Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Charlie Unsworth

[A Lot on his Pallet]

Charlie Unsworth

'After my degree in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, I worked in a bookshop which went bankrupt — an experience which taught me a lot. When I say ‘worked’, we were basically having a good time. It was a radical, hippyish bookshop called The Fourth Idea, and all of us were ideologically opposed to the concept that business was something to be taken seriously.

Such was the climate in Bradford in the late '70s that our attitude didn’t much matter. Although it isn’t a big city, at the time Bradford was a hotbed of student activity, race politics, gay liberation, and of course the old Labour tradition was still very strong. Then along came the recession, and even lefties have to stop buying books when the money runs out.
Faced with economic reality, the bookshop went bust and I learnt that you cannot run a business without embracing some sound business practice. In the last few months of its existence, I set myself a simple accounting course to try to get a grip on what was going wrong. My flat-mate at the time was training to be an accountant and it was helpful to pick her brains. Although it was too late to save The Fourth Idea, some familiarity with accountancy paid dividends the next time round.
I needed to get away from Bradford to think about what to do next, and came down to London to stay with some friends in a squat in Vauxhall. At the local job centre, I spotted an advertise-ment for a delivery driver for a book company, and got a job with Collie Books in Tooting. This was in 1984 and it seemed an appropriate date for me to be settling down, making some money and becoming less active politically.

The job involved driving round schools, dropping off remainders in the staff room or in the library. The following week I would go back and see what had been sold. After a year or so, Collie Books launched Sandpiper. They knew the remainder trade well, and as, at that time, no one in this country was running a proper wholesale business specialising in academic books, they decided to do so. As they started to accumulate stock, I asked if I could take some of the academic books out in the van. This prompted Penny Collie to ask if I would like to be their sales rep. So Sandpiper’s initial success turned out also to be mine.

In the early to mid-'80s, a lot of publishers were buying up each other, amalgamating and so on. As part of the process, accountants moved in and pointed out the expense of holding on to dead stock. Suddenly a large number of books were available — including academic titles — at cheap prices. It was boom time for the remainder market just as I blundered into it.

Although there was already a well established remainder trade, it tended to concentrate on what I would call ‘cat and dog’ books, very mass market editions on cookery, gardening et cetera, on the assumption that you could only make a success with very general books. Very few people wanted to touch anything academic and an interesting situation developed: on the one hand, there were the ‘cat and dog’ booksellers piling ‘em high and selling ‘em cheap; on the other hand, there were the specialist dealers in secondhand scholarly and academic books for whom this cheap and cheerful approach was anathema.

In 1986 I became a freelance rep, although I still carried mainly Sandpiper’s list. I travelled round the country with predominantly academic books in open boxes in the back of the car. When I parked outside a bookshop, I left the boot open to discourage traffic wardens. I would go into the shop and, with a few notable exceptions, come out with a negative response — only to find two or three passers-by looking at the books in the car and wanting to know where they could buy them. Fortunately there was a small coterie of secondhand booksellers with an open mind about remainders —David’s in Cambridge, for example, and Sheila Ramage at Notting Hill Books, which is a shop I enormously admire for its stock and especially its atmosphere. At the time, Thomas Thorp in Guildford also had a very good remainder buyer.

After a while I started travelling to the States on behalf of Sandpiper. In general I found most Americans I met eminently sensible about combining secondhand and remainder books, and I have drawn a lot of ideas from my travels there. American dealers realise that if a customer wants a particular book, he doesn’t mind if it is a secondhand copy or a remainder — the text is more important than the presentation. To me it is arrant nonsense to differentiate between the two and to consider one good and the other bad. Maybe that attitude harks back to earlier times when remaindering wasn’t such a common practice and therefore books that were remaindered may have tended to be rubbish. But that’s certainly not true today.

In the summer of 1989 I read in the Bookdealer that Check Books, now Beaumont Travel Books, wanted to let their basement in Museum Street. I knew that Sandpiper were looking for a Central London showroom and, as the basement had more space than they needed, we each took half of the space. This was my first venture into having a shop. I took Sue Coe, a friend of a friend, as manager of the shop. This turned out to be an inspired decision as we’re now married with two children.

All the time that I had been working as a freelance rep, doing a bit of ‘running’ and a few market stalls, I was still living in the squat in Vauxhall. The area had originally been bought by the ILEA in order to build a school. The plans were then cancelled but the tenants had already been moved into a tower block. The houses were left empty and in a short time the word went round and 80 or 90 were occupied by squatters.

We then approached Lambeth Council hoping to do a deal whereby the ILEA gave the houses to Lambeth who issued short-life licences to the squatters in return for a nominal rent until such time as the council could renovate them. When this idea was put to Lambeth, it seemed that the Council already had too many properties, couldn’t afford to renovate them, and therefore didn’t want any more. So we found ourselves in the fortunate situation of squatting in unwanted houses.

Then, ironically, Margaret Thatcher did us a favour by closing down the ILEA and requiring it to dispose of its assets quickly. We were offered the opportunity of buying the unwanted properties as housing co-operatives. A number of us were involved in putting together a deal whereby we bought eleven houses for £1.1 million, borrowed from a mortgage company on behalf of the co-op. It was an empowering experience and taught me how to write business plans and not to be frightened of large sums of money.

The deal went through about six months before I moved into the basement of Check Books. I’m sure the experience made it easier for me to contemplate borrowing much smaller amounts of money to start the business. The squat had also given me the advantage of living rent-free in Central London for several years, while I collected my thoughts and accumulated stock.

