Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Chris Dennistoun

Chris Dennistoun

As a child I first became aware of books because I liked the illustrations. My father bred horses and we lived near Lambourn in a house full of books on animals. I was educated at Winchester where I did well enough to scrape a place at Exeter University to read Theology, more out of necessity than conviction. Exeter offered me a place on very easy terms, and I planned to change subject within a few weeks of going up. While this might have worked anywhere else, Exeter was desperate to keep the department open and needed to keep the student numbers up. University wasn’t my finest hour.

After Exeter I came to London and found a job in publishing, reading manuscripts for Panther paperbacks. I was paid £25 a manuscript and was supposed to advise them what to publish. It was a farce; I didn’t know anything but I was happy to be involved in some aspect of the book world. My next job was working for David Lichfield’s Image magazine, an arts and photography magazine which went bust in the early 1970s.

At about this time I met David Bollam, and we opened a stall together in Portobello Road and ran it for a few years. I had inherited some money which went into starting the business. In those days you didn’t need a lot of knowledge to sell books. We would go to auctions, buy them by the box and put them on the stall. We learnt what was in demand from customers’ requests.

The stall coincided with the height in demand for steel-engraved plates, particularly of Switzerland and Germany – Tombleson’s Views of the Rhine, was a perfect example. George Walford had a regular advertisement in The Clique asking for specific books. They put up the same books year after year; it was the booksellers’ equivalent of the Ten Commandments. When the Bookdealer started in 1971, it quickly became the Bible of the trade. We would go through the ‘Books Wanted’ section, scan the titles and go out and find them. I noticed that Harold Landry was always advertising for copies of Davies, On Dutch Waterways. I went to see him with my copy, and we immediately struck up a rapport. Harold showed me his incredible collection of books and periodicals, which he kept on four floors in his house in Hampstead, and I realised that this was what it was like to be a real book dealer.

Harold never liked moving out of Hampstead. He didn’t go much to auctions and relied on dealers to quote books to him. He had started out in Hay-on-Wye with Richard Booth, and developed a reputation for dealing in complete runs of periodicals. Fortunately for Harold, he loved packing and was very good at it. I would go to auctions and tell Harold what I had seen. It was a good system and I enjoyed the way of life – I found the material and Harold sold it. We put together a number of collections for the Japanese market when it was such a gravy train. Gymnastics was one of the more bizarre subjects for which we were asked.

When Harold started selling periodicals, national libraries and institutions were the major customers. There was no internet; microfiche was the best you could do. We developed quite a market in British parliamentary Blue Books after we bought the duplicate set – still in their distinctive wrappers – from the basement of the Peace Palace Library in The Hague. We stored them in a warehouse in Holland Park and dealers would come and buy them in the days when Blue Books were very desirable.

My two favourite bookshops in England were Tom Cherrington’s in Southampton and Horace Halewood’s in Preston. Tom had the most wonderful eclectic taste, and you never knew what you might find in his shop. He used to buy a lot of his books on the Isle of Wight, before there were any dealers there and the place was a kind of time warp. Horace Halewood was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He didn’t like dealing with big companies, but always tried to help the small dealer. He would greet me with the words, ‘Are you earnin’, lad?’ to which I would respond,‘Not too bad, Mr Halewood. Could be better’. He would make sure that I always made a good profit on what I bought, and liked me to go home having made at least a grand on the visit.

At the other extreme was James Stevens-Cox in Guernsey. Born in 1910, Stevens- Cox must have made a fortune from the plentiful supply of books between the wars. After his death in 1997, his collection of STC and Wing books went to Maggs, who put them in a catalogue in 2003. I remember one trip to Guernsey with Martin Stone – we might have been visiting the Pope, the way Stevens-Cox conducted himself. First of all, I lost £250 in the casino on the boat going over, and then Stevens-Cox would only let me buy one book for all my trouble in getting there. Martin was all right because he was buying rather obscure nineteenth- century fiction which no one knew about.

In those days the auctions were vital to the book business. I lived off books on Cyprus for a couple of years, buying everything I could find and putting them into Sotheby’s, where there were two very prominent collectors who would bid against each other. I would have books to the value of £20,000 or £30,000 in every sale. Christie’s South Kensington had a book sale every two weeks; there was so much material around. Hodgson’s was a little before my time, but I gather it was very competitive. Ronald Gooch would not let anybody buy a travel book. He had started at Heffers and then went on his own. When I knew him, he was working from home, selling to institutional libraries all over the world. Nobody ever got into his house in Hastings. On one occasion Bernard Shapero and I sold him some books, and he sent us a cheque for an extra £500, explaining that he had done rather well out of them. He was a clever businessman.

