Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Angus O'Neill

Angus O'Neill

When I was sixteen I had a holiday job in Ken Swift’s bookshop in Oxford. I soon noticed that we were charging four or five pounds for books that I had seen in jumble sales for a few pence. So I started running them to Ken and earned some useful pocket money. During my gap year I had more experience of bookselling in Oxford – this time with Robin Waterfield, when James Fergusson was also working for him.

I originally thought that the academic life would suit me. That idea lasted until I had been at Cambridge for a fortnight. The English Faculty at the time was in a very uneasy period, with the Leavisites fighting a pitched battle against the Structuralists. The disciples of F.R. Leavis were pretty tedious with their insistence on studying only a handful of great books that they felt made up the canon. On the other hand I could never quite get my head round the Structuralists’ arguments.

The dons would make little jokes about how I was more interested in the outside of books than the inside. That was in the days when it was still acceptable to disparage bibliography as an academic subject. Nowadays we all know how much can be learnt about the text of books from the physical study of early editions. I would like to hear them make such a remark to someone like Henry Woudhuysen.

I was bored with being a student and spent quite a lot of time in bookshops, running books from Galloway & Porter to Deighton Bell and so on. There was no equivalent of the Oxford Bibliographical Society, but there were some extraordinary opportunities to see and handle wonderful books. I particularly remember a visit to Sir Geoffrey Keynes’s house, where I saw books with John Donne’s ownership signature, a flawless copy of Cranford in the original cloth, lots of Blake, of course, and any number of extraordinary high spots, accompanied by reminiscences along the lines of ‘I couldn’t follow much of what Wittgenstein said, but Maynard understood him all right’.

When I graduated I wrote to George Lawson at Bertram Rota for some ideas. He asked if I could type; I couldn’t. But my mother assured me that I could learn in a couple of days. I went to work for Bertram Rota in the summer of 1982, and stayed for eighteen months. It was the only proper job I have ever had. Somehow they managed to put up with me – I was completely unprepared for office life, and thought I knew everything. But I was introduced to the day-to-day realities of bookselling, and will always remember Anthony Rota’s advice on parcels, ‘Sello-tape is an aid to packing, not a packing material’. When quoting books to custom- ers, I was told never to use a postcard in case a spouse or partner got to it first.

My decision to set up on my own after only eighteen months was probably crazy. Most people who have made a success of bookselling have worked for one of the big firms in quite a senior capacity for many years, building up contacts and acquiring a deep and formal knowledge of their subject. I did have one advantage – a very retentive memory. But this has become less vital for bookselling now that so much information is so easily and conveniently accessible – although I suppose you still have to remember where to look.

I began buying and selling books on impulse, specialising in modern first editions and art books. Although the balance may have shifted over the years, I still deal in more or less the same subject areas. Throughout the 1980s I issued catalogues, mostly from my mother’s house in Oxford. I was living in rented accommodation and was never in one place long enough for it to be a practical business address.

By around 1990 I stopped doing catalogues. It had struck me that too many people were doing the same thing. The fun had gone out of it, unless you were offering books from an outstanding single-owner collection. And then my family moved to France; I no longer had a base for issuing catalogues, so the decision to stop more or less made itself.

For a long time I ran a ‘lifestyle’ business, as a friend in accountancy describes it. The purpose of the business was to allow me to do roughly what I wanted, though not in any very grand style. I got into the habit of running books to various people in the trade. I would travel around on the Continent for a few weeks, come back with a couple of suitcases of books, and then sell them to various London shops. For a long time I was closely associated with Chelsea Rare Books, particularly after Andrew Henderson became less active in supplying them. Leo and Philippa Bernard have always been the most reliable and helpful people to deal with. I greatly enjoyed working with them as co-editor on Antiquarian Books. A Companion for Booksellers, Librarians and Collectors, published by Scolar Press, 1994.

Life continued in its pleasant way. Then in 1995 the business took a bit of a quantum leap when I was offered the chance to buy 28,000 books in one go. I had forty-five minutes to look at them, and in that time I could do little more than check that they hadn’t been weeded or systematically defaced. The books completely filled a large flat. Two rooms had such large piles of books on the floor that I didn’t immediately notice that there was a piano under one of them.

My summary inspection revealed a good academic library, mostly of English Literature, with books in wonderful condition. The bookseller from whom I bought the books generously proposed an instalment plan for payment, and I came to a mutually satisfactory arrangement with Leo and Philippa for selling them through Chelsea Rare Books. To give you an idea of the financial scale of the deal, I had just experienced considerable difficulty, as a self-employed person, arranging a mortgage for a smaller amount than I shook hands on with the bookseller. There aren’t many trades where you can still do that.

