The Welsh are not generally noted for gardening. I suppose my parents were unusual in that respect. They were both keen gardeners and I inherited their interest. Of course conditions weren’t ideal in South Wales. We lived not far from Port Talbot where the average rainfall is something like 100 inches a year. But we did get a lot of free horse manure from the collieries nearby.
After the War, I taught gardening for many years in a secondary school in Middlesex. Looking back, I think we offered a splendid all-round education. My idea was to teach the boys a hobby. The school had an acre and a half of land with which nothing much was being done.
The Headmaster wasn’t very interested in my plan for a garden, so I contacted Frances Perry who was in charge of school gardening for the county. She died a few months ago, and was probably one of the best known lady gardeners and author of several books on the subject. She was also a close friend of E. A. Bowles, who originally inspired her interest in gardening. I shall always remember visiting his wonderful garden in Enfield. It really opened my eyes to the scope of garden-ing.
Bowles was an erudite man and his various books were all very well written. Unfortunately, the original editions are becoming increasingly difficult to find. I’m always looking for My Garden in Spring, My Garden in Summer and My Garden in Autumn and Winter. When I advertise in Bookdealer, nothing much happens!
To get back to my school garden, Frances Perry came along and said, ‘Well, let’s see what you can do’. So I redesigned it in the style of Percy Cane, an eminent garden designer who particularly favoured island beds. In the process of laying out the new garden, I slipped a disc. This made it rather difficult to continue with the practical side, so I moved on to teaching history and geography which had always been a favourite subject.
At about that time, I married Eileen who taught domestic science at the same school. We both carried on teaching, and I started dealing in gardening books from home. This arrangement continued for over twenty years, during which time I issued regular catalogues and built up a worldwide clientele.
I started with short lists and gradually amalgamated them into an annual catalogue of 2,000 or so items. In some ways, I made things difficult for myself by having a classified catalogue. It helps the single-minded collector to go straight to his area of interest. But it also tends to highlight the deficiencies and gaps in any particular subject. Some years the cactus section fills me with gloom; other years the shrubs and climbers look a bit weak!
Actually, the cactus people are amongst the most fanatical collectors -closely followed by the orchid people and the rhododendron enthusiasts, who call themselves ‘Rhodoholics’. The one constant bestselling subject is plant hunting - for two basic reasons: if you want to grow any plant, you need to be familiar with its natural habitat; also, many people lead a fairly humdrum life and like to be taken out of themselves with exotic tales of adventure. I once went to a marvellous lecture given by my great hero, Kingdon Ward. As well as being a noted botanist and geographer, he was also a geologist and an anthropologist. In this way he was able to bring so much more to his accounts of plant hunting.
Books on old roses are always popular, but there tends to be rather too much repetition in many of them. In general, the standard of gardening literature has slipped. More and more books are being written by journalists with little or no experience of actual gardening. The good books are always based on practi-cal knowledge. Take, for example, Clifford Crook’s book on campanulas. He spent 40 years growing them - and growing them successfully, and his book will remain the standard work indefinitely. Vita Sackville-West is another example. A number of my customers were first inspired by her articles in The Observer, which were reprinted in a series of books entitled In Your Garden, In Your Garden Again and so on.
Gardeners tend to be very nice people - I don’t know why! I’ve had enormous pleasure from my customers over the years. We’ve received many invitations to visit them in the States, Canada, Japan and elsewhere, but we’re not keen on travelling more than three hours in any direction. In the 1950s, at least a third of my customers were American. Now the balance has shifted to Europe. Norway is an interesting case. Ten years ago, I had a single Norwegian customer - and he wasn’t very reliable. Now I have around thirty - thanks largely to the North Sea oil. Norwegians have become the Sheikhs of the North and many of them are very interested in gardening. The growing conditions in the valleys and along the coast, where most of the population lives, are not all that different from conditions here.
When we decided to take this shop near Kew Green, I was already 61 years old. We’ve been here now for twelve years, so you can work out my age. We bought the shop from Mary Bland, but it had originally been started by John Chancellor. I remember when he first opened. I was still working from home in Chertsey and he called me to apologise for ‘encroaching’ on my subject. Of course I didn’t mind the competition. In any case, I’d seen several people take up gardening books and then give them up as a bad job - often leaving me to buy the residue of their stock.
