Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Anthony Rota

Anthony Rota

In 1952, Anthony was nearing the end of his Air Force service when his father invited him to join the firm. Bertram Rota was a much-married man and the invitation was not altogether expected. But it took Anthony a mere half hour to accept, and give up alternative plans for a career in farming, advertising or, to a lesser extent, politics.

‘I suppose farming is rather surprising. I thought about becoming an agricultural student, but it seemed a little daft as I had no capital and little prospect of owning a farm. It seemed better to make a pile somewhere else and then become a gentleman farmer. I’m still waiting....

‘While I was in the Air Force, I studied for the Advertising Association Diploma, which taught me some helpful things about type faces, use of English and the psychology of design. As I was enormously interested in the cinema, I had previously enrolled for a training scheme set up in 1948 by the British film industry, and worked in the publicity department of Twentieth Century Fox till it was ready to start. Perhaps it was cause and effect, but the industry then hit a very bad patch, and the training scheme never got off the ground.

‘After the Air Force, I felt very strongly about what the Labour government had been doing to us as a nation. So I joined the Young Conservatives, for all the usual reasons, and got onto the party’s panel of voluntary speakers. I think I could have been successful as a local government candidate, but one can spend too long talking about drains.

‘My father wanted me to serve an apprenticeship with a firm like Marks & Co., or a Continental book dealer, but I wanted to get in and get on. It was not a formal training, but I remember standing outside Sotheran’s in the freezing cold until I could correctly identify the bindings on display. I had to run my eye along the spines and say “Bayntun, Bayntun, Sangorski, Bayntun” without a slip. Ideally, a new person should start in a busy general bookshop. Even dusting the stock teaches you a lot about relative scarcity – how often do you dust the same book? That tells you something about supply and demand.’

Bertram Rota turned out to be a patient teacher and a good boss, who never said ‘I told you so’. Anthony also learnt a lot from ‘a man who, while enjoying a reputation which was to say the least raffish, was in fact an extremely able book- seller with real flair and a keen instinct for what constituted a good book.’ This was Anthony Newnham, whom Rota succeeded as director before becoming head of the firm on his father’s death in 1966.

‘If I made a mistake, my father was always sympathetic. I try to be the same when things go wrong here. It’s a question of good manners.’ At home and abroad, Anthony’s name is almost synonymous with Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by. He is fond of recounting the story of the two fairies in Kingsley’s Water Babies, and has campaigned far and wide to eradicate the practices of Mrs Be-done-by-as-you-did.
‘I became involved in trade politics quite early on, largely because of the ring to which I am violently opposed. It was very upsetting when a Times leader thundered against us on this matter. When I went to my doctor for a routine something or other, I remember he was laughing, “Hello Mr Rota. Are you in the ring then?” I thought this was so unfunny that I joined a group of colleagues to try to get one of us onto the ABA committee. I believe we were known as the Young Turks. Anyway, I was elected in 1959.

‘Broadly, I think the ABA does a good job. It does not pretend to be all sorts of things that some members seem to expect. It is not, for example, a wholesale supplier of packing materials. You must remember that the book trade is full of individualists, and I always think it is remarkable that we can get any two to walk in the same direction at once. To quote ILAB’s motto, ‘Amor Librorum Nos Unit’ – nothing else does!

‘ I think it was R.A. Butler who said “Politics is the art of the possible”, and I have always enjoyed my ABA and ILAB work for that sort of reason. I like finding compromise. You might not think it now, but I do know when to stop! I remember seeing Ben Weinreb talk himself to victory at an ABA meeting – and then go on so long that the argument swung against him.’

Anthony retired as president of ILAB in August 1991 and has been succeeded by Anton Gerits who shares his vision for the League. Anthony continued ‘I want the ILAB badge to be as familiar throughout all the member countries as, say, the ABA badge is here. People should feel free to visit any ILAB member anywhere in the world and know they can expect the highest standards of ethics and expertise, backed up by the disciplinary powers of the League committee.’

Jake Chernofsky invited Anthony to write a piece on trade manners and etiquette for AB Bookman’s Weekly (January 1990), which was reprinted in the ABA Newsletter a few months later. ‘I suppose I expected some reaction, especially let- ters saying “pompous old twit…needs to get with it” and so on. But the response to the piece was enormous and, I must say, mostly favourable.

‘Jake had the idea for the piece while we were having a chat about the book trade in general. As is the way of those no longer in the first flush of youth, we started talking about the good old days. And there were certain good things about them, especially in terms of behaviour. I suppose the classic example is Marks & Co. who never left an unpaid bill in the shop overnight. Of course it’s normal to give a trade discount, but then it’s equally normal to pay pdq. You don’t need a seven-year apprenticeship to learn that.

‘With the recession and so much redundancy, there will be more small firms starting up – maybe collectors selling their books, either from choice or necessity. The tendency for one-man firms will certainly continue, as will the proliferation of bookfairs. The Japanese supremacy is waning and the directors of the major institutional libraries in the States tend to be systems people rather than rare book men nowadays. They want their budgets for computers and buildings. Special Collections are becoming the poor relations in the library world.

‘I must say, there have been a couple of library posts that tempted me, probably because they both seemed to have an emphasis on the acquisitions role. I would enjoy building a collection with someone else’s money – and quite a lot of it. I collect a bit myself, mostly wildly unfashionable writers long before my customers want them. If you take the best books home, your stock suffers and you’re not giving your customers a fair shake.

‘In First Editions, fashion is playing an ever stronger part. An author may be in demand one week, and hard to sell the next. Also, the modern collector is very fussy about condition. We used to advise people to take dust-jackets when they could. But the market was always underpinned by those who did not care about them, including some libraries. Now that underpinning has gone, I quite understand that dust-jackets should command a premium, but I am often stag- gered by the size of that premium.’

Bertram Rota Ltd continues to sell First Editions, Private Press books and literary manuscripts in a most fashionable corner of Covent Garden. There is method in the air – not a book out of place or a crumb on the desk, as he breaks a biscuit onto the lid of the tin. I make a furtive effort to brush the crumbs from my lap and jot ‘fastidious’ against my notes.

‘Illustrated books go well at the moment, also important series of letters, and publishers’ correspondence. I particularly enjoyed handling Cyril Connolly’s library. He described himself as “the Clapham Junction of literature” and his collection was quite amazing in its depth and breadth. Of course I would rather be cataloguing a box of manuscripts than tackling the inevitable administrative load that my job involves. If I have any qualifications for bookselling they are a genuine love of handling books and a liking for working with mildly eccentric people. So it is that I never get that Monday morning feeling.’

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in January 1992


Anthony Rota

A Poland & Steery Co-production