There’s no family or educational reason why I should be interested in military history - I just am. Why do some people wish to collect books on Tibet or dictionaries? Occasionally you can see exactly what sparked off their interest, but not in every case. Although the core of my business is British military history, this inevitably spills over into all sorts of areas - politics, economics and travel, for example.
I have always regretted not doing National Service. My age group was the first to be given the choice, and I decided against it at the age of seventeen or eighteen. Later on I started collecting books on military history and read them for pure personal interest. I was brought up in a fairly literary atmosphere. Although there was no tradition of book collecting per se, the house was full of books and I was expected to read.
One or two dealers suggested I should start a small business in my subject, as I already knew a bit about the books and quite a lot about the history. I saw what an enormous amount of fun they had and liked the idea of dealing in books. What I didn’t see at the time was the down side of the business, but you could say I ought to have known about that from my experience in general. I didn’t exactly leap out of a safe job in the city. In fact I had been running my own company, importing electronic games.
In 1988 I started dealing in military books. I had what you might call a gentle run-in, with some money of my own to invest in the business, and some other income which enabled me not to worry too much in the first two years. My first catalogue came out in 1989 and sold very well - mostly to the trade. The word gets round quite quickly when there’s a new dealer on the market - he might have some good stuff and not know the real price.
At the start it seemed to me that the business was basically a doddle. In fact I seriously thought it could be a part-time job - two or three days a week would hack it. I soon discovered that you can be a part-time bookseller but then you can’t expect to make a lot of money. So I consciously decided to make it a full-time job and it has turned out not to be quite such a doddle. I thought about having a shop but soon dismissed the idea. Being so specialised, it would be difficult to sustain even a small shop.
In my field Maggs are pre-eminent, and Victor Sutcliffe probably has the best nose for the business. It’s difficult to define what makes a good bookseller - probably a first-class memory and a lot of enthusiasm. But what do you mean by good - someone who turns over £5 million a year? Or someone who buys judiciously, sells well and has a fairly large following of people who like to buy from him? I hope that’s the way my business is going. Anybody who starts out, not having done a proper apprenticeship, is bound to make mistakes. That’s part of the deal. I found pricing the most difficult thing to learn - you buy a jolly good book and pay too much for it, or you don’t buy something and then regret it. As an extreme newcomer, I was given a lot of good advice which I ignored at the time. A travel specialist once said to me, ‘Remember, Michael, what you like is not important. It’s what your clients like that matters’. Having been a collector, this was quite difficult advice to follow.
Some of the books that pass through my hands, I would give my eye teeth to keep. But I can’t afford to do so very often and anything I do keep must be paid for out of profits from the business - otherwise you end up with some jolly nice books and no money.
I applied to join the PBFA as soon as I was eligible and, generally speaking, I do the London fair every month. One ought to belong to one’s professional organisations and, in a year or so, I shall think about applying to the ABA. At the moment I’m a little bit young in experience to start that hare running.
The Russell is not a very expensive fair to do and I tend to regard it as my advertising. I’m there for anyone to come along and see a portion of my stock, and obviously there’s a certain amount of inter-dealer dealing. As I have not been in the business very long, this is of course hearsay but I think the fairs made a lot more money in the past. Nowadays there are so many fairs all over the place and perhaps people do not feel constrained to come to London.
As an extremely junior dealer, perhaps I should not say this but I do think the trade could do more to raise its image. For a relatively small fee, one could hire a good PR firm to promote book collecting as a fascinating and affordable hobby. Certainly something needs to be done to make this slightly more obvious. As we have two large trade organizations, it would cost each member a very small amount of money for a twelve-month trial period. Obviously it would be done for the trade, generally, and not just for military booksellers…
If you look at the saleroom reports in the national press - I’m not talking about the Antiques Trade Gazette which is probably mainly read by dealers - books and manuscripts are very rarely covered. I don’t blame the journalists for having huge pictures of teddy bears which go for £50,000. But at every book sale, something goes for much more than expected and there must be a good story in it somewhere.
Of course there are problems with books. To be thoroughly frank, they are not as immediately spectacular as pictures, for example. You buy a nice picture and your friends admire it; you buy a beautiful book and there are a limited number of people who will appreciate it. On the other hand, you can pick up seriously good books for well under £2,000. This is not the case with pictures and, once you have slaked your thirst for the average, you suddenly make a very large leap in the amount of money required.
Also, unlike pictures, there is almost no faking in the book world. You may get an incomplete copy, but you won’t find a total fake - or very rarely. Of course there are some books that you will not be able to find at any price. For example, all six copies of the first private edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Oxford, 1920, are now in institutions which are very unlikely ever to de-accession them. If you are a Lawrence collector, that is one gap you will never fill.
In my experience over the past five years, the private client side in England has taken a terrific knock. Obviously this period largely coincides with the recession, the effect of which first came home to me in 1990. I had just bought a small but very good collection on the Boer War. When I brought out the catalogue, I only just scraped into profit by the skin of my teeth. It ought to have gone with a lot more éclat.
Of course the Boer War is rather a special case. There were a lot of South African collectors and the exchange control made it very expensive for them to buy over here. When you have a subject with a limited number of seriously big collectors, in the nature of things they gradually acquire a lot of the books. In the end they are only interested in up-grading copies or in buying a real rarity.
In my very small neck of the woods, the day-to-day trading fell away enormously during the recession - people ringing up and asking for this and that, which is the bread and butter of one's existence. On the other hand there is never any trouble selling the really good stuff. I have found myself becoming more selective about what I buy and cutting down on my stock of lower priced books.
During the recession a lot of people were getting a poor return on their catalogues. I decided to continue doing them but to make them more focused. In a few weeks I shall be bringing out a catalogue on military India and, although it will contain books at all prices, it will be very firmly focused on that subject.
One of my fields is the early British in India which, oddly enough, is not much collected - even by people who claim to be interested in British India. I’m always surprised by the fashions in a particular subject. For example there is very little market anywhere for the Sikh Wars between 1845 and 1849, although there is a large amount of material and much of it is very fascinating. If you are at all interested in British colonial and imperial history, the Sikh Wars are amongst the most interesting in the 19th century.
Meanwhile the First World War has become, in that slightly pejorative phrase, ‘collectible’. It used to be very downmarket, but a lot of people have become fascinated with it, especially the younger generation. Perhaps they haven’t been bored by endless reminiscences in the way my parents’ generation was.
Sometimes people say they are interested in a certain subject and would like to know where to start. I can advise them about the good books in their field but, at some point along the line, one has to ask the embarrassing question about money - do they want to spend £20 or £50 or £1,000 on a book? There are times when you have done your best to raise interest, and all you get from your clients is, ‘Jolly nice, Michael, but not today thank you’. And there can be moments of extreme boredom when nothing happens at all. But by and large I enjoy the trade very much and hope I shall go on enjoying it and making money. Looking back there are decisions I would be glad not to have made, but they were tactical rather than strategic.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in February 1995