Anyway, John issued his first catalogue with a foreword by Wilfrid Blunt, his art master at Eton. He sent me a copy with a note saying that he’d left word with his executors that I was to have the residue of the books if the catalogue didn’t sell well. That was typical of John - he’s a very nice chap, but a bit of a grasshopper. After Kew, he moved his business to New York, then to Puerto Rico and now he’s trading in San Domingo!
There are great advantages to having the shop. For one thing, I enjoy the variety - no fixed routine and you never know who’s coming in. We have a good relationship with the staff at Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley. They are always referring inquiries to us, as do many non-specialist bookshops.
A shortage of customers is certainly not the problem - we simply cannot find the books. They’re so thinly spread out these days. I used to buy almost all my stock from other bookshops. Nowadays I buy a lot from the fairs and go regularly to the Russell. Auctions are becoming increasingly difficult and competitive. In my opinion, Bloomsbury Book Auctions is the best - you can really trust them.
I also have a few people who bring me books regularly and some dealers who put stock aside waiting for my visit. In the old days, I used to go on book-buying trips every three months. Guildford was particularly good. Mr Thorp was extremely active and did nine or ten catalogues a year - he was also one of the nicest persons you could ever meet. He’s retired now. And of course Charles Traylen had the finest stock of botanical books in the world. You name it - he had it, and I don’t exaggerate. I can’t think of anyone who remotely compared with Charles Traylen’s shop in the old days.
When Richard Booth first started, I bought some fascinating books from him. His partner, Harold Landry, used to call on me regularly. I think the bulk of the books probably came from Welsh mining institutes - as the mines closed down, so they disposed of their books. Once Harold Landry brought me a copy of Sinclair and Freeman, The Pansy —an extremely scarce book — for £2.50. If I had it today, it would easily sell for £750.
Bill Fletcher also introduced me to some marvellous books. I particularly remember a collection he purchased, stowed in a railway siding in North-umberland. I’ve known Bill since the start of my bookselling, and I miss him now he’s left Cecil Court. I remember going in one day — he’d just sold a copy of the first edition of Robinson Crusoe and I asked how much he’d made on it. It was a cheeky question and I never did find out. ‘A week’s wages’ came the reply and that was typical of Bill!
I also made a habit of going to Foyle’s every fortnight, where Miss Herwig kept aside a pile of gardening books for me. She always gave me a third discount but, even so, there were no tremendous bargains - she really knew her prices and was very knowledgeable. Then one day she went on holiday, Christina Foyle paid a visit to her department, thought it looked ‘untidy’ and a dismissal notice followed in the post. Within a month, Miss Herwig was working for Hatchards. It was the worst thing Foyle’s ever did.
Over the years, I’ve never joined a trade association or done a book fair. But we regularly exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show — a very hectic time, with early starts and long days, but we aim to sell over 1,000 books. Mind you, it costs £4,000 to exhibit. I’ve noticed a funny thing about customers at the Chelsea Flower Show — they seem to buy their books once a year and we rarely hear from them again till the next Show.
I’ve now reached an age when my wife would like me to slow down. So we’ve decided to sell the shop as a going concern, and hope to move out some time this summer. Of course we’ll miss the personal contact with customers, which we’ve both found such a stimulating aspect of the shop. But we’ll continue to run a catalogue business from home, gradually moving more in the direction of antiquarian books.
Meanwhile, we’re hoping to find some-one who would like to take over the shop. And there’s a lot to be said for it - for a start, I’ll be just down the road to give any help or advice; secondly, gardening’s a thriving subject and the shop’s in a marvellous position. We’re right on the South Circular between Kew Gardens and the Public Record Office and they both generate visitors with appropriate interests.
My wife keeps the front of the shop well stocked with general books and sells a lot of history and military biography -largely to visitors from the Public Record Office. She also finds that poetry sells very well. The rest of the shop is devoted to gardening books and there’s a huge amount of storage space in the basement. At the moment we probably have around 15,000 books in stock, the majority of which would be included in the sale of the shop.
I haven’t yet got down to thinking of a selling price, but it would be somewhere in the region of £25,000 to £30,000. At the moment the rent is only £4,500 a year. It’s been going up a little bit every time we renew - but nothing dramatic. There’s certainly plenty of scope here for the right person. I don’t say there’s a fortune to be made, but a comfortable living and an interesting one.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in March 1994