I came into the trade twenty-five years ago at the age of forty. It was not a menopausal event; I happened to have been made redundant from a job editing the publications of the British Computer Society. Over the years I had edited various computer magazines and, in the process, acquired review copies of immensely expensive technical books. These I sold to Gaston’s off Chancery Lane, where they paid half the cover price on most books less than four months old. The money I made from review copies became my fund for buying books. I was only buying new books although, in my student days, I had spent time in secondhand bookshops. I remember going to a dismal place in St John Street near the Angel and finding good things for a few shillings, including Moholy-Nagy on cinema and photography. The shop was run by a well-spoken middle-aged man, who kept warm in winter by tossing tatty books in the grate.
One day I came out of Gaston’s with a hundred quid in my pocket, and noticed that there was a sale at Hodgson’s. I went in and stood at the back of the room. The bidding stopped at a fiver and, without knowing what was going on, I shrieked ‘Six’ in a terrified falsetto, and was presented with a mouldering object. It turned out to be a volume of rather good architectural plates, which I sold ten years later for £100. From that point on I began taking longer lunch hours from my boring job and spending them in Hodgson’s.
When I was made redundant in 1973, I did a bit of freelance computer journalism but did not enjoy it much. Having edited magazines for many years, I thought I would like to start a book trade magazine. I got in touch with a few people and discovered that Paul Minet was about to start the Antiquarian Book Monthly Review. The first issue came out in February 1974. In any case I would not have been able to raise the money to start my own magazine - I had two young children and a mortgage.
It was my wife who suggested that instead of collecting books I should start to sell them. Paul Minet and his wife, Sheila, gave me an enormous amount of practical help and advice. At that time in the book trade there were a number of people sitting at Sotheby’s top table with a few thousand pounds to spend. They would buy some books, double the price and then do a catalogue. A lot of them did not last very long in the trade. Paul advised me that the thing to do was to specialise in a subject I knew about. As I had a degree in electrical engineering, scientific books seemed the obvious choice.
Paul took me around the country on buying trips. We went to Richard Booth’s shop in Hay-on-Wye in the days when assistants would ring him and say, ‘I’ve got a customer who wants to buy this thick book with leather covers. What shall I charge him?’ When I came to do my first catalogue, Paul advised me that the cost of producing and mailing it should not be more than a quarter of the value of the books. It was a useful calculation although I find that it no longer holds today, as I sell a much smaller percentage of each catalogue than in the past. He also posted my first two catalogues to his mailing list and, although they were not specifically science customers, it produced orders.
In a sense all my previous work experience and education helped me to become a bookseller. Before I did my engineering degree, I had been articled to an accountant. It was incredibly boring sitting in cellars in the City, ticking figures for fifteen bob a week, but it did give me the basics of book-keeping. The book trade is a nice hide-out for misfits, but you can’t be completely mad to run a business. As a science graduate, I also had an under-standing of the books I was selling, and my experience in magazine production helped me put together catalogues - I even knew about postal rates.
My biggest problems in business have always been money and packing. My friend Harold Landry who died recently, positively enjoyed packing a complete run of the Illustrated London News. I have come across other booksellers who enjoy packing, but I hate it. At the outset my wife packed the books, but she did not enjoy it much and, as time went on and our children went to college, Valerie returned to her teaching career. Nowadays I hire someone on an ad hoc basis.
The other big nightmare used to be money. When I decided to become a book-seller, I tried unsuccessfully to borrow some from my bank. An old school friend, who was running a large business, told me that the best way to deal with banks was to give them lots of paper - cash flows, projections, business plans, statistics - not to be dishonest, but to keep them informed. The figures might turn out to be rubbish, but banks like bits of paper. In the end I approached Barclays and they lent me £3,000, which my friend matched with another £3,000.
One of the first things I did was to take an advertisement in Scientific American. Even in those days the smallest advertisement cost $1,000. I made the advert so that it formed its own coupon - a great feat of design in the space available. It was printed on the back of a glossy Rank Xerox advert featuring a dancer. For two years or so, envelopes would arrive and, if they were thin air-mail paper, I could see the dancer’s leg on my coupon. The advert was very effective - a bit of a leg up, you might say - and I wish I could afford it again.
During my career I could certainly have done with more capital, which would have helped me to hang on to the good things a little longer. Almost anything you put under the bed for ten years will do well. In my first year of book selling I went up to the north of Scotland to buy a collection of books on early rocketry. It was summertime and I remember signing a cheque for £500 at midnight almost in daylight. It was a lot of money for me and I had to sell the collection quickly. Now of course books on astronautics fetch enormous prices. I had a similar experience with a run of cycling periodicals - another highly sought after subject today. But I did manage to hang on to a collection of early computing for several years.
I sometimes worry that so many of my books go to other dealers. People say the first profit is the sweetest - and I don’t begrudge anyone making a profit off me - but I do feel somehow defective in not reaching the end-customer. Perhaps I should have done more fairs and possibly met more private customers. I used to exhibit at the ABA fairs, but a few years ago I had some heart problems, which seemed a good excuse to give them up. I find book fairs incredibly stressful - the rush to set up and then the rush to pack while the van drivers occasionally have a punch-up outside over parking. I envy booksellers who can exhibit at a foreign fair, combine it with some bookbuying and do it all in a relaxed manner.
Everybody of my age tends to go on about auction prices. I won’t call these prices silly because it must be a good thing that books are valued and therefore preserved. Every so often I have a bit of a purge of my stock and put books into auction. Whenever I do this, one or two dealers pay enormous prices for books that they have seen much cheaper in my catalogues. Apparently they would rather go to a central London auction house than come to me in North London. Perhaps it’s a question of style…
The commercial value of a scientific book and its intrinsic value very often do not correspond. Some scientific dealers appear to have no background in the subject and would be lost without their One Hundred Books famous in Science, PMM and GM. I cannot understand the mentality of dealing only in books that appear in the standard reference works. I prefer to deal in what I call ‘the books in between’. This might explain why I do not produce many catalogues. Ideally I would like at least half the items in each catalogue to be books that I have never seen before. My interest in medical books has come about rather by default as medicine and science tend to go together. Being an advanced hypochondriac, it can sometimes be too much for me.
Although I have worked on the periphery of computers for many years, I do not like entrusting anything important to them. I surf the Net when no one is looking and keep my e-mail address to myself. Nothing annoys me more than trying to connect and running into a message to try again later. If I had catalogue orders piling up and could not download them immediately, it would be very exasperating.
Nowadays I find myself slowing down, which is neither profitable nor enjoyable. The demise of 'News at Ten' was a bit of a set-back and ruined my working routine. That was my watershed when I would always stop work - I certainly don’t have the energy to push on until 'Newsnight'. Every morning a massive amount of post arrives and I love the fact that I am forced to do something. It still gives me great pleasure to spend money on books and I often think of our good fortune in the trade of making a living from pushing bits of paper round the world. Although I regret not starting earlier, many years’ experience of being an employee adds to my appreciation of working for myself. Being 65 is marvellous -I’m answerable to no one, except the bank manager once a year, and I get a pound or more off in museums.
Interviewed for the Bookdealer in April 1999