundreds of booksellers trawling Paris every day. But in the early ’80s booksellers would go perhaps once or twice a year. There were no runners operating between London and Paris. We saw the gap and filled it.
After ten years in Gray’s, the business had outgrown two large stands and an office. Someone told me that Peter Eaton’s shop in Holland Park Avenue was for sale. I talked to Margaret Eaton and we did a deal in 1989. I had served my time at Gray’s and it was time to move on. Gray’s had been brilliant for learning the trade and building up the business, but it was beginning to limit our expansion. We moved into the Eatons’ shop and, to my embarrassment, found that my entire stock only filled a few shelves. It took a bit of time to stock up, but then we really began to move forward. I took on Lucinda Boyle and Christine Thomson, who have been with me ever since. Julian MacKenzie joined us in 1992.
By 1996 I was looking to expand the business on to another level. I discussed some ideas with Tommaso Zanzotto, one of my customers who was a businessman. He was interested in joining forces and, after a series of negotiations, we came up with a deal and formed a holding company called Stocklight Ltd. Tommaso found our present shop in St. George Street, opposite the back door of Sotheby’s. It was available with the freehold, but I was very reluctant to take it on. In fact I gave him a long speech about why we shouldn’t move. He congratulated me on a fantastic speech and said, ‘I understand that you don’t want to move. The deal’s off ’, to which I replied, ‘Let’s move!’ Thankfully he demanded it, and I was prepared to acquiesce.
Apart from Shapero Rare Books, we now own Antiquarian Book Monthly, Bloomsbury Book Auctions, The Shapero Gallery in Holland Park Avenue and www.printgalleries.com, a website selling prints, maps, photographs, drawings and water colours, with 2,000 images online. (The site’s not quite finished yet.) When we were looking to expand, the obvious move was to buy an auction house. By their own admission, Lord John Kerr and Frank Herrmann aren’t getting any younger, so BBA was the natural target. I approached them and they were quite receptive to the idea. We had our ups and downs during the negotiations, but finally we won through.
When people offer me books or collections that aren’t suitable for the shop, I don’t have to turn them away anymore – I can pass them on to BBA. On the Continent, there are many dealers who are also auctioneers. It widens the service that you can offer to customers.
About a year ago, Antiquarian Book Monthly rang and said that they would like to interview me. I replied that I would like to buy them. Lynne Thomas and Steven Halliwell took some persuading, but we got there. The new magazine will be launched in February at the California Bookfair in Los Angeles. Lynne is Man- aging Director and Steven is Editor at Large. My wife, Emma Lewis, who is also a script editor, is the magazine’s new Editor.
The new ABM will be more of a lifestyle magazine than something just aimed at book people. We’re changing the name to the Antiquarian Book Review, and it will be in full colour, with the usual features and many innovations. This is where the antique book world meets the real world, and the response from advertisers has already been amazing. Our lead article for the first issue will be a specially commissioned piece on Hollywood’s perception of the book trade, with Humphrey Bogart on the cover instead of the usual manuscript leaf. We hope that the new magazine will draw in people, who might not usually read something about rare books.
Wherever I go, I’m thinking about the magazine, the shop, the gallery, the auction house, and the website. Business takes up all of my time, and more. We all get stressed out, but I can put things behind me. If I leave the shop in the evening really annoyed about something, by the morning it’s over. I make mistakes all the time, but you have to move on. Having a family is a big commitment. We have three children and I want to devote time to them. Obviously I made that choice, and they are my proudest achievement. Any ambitions left? Sheila, I’ve just begun. See that flag across the road. What name’s on it? Sotheby’s. What name should be on it? Shapero’s. Exactly.
Interviewed for the Bookdealer in February 2002