When I left school I spent a year dealing blackjack and American roulette at the Golden Horseshoe. I had no interest in books and no family background in bookselling. While I was working at the casino, I inherited £10,000 and lost the whole lot gambling. One way and another I got into a bit of trouble and my father offered to help on condition that I joined the family firm of solicitors. It was a nightmare. I spent two years as an articled clerk in my father’s office in Chancery Lane, and not once did I want to get up in the morning.
In 1977 the firm opened an office in Cirencester and I was sent off to a local auction to buy some furniture. Tea chests of books were selling for next to nothing and it seemed like a good idea to buy some. I borrowed my mother’s car and drove down to Portobello Road where I set up a stall and Driff was my first customer. In five minutes I earned £100 and knew from that moment that what I really wanted was to be was a bookseller. It took a little longer – in fact six months – to break the news to my father that I was giving up my training to sit on a stall with Driff, Phil Thredder and a big hairy bloke whose name I have forgotten. My father’s office was next door to the Chancery Lane Bookshop, which was run at that time by Eamon Nolan. I offered him some books from my first tea chest, and we got on very well from the start – partly because my family background is Irish. By 1979 I was working almost exclusively for Eamon. He did a lot of business with the German market, which was starting to build up, and I went running around the country looking for plate books, natural history and decorative material for which there was a strong Continental demand. It is almost certainly because of this early experience that I am still dealing in the same area.
In those days there were many more bookshops to visit, fewer bookfairs and generally more stock to be found in the provinces. In the late 1970s a group of us were on the road together: Tom Cherrington, Andy Cumming, Chris Dennistoun, Don Heald, Iain Sinclair and Martin Stone. It was quite easy to make a living, and once I had made enough for the month I would go home and do whatever I liked. I still tend to work in bursts of energy and then sit at home and play classical guitar.
As far as I am aware there has been no influx of new people coming into my area of the trade in the last twenty years – I certainly know of no one at the moment running illustrated books and bindings as I did.
In 1980 I opened a secondhand bookshop in Battersea High Street. Nigel Burwood had encouraged me to have a shop and I was influenced by his example. I remember him saying, ‘you go into the shop at the end of the day and somebody gives you £250’. So I opened the shop and sat there with a load of rubbish waiting for someone to hand me £250.
It did not go quite like that. I was taking an average of £6 a day, and someone tried to rape the girl who worked in the shop. Clearly I had the wrong books in the wrong place. The customers were appallingly low-life and the house calls defied belief. After a year of this nonsense, I lost all interest in having a secondhand bookshop and from 1981 to 1986 I worked from home. During this period I did a lot with Andy Cumming whom I regard as one of the best booksellers in England. We once bought a library together on a remote island off Shetland. I had spotted the crumbling mansion from the mainland when I had been on a holiday in the area. It turned out that the owner had just bought a fish farm and needed cash for fish food. Andy and I bought the library, bagged up the books in black bin liners and shipped them back to the mainland in an old fishing boat in a force eight gale.
In 1986 I married Sarah who effectively made me grow up, and had a huge influence on the way I ran my business. She thought of the name Russell Rare Books, which tends to stick in people’s minds, and also made me join the ABA and the PBFA. We set up a stall in Grays Antique Market where we stayed until the marriage broke up in 1990. Sarah had already started exhibiting at the Chelsea Flower Show, which she continues to do. She has set up her own business in Bath selling books and prints.
After my divorce I began sharing premises, staff and stock with Tom Cherrington. Tom was thinking of giving up his Southampton base and moving to London to be more in the centre of things; I did not have enough money to float the business properly; we had always been friends and so we decided to set up in Grays together. The logical next step was to share an office and we now occupy three floors in Grosvenor Street. Of course we have our differences, but we tend to put up with each other’s mistakes. Tom has been a huge help in enabling the business to develop – not only in financial, but also in psychological terms. In many ways I have been too cautious in business – at least, I think I am being cautious when in fact I am just getting things wrong. It is enormously helpful to have a partner to talk to – someone who really understands the business.
Sue Prigmore is our sales manager and she is particularly good with American customers who respond to her persuasive enthusiasm. Sue really will sell you a book, which is perhaps not a popular approach with the English. We are members of the PBFA and the ABA, although I personally do not take as much interest as I should in their affairs. Some people seem to enjoy committee work and letter-writing and I am happy to leave them to it. Membership of the ABA serves one major purpose for us – it is vital for our business in Europe. I am certainly abroad somewhere once a fortnight, and ABA membership is a sign of respectability in countries where this is massively important.
The Channel Tunnel has made a huge difference to our business. To put it bluntly, if you deal in books in which the text is secondary, it does not matter if you find them in Germany, Holland or Portugal. Basically the type of material in which I deal can be viewed either as a book or as a collection of prints, which gives me two potential customers – the bookseller and the print seller. A lot of nonsense is talked about the morality of this type of business – no one is going to break a good copy of a complete book, as the laws of supply and demand would largely speaking take precedence. You are not going to sell a fine plate book to a breaker, as there are usually perfectly good collectors for it.
When I first started, you could not admit to dealing in defective copies of Herbals, for example, but times have changed. The world is a coarser place today.
As far as I can see, customers are not so sophisticated, partly because the material which might have demanded a greater bibliographical sensitivity to appreciate is simply not around. Also their education and background are in many cases very different from the older collectors’ and, although I never had much to do with them, one nevertheless got the feeling that they were gentlemen. My stock appeals to customers who are looking for something from a purely decorative point of view.
In my view – and I apologise for any pomposity – 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. It is no good relying on auction results – two lunatics may have been bidding against each other. The Harrington brothers, Don Heald and Joe Toscani all individually affected my appreciation of book values and buying tech- niques. Another dealer who had a great influence on me was Andrew Henderson, probably the most accomplished runner of the last two decades. He taught me sensitivity towards the book itself.
On the whole my learning process has been rather a slow one. Shall we just say that I was a bit of an old hippy with some of the habits that go with it? I did not start to make proper money until I was thirty, after nine years in the business. Now I am forty and I think of myself as top of the second division of booksellers. If you want to become a first division player, you need to deal in books from a more bibliographical point of view, recognising the points and subtleties that make one copy worth £500 and another copy of the same book worth £5,000. I do not think I will ever make that level. Ultimately I will always be a market trader.
Interviewed for the Bookdealer in November 1996
[Added in 2004] The partnership with Tom Cherrington ended in 2000 when the lease in Grosvenor Street came to an end – Sue Prigmore went to Bernard Shapero’s business. Since 2000 I have worked closely with my wife Wandee Russell without whom I could not manage! I had a shop in Knightsbridge for a year in 2000, and then bought a small shop at 239 Fulham Road at the junction of Old Church Street. I would like to raise a glass to absent friends of whom there are many – Joe Toscani, Peter Harrington, Keith Oliver being the closest to me. I think it’s a shame that the business can’t support as many of the classic eccentrics as it used to, as it has become too tough to survive, too money-money. I survive, but I’m rather bourgeois.
[Added in 2017] Tom Cherrington sadly died 7 years ago. I stayed in the shop in Fulham Road for 12 years – David Mayou worked for me for a few years but now he has also come to an untimely end. In 2013 I moved to Cirencester to work from home, and Christopher Sokol now has my shop. Fundamentally I have not changed in the last 20 years except then the buying was mainly done in the trade and now it is done at auction.