Somebody said that you should be ready to gamble the business once. I wasn’t really gambling in that I knew the purchase would work out all right in the end. But when I described the deal to a friend in banking, she called it ‘one hell of a punt’. In strictly commercial terms, I didn’t make an enormous amount from it. But it taught me that I could handle a big deal, and enjoy it. It also gave me experience in handling large quantities of books, which required an organisational skill that I didn’t know I had.

To open a shop seemed to be the next logical move. I decided with David Rees, my business partner, that it had to be in an area of central London where there were already a number of established bookshops. This narrowed it down to Cecil Court or Museum Street. A few months ago we exchanged contracts on 27, Cecil Court, the Fletchers’ old shop. I vividly remember the first time I walked through the door. It was in 1978 and I had found an Arthur Rackham first edition in a house clearers’ in Oxford. A friend gave me a lift to London, and I tried to sell it to the Charing Cross Road dealers. None of their buyers was available, so I took it round to Cecil Court where Bill Fletcher’s was the first shop that you saw. I knew that £40 was the retail price, and asked Bill Fletcher for £20, which he paid without a murmur. I thought that was very fair – why haggle if you don’t need to?

David and I have worked together on a number of occasions and found that our skills were complementary. At the risk of being immodest, I think that I’m quite good at buying books. David has an excellent reputation for thorough and accurate cataloguing. He also understands computers and accounts, which is a great bonus. We are particularly keen on presentation and association copies and propose to deal largely in books that, in our opinion, will still be read and enjoyed in 50 years time. When I worked at Bertram Rota I was taught to be properly dismissive of ‘flavour of the month’ titles.

I like dealing in books that present a bit of a challenge to the imagination, obscure books, or books that require careful researching to yield their value. I couldn’t be the type of bookseller who knows the going rate of all the big colour-plate books, or whether the market for Ian Fleming is 20% up or down on a month ago. It’s all necessary knowledge, but not a way of bookselling that appeals to me.

We will need part-time and, eventually, full-time staff in the shop. In fact we could not have contemplated opening it without factoring this into the figures. Bookshops are hungry organisms and need to be kept fed, and David and I will have to be out and about buying books. In any case I couldn’t cope with sitting in the shop all day, giving tourists directions to the National Gallery. I know someone who had to give up his shop because he was, as he put it, becoming ‘too Basil Fawltyish’.

George Orwell made one of the best remarks on the book trade. It was inspired by his brief experience of working in a secondhand bookshop in Hampstead, where he noticed that ‘many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop’. My sister runs a bookshop in Montcuq, a village in South West France. She’s thinking of writing about her twelve-year experience with some of her more eccentric clientele and calling it Special Opportunities. Having said that I’m looking forward to meeting new customers in the shop, and also people with whom I have corresponded for many years but never met. I hope some will come in and introduce themselves.

When a Dutch friend told me that the Internet would be the way forward for bookselling, I didn’t believe him. I got that a bit wrong.... But although the impact has been huge, the Internet still can’t turn bad booksellers into good booksellers. There are a lot of people posting books with inaccurate or over-optimistic descriptions. With no bibliographical expertise of their own, they can simply tap into a Quaritch level of description and ‘cut-and-paste’ it to a vastly inferior book that they have picked up in a car boot sale. An American professor of Communications remarked of the development of the Web, ‘We used to speculate what would happen if you put a million monkeys to work on a million typewriters. Now we know.’

The bibliographical accuracy of booksellers’ descriptions must be beyond reproach, and yet we all know people who think that they are somehow exempt from the Trade Description Act. There have been one or two cases recently of dealers trying to sophisticate their books for commercial gain. A book should be good enough to deal in as it stands. If you augment the value of a presentation copy by swiping the dust-jacket off an ordinary copy, you are falsifying the historical record. And once you start doing that, you run a very real risk of destroying the collective confidence in a market.

A wonderful way to learn about bookselling would have been to spend time with someone like the late George Jeffery. I occasionally visited the barrows in Farringdon Road, but it was a slightly intimidating experience unless you were one of the regulars. It was however a marvellous example of bookselling as a per- forming art. To see this in action, you only have to watch dealers unpacking at a bookfair. If you set up your stand in front of at least two regular customers, you will introduce an element of competition as each book goes on the shelf. Done skilfully, you should soon have attracted quite an audience. I find that the business of buying and selling produces the extra dimension; it adds to the spice that makes the trade, for me, the most enjoyable way of working with books.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in March 2002



I bought David Rees’s share of the bookshop and reopened as Omega Bookshop in August 2005. We are still friends, and partners in publishing. I do my best to welcome customers (except possibly the woman who asked for a specific Peacock novel but turned it down because there was ‘too much dialogue in it’), and one day may even be able to hear the words ‘Westminster City Council’ with equanimity.

Afterword added in 2006

Angus O'Neill

A Poland & Steery Co-production