Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Carl Williams

Carl Williams

Counterculture is whatever I say it is. Does that sound a bit Yorkshire? As I was born too late for the 1960s and also for punk, I avoided being indoctrinated with any one youth cult, and this allowed me the latitude to see things differently. It’s all about the right feel, the way something looks and where it comes from. You need to keep your nerve when buying things that might seem to be culturally irrelevant, and be able to turn them into gold. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu talked about the concept of habitus to describe the way in which humans display their socio-economic origins. Books also carry around their own habitus, but we call it provenance. I bought a crappy little paperback – it was nothing in itself, but it had the barcode of the library at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, where the US government conducted human experiments with LSD and other drugs. What a great habitus for a book on psychedelic drugs. The experiments were part of the US Army’s mind control program called Project Artichoke. It ran alongside the CIA’s Project MKUltra, which began in the 1950s and was officially halted in 1973. The hero of US counterculture and the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey, had his first experience of LSD in a mental hospital in California, funded by MKUltra. By doing this research the US government kick-started the 1960s.

I was born in Scarborough in 1967, the year of the summer of love. I was considered to be not very bright before it was discovered that I had very bad shortsightedness. The headmistress at my infant school taught me to read. She believed in me and I learnt from her that, as long as I read books, I would succeed. I plundered the local library for Cocteau, Nietzsche and others. My eldest brother worked the night shift in McCain’s chip factory, which gave him a lot of time for reading. He used to leave books around the house when I was growing up – The World According to Garp, Catch-22, and other novels that weren’t perhaps suitable for my age. I had quite a library in my bedroom before I knew what an author was. I liked having books around me. My secondary school was a terrible experience. When a kid from the wrong part of town asked the teacher a question, he was being disruptive; when a kid from Scalby village asked a question, he was being constructive. I didn’t care as long as they left me alone; I went my own way, read Jean-Paul Sartre and became erudite in snippets.

I was very interested in behavioural studies, but was crap at quantitative methods of data collection and all the mathematical bits. I finally got through my exams by reading widely around the subjects, mixing them up with psychology and literature and my own experiences, and pouring it all into my essays. My girlfriend at the time had beautiful handwriting, and she filled in my application form for university, and I filled in Sociology at the London School of Economics. All I did was scrawl some late-adolescent nonsense about my interest in resolving the agency/structure problem with Jean-Paul Sartre. I think the different handwriting made my application stand out. I used to get the late, great Hinda Rose to read my own handwriting later at Maggs.

Despite having a slanging match during my interview, I got a place to read Sociology at LSE in 1988, and later stumbled into a Masters degree in Diplomatic History at the same place. Percy S. Cohen was Professor of Sociology when I was a student. He was born in South Africa and had links with Nelson Mandela. Cohen wasn’t a genius; he was better than that. He had been LSE’s first Dean of Undergraduate Studies, and really believed in nurturing his students. I was already deeply immersed in counterculture, and he fostered my academic interest in nationalism and extremism. I went to his house in Hampstead and drank great wine. He used to say, ‘How can you understand anything about society if you don’t read novels?’

During my student days, I was always worried about how to keep the wolf from the door. I did all kinds of odd jobs, but naturally gravitated towards anything to do with books. Boutle & King, who had a stall just off Exmouth Market, and Jake Fior were very helpful to me. Jake introduced me to the world of posh bookshops in Mayfair and St James’s, and from time to time gave them the nod and told them to be nice to me. I also worked as a shelf-stacker in the library at LSE, and became friends with the acquisitions librarian. It was during the time that they were moving the library into Norman Foster’s new building, and needed to get rid of duplicates and so on. The librarian allowed me to sell some of these books on their behalf. I didn’t walk into the stacks sticking books into my poacher’s pocket; I was helping them to make some money from their unwanted books, and they were helping me to pay for my Masters degree.

I became almost addicted to going to Quaritch when they were in Golden Square and Ian Smith was in charge of the social sciences department. He’s a clever man and a pragmatic dealer. At first the business of trying to get past the reception and the visitors book gave me the heebie-jeebies. I would take a Waterman pen that I had found in the street, and once I signed in as ‘Aleister Crowley’ in purple ink.

