After my degree in English I spent twelve months looking for a job. This was in 1971 when there were far more graduates than jobs available. It had to be some- thing to do with books, either writing, publishing or selling them. In the end I decided to start something myself, and open a new bookshop. At that time it was still possible to get fairly lengthy credit from publishers and to start a business with next to nothing.
I saw a small advertisement in the Evening Standard for a secondhand bookshop for sale. It turned out to be Jon Ash off Leadenhall Market, where I found Hugh Jones and Cyril Nash holding court to their City customers. They were both well into their 70s and I remember finding it quite extraordinary that two men had made a living for twenty-five years out of a tiny shop – the front window measured twenty-three inches across. It was not much wider inside, but they told me their original shop (next door) had been much smaller still.
In the City the trade was and still is mainly a lunchtime one. Jones and Nash used to open the shop around 12:15 and be on their way home a couple of hours later. They could not drive and, as they got older, it became increasingly difficult to shift the books around. Nash had been badly gassed in the First World War and was not in very good health anyway. These factors encouraged them to develop the map and print side of the business, as they are so much lighter to handle.
We did a complicated deal and in 1971 I took over the shop. There were also various store rooms full of books scattered all over South London, and I slowly bought them one by one over the years. In the beginning Jones and Nash came into the shop a day a week each, which meant that I was never more than twenty-four hours away from being able to ask advice. When I started I knew very little about the business, but I knew I could dust the books, turn them the right way round and triple the opening hours, all of which must make some impact.
Although they thought I was a capable young man, Jones and Nash advised me to cultivate my eccentricity – ‘people expect it in a bookseller’. When I took over, some of their existing customers stopped coming – partly because I did not know enough about the business, but also because I did not look the part. I have not consciously cultivated eccentricity, but it probably comes out in years of handling books. You do eventually acquire a slightly distorted view of the world, perhaps by looking at it too often from an eighteenth or nineteenth century perspective. After eight years in the shop, it finally became too small and, now as ‘Ash Rare Books’, we moved to premises in the Royal Exchange in 1979. The London Topographical Society is publishing a history of the Royal Exchange, to which I shall be contributing a chapter on its bookselling history. The Exchange was once a major centre of the book trade; so many important books were published here – the first of Shakespeare’s plays to carry his name on the title-page, Pilgrim’s Progress was published across the road, and Jane Eyre around the corner. Nowadays we are the only antiquarian bookseller within the City walls.
During the late 1980s when the City was booming, I received letters every week from estate agents desperate for space in this location and wanting me to assign the lease for ridiculous amounts of money. You can now wander round and find lots of empty offices and shops to let. We have also been troubled in the last couple of years by two bombs. The Bishopsgate explosion was close enough to take out our windows. It happened on a Saturday when the shop was closed, and I found out about it on Ceefax.
Some of my customers are financial analysts, and they often come in to tap into me as an indicator of what is going on at street level. I have had people offer to put money into the business and take it up to a higher level. Although I would like to have a bigger business with sufficient momentum to carry on after me, I have always shied away from outside investors. I do not know whether this is due to prudence or a lack of courage. Given one or two unhappy examples in the trade, I would prefer to think of it as prudence.
We are paying over £100 per square foot for retail space here, which means I need to buy stock that will sell in a relatively short time. Most of our customers are bankers or brokers of one sort or another. A former colleague described their taste as ‘roast beef literature’, which is a little unfair. We are strongest on literary first editions, travel, maps and atlases. We still do a modern firsts catalogue once a year, although these days the books tend not to be quite so modern. Dickens, Hardy and Trollope are always popular and, in common with many booksellers, we are always being asked for P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Next year is my twenty-fifth year in the business and the shop’s fiftieth anniversary. We are celebrating by putting together a single-year catalogue of books published in 1946 when Jones and Nash opened the shop.
The most enjoyable aspect of bookselling is the opportunity to learn something new every day. Booksellers often live to a great age and this is probably due to the mental stimulation. It frightens me to think how little I knew when I started. For a good many years I kept at arm’s length from the trade while I was learning the business. I wish the Diploma in Antiquarian Bookselling had existed in my day. I have been very involved in setting it up, and have largely been guided by my awareness of what would have been helpful to me when I started.