When Photography started as a collecting genre, there was no real distinction between photogravures and original photographs.Williams’s The Home and Haunts of Shakespeare, with its photogravure plates, was considered the real thing. But the market has been moving away from the time when anything that had a photograph in it was considered fair game. Books like Payne Jennings’s Photographs of Norfolk Broads and Rivers, and Howitt’s Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain have become unsaleable as the market has moved into the twentieth century and concentrated on genuine photography books.

It was through Harold that I met Donald Heald. Don was far ahead of his time in dealing in all the big mid-Victorian colour-plate books. The books were very desirable but had been overlooked in the trade and by collectors because they were comparatively late. As copies started to be broken, complete copies became increasingly desirable, and nowadays they are very scarce and valuable. The Harringtons were also dealing in chromolithograph books and held the biggest stock in London. They were buying Count Amadeo Preziosi’s views of Constantinople before anybody else in the book trade had ever dreamt of Preziosi.

I first met Bernard Shapero when he was still at school. We met at George Jeffery’s barrows in Farringdon Road. He was already very determined, decisive, quite pushy and bold – always spending more than he had. On Saturdays we used to go around in my Austin 1100. I nearly killed Bernard on the way to Tom Cherrington’s in Southampton, overtaking in the face of an oncoming lorry. I’m still not quite sure how we survived. When Bernard left school, we started going on trips to Paris. In the early 1980s, very few dealers went to France regularly.

On our first visit to Paul Prout, the printseller, Bernard quickly picked up that there was a market for selling views of France. We would buy as many copies as we could find of The Rivers of France, with its 62 plates after Turner’s sketches, and started running them to Paul. We could double our money easily. In those days we travelled over on the night ferry, loaded up with our stock. We were stopped by Customs once, and 48 copies of The Rivers of France fell out of our bags.

Finally Paul announced that he could not buy another copy, and took us upstairs where we saw every copy he had ever bought from us. By that stage we had discovered that Paris was full of incredible books at half the price of London. You could bowl into Léonce Laget or Lolliée and just load up. The Parisian dealers would get in new stock every week from the sales at the Drouot. Everything was there – all the wonderful French view books of the Ottoman Empire. It was a licence to print money. All you had to do was get on the blower to a customer, and the book sold itself.

I have always worked from home and sold very largely to the trade. I don’t have the scholarship to do catalogues, although last year Bernard published the catalogue of my collection of works on speculation, Bubbles, Booms and Busts, which I catalogued with Hilary Goodman. It represents a lifetime’s search for the books, as well as a lifetime’s reading around the subject. The collection contains over 750 titles from the seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth century, and was sold en bloc to one of the richest fund managers in the world.

There are probably only a handful of people who appreciate the importance of some of the post-1900 books, written by the men who came up with new concepts of investment theory and practice. Charles Dow’s famous series of essays in 1902 appeared in the New York Times, but he refused offers by publisher S. A. Nelson to assemble or expand them in a book. In 1903 Nelson acted as the great man’s amanuensis and expounded Dow’s theories in The A B C of stock speculation, New York, 1903. Arguably, every work on the stock market since Dow’s day has taken his theories into account.

The stock market appeals to the gambler in me. The first thing I do in the morning is switch on my computer and check stock prices. Unlike the price of rare books, they change every day. My earnings as a book dealer have always been either supplemented or often superseded by my earnings from the stock market.

I can see a time when the book trade will be reduced to a handful of big businesses in London. There are not enough books to go round, and the present hierarchy of dealers operating at different levels will ultimately disappear. The internet has made the business a level playing field. Anyone can become an expert at the press of a button. Its effect on the trade has been dramatic – the internet kills every book stone dead. The essence of collecting is the pursuit of the elusive, and then the ‘wow’ factor of finding it. From a collector’s point of view, if there are two or more copies on the internet, the urgency goes out of it. He can buy it today, tomorrow or next year – the book is available and therefore he doesn’t need to buy it now. The rare book business must be one of the worst trades to be in at the moment. The reason why many booksellers are still able to make a success of it is that they have very low overheads and spend nothing on themselves.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in December 2009






Chris Dennistoun

A Poland & Steery Co-production