When the supply of duplicates from the library at LSE was over, I started to find things elsewhere. I was already doing odd jobs for Ed Maggs, to whom I sold a series of letters between Thomas J. Wise and Frederick H. Evans, the photographer who began his career as a bookseller in Cecil Court. Evans was accusing Wise of stealing some literary correspondence from his shop in Cecil Court, after discovering an item from his stock in a Christie’s catalogue. The item was withdrawn from the sale but Wise refused to acknowledge that it belonged to Evans – almost taunting him in his letters, to which Evans replied with ever-longer letters. He never got his property back, I think. I bought the letters from Godfrey Pilkington of the Piccadilly Gallery, and I’m now sorry that I didn’t also buy a play that Evans had written on the whole saga. I wonder where it is now.

By the end of the 1990s, the internet was starting to take off as an amazing tool, and I had easy access to computers at LSE. It was very different from my schooldays when you couldn’t get near them unless you were one of those dorky kids who probably work in local government now. A friend spotted a piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about some hi-tech business grads based in California and Düsseldorf who had set up, a database for searching millions of books. It struck me as the best thing that had come out of Düsseldorf since Joseph Beuys or at least Kraftwerk. I contacted the management team, and was given the title of ‘Sales Manager’, first in London and then in Düsseldorf. My job was to hit the phones and sign up dealers, who uploaded millions of books to the website. Although I was comparatively well paid as a dot-commer, I didn’t enjoy living in Düsseldorf. After a while I went back to London. JustBooks became part of, which now belongs to AbeBooks.

I went back to doing bits and pieces for booksellers. Ed Maggs sent me to Emory to deliver some correspondence between W.B.Yeats and Maud Gonne, which had belonged to her granddaughter Anna MacBride White. The university had bought the letters for its Yeats collection. From Atlanta, I flew to Florida to meet a guy whom I had found on eBay. He was the nephew of José Gómez-Sicre, who knew Basquiat – in fact he knew everyone in the cultural and artistic scene of Latin America and the Caribbean. Sicre is not much heard of today, but he was a maven-like figure who worked closely with people like William Rubin at MoMA. The nephew lived in Coconut Grove, Miami, and was selling documents from his uncle’s archive letter by letter. I bought an incredible document by José Luis Cuevas, a Mexican artist of the anti-muralist group, who had LSD injected into his neck by his brother. Cuevas wasn’t a druggie; he was just curious about the aesthetic possibilities of altered states of consciousness. The document records his experiment to show the effect of the drug on his drawing of the same object before and while he was tripping. That was it; I knew I had found the subject for me.

In 2003 I started working for Maggs on a full-time basis. According to Ed Maggs, a successful bookseller is someone who understands their customers so well that they will buy whatever you offer them. I’m paraphrasing his words, but this is what it came down to when Ed set me the challenge of looking after Julio Mario Santo Domingo Jr, to whom I sold the Cuevas manuscript. From that moment on, I dedicated myself to getting the attention of this amazing person.

Julio was the eldest son of Julio Mario Santo Domingo, the Colombian businessman. The family’s wealth originally came from brewing; they were never involved in the corruption that goes with public works contracts, or in the drug trade. In 2004 or so Julio had bought the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library of the literature of psychotropic drugs, and went on to build the world’s largest collection of books, manuscripts, posters, photographs and ephemera relating to altered states of mind. He knew exactly how to combine high and low culture, an approach that many people don’t understand.

Julio wasn’t the kind of collector who would stick with one dealer. He wanted to engage directly with the material and in the search for it. You would find him everywhere – from the bouquinistes along the banks of the Seine to Berkeley Square. One day Ed Maggs, Julio and I went to the Academy Club and concocted a scheme for me to work as a curator on secondment to the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library in Geneva. It might have looked as if I was living the life, but Julio was a man of simple tastes and it was all a bit Easyjet-set. He found me a flat in the red light district, and the bulk of his library was kept in a business centre in Thônex, a suburb of Geneva. I told him that I would start by cataloguing 666 items – the number of his bidding paddle at Christie’s in New York. Julio would come from time to time, and we would go off somewhere in his battered old car. We went to see the permanent exhibition at the Bodmer Library in Cologny, where they had on display the original manuscript of Sade’s Cent vingt journées de Sodome. Julio wanted to buy it, but it had a chequered history of ownership, and it’s now in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