A basement was not the right place for my type of business, but I stayed for a couple of years and it gave me a lot of confidence. When I asked my bank manager about borrowing more money to get somewhere larger, he told me to come back when I had increased my turnover. In order to do this I took on a short-let shop on the roundabout at Waterloo just to sell some more books. A drinking friend from the local pub, Tony Rice, came to manage the Waterloo shop and, after a year or so, we formed a partnership of Unsworth, Rice & Coe, which lasted until Tony decided to move on and we parted on good terms at the end of 1995.

In due course we went back to the bank manager and in April 1992 we opened our new shop in Bloomsbury Street. ‘When I was looking for premises, Fred Bass of the Strand Book Store in New York, in a chance conversation, commented that booksellers should not be frightened of the rent. ‘There’s a good reason why locations command a high rent.’ It was great advice from someone running a shop the size of a city block, and helped me to go for our present shop, and not to settle for something pokey down an alley at a tenth of the rent.

Having said that, I would not like to subject myself again to the anxiety of the first nine months. We had committed ourselves with no capital to a big rent which involved increasing our turnover by more than six times. By August of that year I could see that we had landed in the perfect spot for our type of busi-ness and that we were probably going to make it. By December we were safe.

Although the look of the shop is dominated by remainders, in fact the stock is nearly 50% secondhand. To my mind, if a good secondhand book is on the shelf for a month, it’s priced too high or in the wrong location. We have a very strict stock-control for our remainder and secondhand stock: any book that has been on the shelf for eighteen months we put in a sale at half price. If it is still there three months later, we make it a quid. And if it still fails to sell, we give it to Oxfam or Amnesty International.

The potential sales for some remainder titles are almost infinite. The only brake on how many you can buy is how many are available and how many you can afford to buy. Over the years you learn to judge roughly whether to order five or fifty copies of a book, but it’s not an exact science and experience is forever surprised. For example, early on I was taken by surprise by the popularity of a book called Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, a study of gay pirates in the seventeenth century Caribbean. My original quite modest order sold out almost immediately and in the end I managed to sell over 500 copies. It was amusing to see how many customers felt they had to explain their purchase —they all seemed to have ancestors who were pirates!

After a couple of years in Bloomsbury Street things were going very well and I think hubris stepped in. We started to think that perhaps we could open a bookshop in every university town. A shop came up in Bristol and we took it. After a number of ups and downs, it’s finally just about breaking even and looking after itself. But it was not an easy exercise and I suspect that Central London is possibly the only location for our type of business.

Three years ago we moved office and opened a small warehouse in Vauxhall. As this gave us extra costs to cover, I approached an American colleague, Powell’s of Chicago, who I knew were looking for representation in this country. We now share the space with Powell’s and three other American wholesalers, The Texas Bookman, Daedalus Books and Mark A. Adams, which not only helps to cover the costs but adds another positive dimension to our dealings with the trade.
The warehouse enabled us to make space in the basement of the Bloomsbury shop in order to expand our existing range of classical and medieval titles. By this stage remainder book sales were very adequately paying the rent and compensated for our earlier lack of capital enough to allow us the luxury of properly and systematically developing our trade in antiquarian books. Tim Bryars is in charge of the antiquarian department, building up our stock of at present mainly Latin and Greek texts, translations and commentaries.

Last year we joined the ABA, partly in order to have better access to the international trade, for example by exhibiting at fairs in Europe and the US. Antiquarian bookselling seems to me to be a very finite trade in terms of existing customers and all initiatives to find new collectors should be supported. Moving the June ABA fair to Olympia was a major factor in our decision to join the association.

In the recent debates about ethics, which I welcome, there seemed to be however a lot more talk about bibliographical skills and behaviour, and less about proper business practice which, I would think, would more concern the public. For example, what is a fair payment and mark-up to make when you buy a collection? I come from the remainder trade where you buy a batch of books at an openly stated price, put a straight-forward mark-up on it, pile copies in the window and wait for customers to buy them without any further hassle. In the secondhand and antiquarian world, it’s much less clear — with more discrep-ancy between one dealer who gets away with paying very little for his books, while another will always pay an honourable price. One will aim for a moderate mark-up and another will aim for the sky.

And as we move further into the antiquarian world, I’m also having a bit of trouble coming to terms with the amount of ‘horse trading’ and upmarket ‘running’ that seems to go on, which rings hollow when certain antiquarian booksellers consider themselves to be engaged in a more elevated branch of the trade. However I don’t want to draw an unfair caricature; there are very many excellent booksellers with many different ways of working — both moral and effective —within ABA and PBFA Circles, and the remainder world is certainly not lacking in sharks.

Although I stopped working as a rep for Sandpiper in the early ‘90s, I have more recently been acting as a consultant in their programme of reprinting out-of-print Oxford University Press titles. In this capacity I have encountered hostility from certain secondhand dealers who claim that such a project damages the trade in expensive out-of-print copies. I find this attitude completely antipathetic to my idea of what the book trade should be. If we can supply large quantities of a previously scarce good book at £12.99, rather than just the odd one at, say, £55, we must be broadening intellectual activity.

Every now and then we try to formulate our mission statement — I suppose it might be ‘Choice Books at Cheap Prices’. Maybe I sentimentally hark back to my leftie youth, but I do like to feel that our business not only pays the wages of our seventeen staff, but also increases access to knowledge. However much we may expand, the core of the business will always depend on pallets of good quality academic books.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in June 1998

Charlie Unsworth

A Poland & Steery Co-production