There is a feeling that you cannot learn bookselling in a classroom and I have a certain sympathy with that view. But there is a good deal on the bibliographical side that is actually better learnt that way. Also the range of contacts students make is priceless for anyone starting out in the trade. There is another important side to the course: the body of knowledge that exists within the trade is not always efficiently passed on from generation to generation, and the diploma provides a framework for preserving at least some of what might be lost.
Sometimes I fantasise about giving up the shop and working from an office. So much of our trade is now done over the telephone and I could probably look after existing customers much better if I was not tied up with the time-consuming business of running a shop. We were among the first antiquarian booksellers to have a computer and I am a tremendous enthusiast for information technology. It is far more of a twenty-first century solution for the book trade than bundling our books around from fair to fair like medieval packmen.
However I would be very reluctant to abandon a retail shop. In terms of generating new customers for the trade as a whole, I am convinced that shops do the job best. I have always been sceptical about the role of book fairs in this respect, although I do them occasionally as a flag-waving exercise. Fairs are useful for collectors who have already taken the first step and are beginning to know their way around, but it is still the old-fashioned retail shops that generate new customers.
We have to encourage the public to buy our books and to build up a structure of trust in all kinds of ways. Our long-term future depends on nurturing public confidence. Since you mention the ring, let me say that there is sometimes too much fuss. There has been malpractice on both sides of the rostrum for at least three hundred years. The whole of auction law needs an overhaul, but I do not believe there is a major problem at the moment.
The ABA certainly does what it can, within the context of the law of the land, and within the context of its present constitution. Known ringers are routinely excluded from membership. [I must add that people are turned down for various other reasons as well, most often simply lack of experience.] In so far as existing members are concerned the burden of proof is necessarily much greater: ‘everyone knows’ is not enough. Chapter and verse are needed – and I am afraid that even people that ought to know better are seldom forthcoming.
I am a strong supporter of the Association, even though I resigned from the General Committee in the summer. It does a very great deal of good, much of which you never see – for example the free use of its reference library, or the work of the Benevolent Fund, which is always done so discreetly. Some people think it exists solely for the benefit of the big London firms, when in fact it is an entirely democratic association for professional booksellers of all shapes and sizes. Any trade organisation is only a matter of what we can do for each other. By not joining, by not chipping in with their abilities, talents or just subscriptions, people only diminish the power of the organisation to do good.
The ABA is also our professional body. Membership of it is the only thing we have akin to a professional qualification and is only given to booksellers of proven competence, honesty and experience. I think the public at large is entitled to raise an eyebrow at booksellers unwilling to seek that kind of accreditation. Membership is something that every full-time bookseller should aspire to.
I do not want to say too much about my resignation from the ABA Committee recently, but let me make it quite clear that I have very high regard for individual members of the Committee in terms of their ability, capacity, and integrity.
I did however come to feel that in some areas we were collectively backing away from tough decisions that needed to be taken. There were a number of issues involved, not all of them interrelated. The future of the main annual ABA fair was certainly one. I felt I had to stand aside. It has been suggested that it would have been better to stay and fight my corner, but that was not possible. The chemistry of the Committee simply was not right for that. But please do not take away the impression that there is any animosity. I am still very happy (and honoured) to represent the ABA on the National Book Committee and elsewhere, and may stand for election to the General Committee again in the future, perhaps when circumstances alter a little.
In the meantime I have plenty of other things to occupy my time. I am compiling a dictionary of British map engravers. I am writing some new ‘lives’ and revising old ones for the new Dictionary of National Biography. There has also been a recent invitation to write a chapter on ‘The Trade in Atlases and Maps to 1695’ for the fourth volume of the ongoing Cambridge University Press A History of the Book in Britain.
Writing is very important to me and is also a form of relaxation, although it is always a struggle to find time. I have a wife and three children and try to keep the weekends free to enjoy being with them. Perhaps it is odd to work with books all day and then go home and write about them. Psychologically it may be a means of garnering esteem. Someone said of me recently that I was meticulous in my work, which was probably overstating the case. I do try hard and that is as much as I would want to claim.
Interviewed for the Bookdealer in December 1995
I clearly had no idea how rapidly the Internet was to become the ‘twenty-first century solution for the book trade.’ I did move to an office – and am about to move again, this time to work from home via the web. I did rejoin the ABA Committee, became Honorary Secretary, was heavily involved in rewriting the rules and drafting the code of good practice, and then retired again from that particular fray. And I’m still working on the long-promised dictionary of British map engravers.
Afterword added in 2004