As I’m very garrulous and don’t enjoy being on my own in a room all day, I started to get bored in Geneva. Julio didn’t want me to leave, but I decided to go back to Maggs after three years. I’m still devastated by Julio’s death at the age of 51 in 2009. My meeting with Leslie Morris, the brilliant curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts at the Houghton Library, was the good thing that came out of the tragedy of Julio’s death. Leslie walked into his library and within ten minutes she said ‘I’ll take it’. The bulk of the Ludlow-Santo Domingo (LSD) Library (now known as the Julio Santo Domingo collection) is on long-term deposit with Harvard University. The LSD Library contains over 50,000 items from rare books to audio material, documenting altered states of consciousness through drugs, art, sex, magic and rock and roll. It also contains Julio’s collection of French erotica, and the works of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine. There is no other serious collector of the literature of psychotropic drugs in the world today. We never found a Colombian drugs baron who had a cave full of De Quincey manuscripts. Julio was the market.

Libraries are working on a long clock, and taking an interest in acquiring counterculture as they place their bets for the future. I sold the British Library the archive of Bertie ‘Berlin’ Marshall, who became a writer, but will always be remembered for the time when Siouxsie Sioux of the Banshees put him on a dog chain, walked him into a pub in Bromley and ordered a bowl of water for him. Last year the BL put on an exhibition to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of punk and its cultural and political influence since the impact of the Sex Pistols in 1976.

More importantly perhaps for dissent and counterculture, I work very closely with Geoff Marsh and Vicky Broackes of the Performance Department of the V&A. I am proud to say that there are whole cabinets from me in their mammoth Sixties show. Similarly, the Houghton Library has considerable amounts of gear both from the Julio times and more recently. I was with a Black Panther and her collector friend the other day and we compared goose pimples over the fact that the Smithsonian now has a museum of African-American history, and we had all three contributed to it in varying degrees. The same pride applies to Yale and other institutions that I have, I believe, affected by flogging them the Diggers, Levellers and Luddites of our and earlier ages.

During my time at Maggs, I issued ten or so paper catalogues, including Our Own Maggs based on Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag, and a large slew of digital catalogues and lists.There were also various fascicule-type prospectuses of my shows at Maggs Gallery in Hays Mews, including one for Jon Savage’s photos of Uninhabited London. I also produced a book-sized catalogue called 4973 on a series of handmade posters from the Berkeley Political Poster Workshop.  When I finally left Maggs in October 2015, my first big purchase was a large collection of these protest posters, which I bought from Bernard Shapero and sold to Leslie Morris.

The collection had belonged to Serendipity Books, and I had originally sold them to Felix Dennis, art director of Oz, the Sixties underground magazine. I had known Felix quite well as I used to catalogue his books on trees. He kept part of his library in a huge barn themed around Treasure Island at his home in Warwickshire, one of many homes worldwide. He also collected trees, and established the Heart of England Forest that stretches from the ancient Forest of Arden to the edge of the Vale of Evesham. The entire profits from his very lucrative publishing company went into trees. I remember him saying, ‘Don’t worry about leaving the gate of the arboretum open, they can’t run away.’ By the time of his death in 2014, Dennis had planted over a million trees.

I was rather stuck with ‘counterculture’ as a label when I was at Maggs. I didn’t choose it; it just emerged. What I’m really trying to do is understand the connection between cultural history and contemporary art. I work very closely with my dear friend Tamsin Clark who runs Tenderbooks in Cecil Court, specializing in independent artist publications and unique contemporary art books. She is the daughter of Thomas A. Clark, the Scottish poet.

I aspire to be a serious vendor of books. To buy and sell them is a noble thing to do. I’m not sure how long the book as a physical object will survive the digital age, but I do believe that people will always be interested in the study of consciousness, especially as we transform from humans into post-humans and ultimately machines.

Interviewed for The Book Collector Autumn 2017






Carl Williams

A Poland & Steery Co-production