‘There’s certainly a case to be made that this is the time to be starting out with money rather than books.’ In the last few months, Christopher resigned as managing director of Pickering and Chatto and re-mortgaged the house to finance his own business. These days he is based at the smart end of Jermyn Street in a suite of rooms somewhat dominated by the most impressive packing table, which I take to be a very good omen.
‘I think I always intended to go independent, and really started to make the decision some time in the middle of last year. There were personal reasons —I had just turned 35 with nearly three children. Also I needed a change after almost nine years in the same job. And I wanted to make some of my own money. Of course it’s not as simple as that, because it’s also your own money to lose!
‘In some ways the bottom of a recession is actually a good time to start — books are relatively cheap, it’s certainly a good time not to he lumbered with old stock, and perhaps things can only get better. Anyway, here I am — I wouldn’t say a fully-fledged, but at least a fledged bookseller.’
After reading English at Oxford, Chris-topher took his MA in bibliography at Leeds University and came down in 1979 to face uncertain job prospects. ‘I suppose I was completely unemployable. No publisher would touch me because I seemed over-qualified, and I couldn’t become a librarian because I was under-qualified. Although I enjoyed university life, I was never really attracted to becoming a full-time academic. This may sound condescending, but I do enjoy being in touch with the real world.
‘So I joined the book department at Christie’s King Street, and had the great good fortune to work with a number of clever people, notably Hans Fellner who is a man of amazing knowledge and talent. I was there for three and a half years but, although Christie’s was a wonderful place to start, it was not such a good place to stay. Just as I was becoming dissatisfied, I got the job at Pickering and Chatto.
‘I’d recommend anyone to start by working for an auction house. It’s an excellent training because you see books in such quantity and meet some of the most powerful figures in the trade.
‘Although I haven’t consciously modelled myself on anyone, many things have shaped me. For instance, I met the late John Sparrow on several occasions when I was at Oxford, and he really taught me something very valuable about book collecting. It’s rather removed from what I call the BAR approach to books. I suppose you could say that I don’t see books simply as commodities: one copy of one book being the same as another copy. I always try to look for a nicer or more interesting copy, and I hope most of my books reflect that.
‘When I was at Pickering and Chatto, I got terribly excited about buying copy number 1 of The Waste Land. It seemed such a wonderful idea to have the first copy of the greatest poem of the 20th century. When I mentioned it to a first editions dealer, he just said, "But it doesn’t have the dust wrapper". I can’t understand that attitude.’
John Sparrow was Honorary President of the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles until his death recently. The last meeting of each term was always held at his lodgings in All Souls. Undergraduates were encouraged to bring their own books for discussion, and Sparrow invariably trumped each copy with something nicer or more interesting from his own library. He was the great exponent of the multiple-copy collection, and a formative influence on generations of distinguished bookmen. ‘I went to see John Sparrow’s collection about half a dozen times. It was a privilege to hear him talking about books. I suppose it was a unique and imperceptible process of teaching by example.
‘Someone once told me not to buy books you think you ought to have. That was very useful advice and now I only buy books when I think they are good, and not because they look pretty on the shelf. It’s not enough to have a general love of books. 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.
‘This is why I must concentrate on the subjects I know and like best — early English books, manuscripts, antiquar-ianism, and the Shakeaspearean age. I also have a small collection of Felicia Hemans - quotes of nice or interesting copies gratefully received! Of course I shall try to keep some 18th century literature. But it’s so competitive now, and I need to ride at least two horses at once. I’ve always been interested in the 16th century, and can imagine myself as a gentleman of the time — but I suppose no one ever imagines himself down a mine.
‘At the moment, I think most of my business will be with the institutional libraries of the English-speaking world. With a small stock and no staff, I will have to concentrate my fire on certain areas and people. When I’ve had a good day offering books to the right customers, I feel very satisfied. But I need a constant injection of things happening, and I’m very easily depressed. But I’m also tremendously hopeful, and I know what I’m aiming at in all this — to have fun and make money. If I can do both then I’ll regard myself as a success.
‘Some people like to cut a particular figure. But, as my own boss, I do enjoy not having to keep up any sort of image. I suppose I want to be liked, don’t we all? But at the moment I’m more concerned with making enough money to get by. I don’t feel particularly self-confident right now, but I do think I’ll make it.
I’ve come rather a long way from my student days when I thought it was rather immoral to make money out of old books. Actually I probably grew out of that when I got my first pay cheque. Now I think selling old books is a rather harmless pursuit - it doesn’t hurt anybody, and it may indeed be of some benefit, simply by producing, identifying and placing a book in its proper context, and thus preserving a piece of history. A dealer once said to me "I don’t know what I would do if I weren’t a bookseller. It’s all I’m fit for." I don’t find that a regrettable thing to say, and the older I get the more I know it is also true of me.'
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in April 1992