Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Benjamin Spademan

[Catching Them Young]

‘Who’s that little brat, and what’s he doing here?’ The English often have a curious attitude to talent. Benjamin Spademan was collecting books before most children learn to read. He’s been dealing for the last four years and hasn’t yet left school. Perhaps the combination is bound to arouse suspicion and even an element of hostility. But some of the worst behaviour has come from dealers in children’s books — just the kind of puzzle Michael Hollander solves so well, ‘Forget it. They all hate kids.’

Benjamin bought his first books from the Beacon Hill Bookshop near his grandparents in Surrey, and Any Amount of Books in Olympia. He liked to collect particular authors, starting with Rider Haggard in first edition. ‘By the time I was fourteen, I wanted to buy more expensive illustrated books. So I sold some of my collection to raise the money and found that I really enjoyed dealing. At first I was only doing it to advance my collection. I made a bit of money from selling cricket books to someone in Portobello Road, and I also did rather well out of a bookshop in Notting Hill Gate.

‘Nowadays I don’t collect anymore. There’s always a conflict with dealing. But I’m sure I’ll want to start again when I’m really established.’ In the meantime, Benjamin has found a most congenial patron in Bernard Shapero, for whom he works on an informal basis. ‘I suppose I do model myself to a certain extent on Bernard. He started dealing very young and went through all this brat business. Now he’s got a very impressive set-up, and I admire the way he deals. When I think how I first met him, I don’t know where I got the nerve from. I just walked in and offered him some books. He was very friendly and seemed rather amused. Perhaps he identified with what I was trying to do.Anyway he helped me along from there. I’ve been to the States with him several times, and he’s introduced me to lots of important dealers.

‘In London, I have a small circle of booksellers I like to visit every week - Simon Finch, and Sam Fogg - although I can’t quite buy a mediaeval manuscript yet, there’s always something to learn. I also like going to Robert Frew who gives me good advice like "Don’t be a snob", and the literature department at Maggs where there’s always something to admire. When I think about it, all these dealers are good fun and fairly young. It’s easier for me to make contact with them. Age does seem to make a big difference.

Benjamin’s school is ideally located for these extra-curricular activities. The Lycée Français is also very convenient for Christie’s South Kensington, where Benjamin likes to indulge his love of auctions. ‘They’re just very exciting, and I always have the feeling I may pick up a real bargain. I study the catalogue before the sale, but occasionally I pay too much when there’s something I simply must have.

‘I used to go to Portobello Market regularly, always thinking I might find something cheap. Actually, I never did - probably because I couldn’t be bothered to go every single week at seven in the morning. But I still love the atmosphere. It’s full of life.
‘I can’t say the same for most book fairs. All the fun’s gone out of them before the doors open. I’m sure everything’s been picked over during the setting-up. If I don’t buy a book in the first ten minutes, it makes me very lazy and I end up doing nothing much.
‘So many fairs are hot, stuffy and uninspiring. Although I think the PBFA is a great organisation, I don’t get on too well with some of its members. They’re the worst for saying things like "Don’t touch the books. You’re too young". I try to make them see that I do know something, without showing off. But some exhibitors just don’t want to take me seriously.’

Time will tell, and Benjamin has rather a lot of it in hand. The next ten years look busy — university first, and then back to bookselling with a vengeance. ‘I’d like to have an impressive shop, like Bernard’s. Actually, I’d really like two shops — one in London and one in Paris. I’m half French, I go to a French school, and I’d definitely like to expand my business to the French market. It’s a very different scene and I could easily buy stock in Paris that sells better in London, and vice versa.
‘If I don’t quite make a shop in Paris, I hope to set up some link with Europe. There are far more book collectors in France, Germany and Italy in particu-lar. Books are still a minority interest in this country. I’ve never really considered the American market. Although I love going there, I can’t imagine living anywhere in the States, except possibly in New York.

‘I’m also aiming to join the ABA, for the sense of achievement more than anything else. Most of the members carry very good stock, and it would be nice to be part of the international circuit. Having said that, it does tend to stand on the fact that it is the ABA, and doesn’t project itself nearly so well as the PBFA, which, as you know, I don’t like! But I’m sure it’s a good way of making money for a lot of booksellers.

But Benjamin still has to get his A-levels out of the way. Earlier this term, he invented a bout of ‘flu to hop over for a sale in New York. His parents would prefer school work to come first and generally it does. ‘When I’m at school, I revert to being a normal school boy. I’ve already got an A for my French A-level, but I failed my interview for Cambridge. My teacher’s report probably said something unhelpful like "Could do better if he concentrated"!

‘I’m not terribly good at taking criticism. Perhaps it’s because I’m an only child and I don’t much like being teased. People like to wind me up, but I’m getting better at handling it. I don’t go off in a sulk anymore when people say "He’s only a kid". But it does upset me when Bernard occasionally says I can’t work at anything for more than thirty seconds. Anyway, it’s not true — and don’t even mention my teacher!

‘Of course, there will be other problems. Shortage of money, I expect. I don’t have a rich grandmother, in case anybody’s wondering. But I’m optimistic about the next ten years. There’s still a lot to learn, but I love books and I reckon I could open a shop tomorrow.’

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in February 1993

A Poland & Steery Co-production