Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Christopher Sokol

[STC Commerce]

When I went up to Cambridge, I found that I could help pay my college bills by buying books at David's and selling them to Deighton Bell. Some commercially-minded friends were quite impressed by this and encouraged me to do it more seriously. They offered to provide the capital and a partnership was formed between a company that they owned and myself. It was called DCS Books, initials that had nothing to do with my own name.

I came down from Cambridge in 1974, and the bookselling partnership worked well for a time. And then my friends fell out amongst themselves in relation to their main business, causing me great problems. I went along to my bank and was able to borrow the money to buy out their share and take the business into my own hands. Nothing has changed much since.

Quite early on I bought a mailing list for the princely sum of £450, which was a great deal in those days. It must have been based on a very grand list and, as such, was of very little practical use - I hardly had the quality of stock to offer to Honeyman, Horblit, Houghton, Mellon and the odd duke or two. Although the list probably did me some good in the long-run, there was a frustrating period dealing with requests from people who wanted to add another Caxton to their collection.

I treasure some advice I was given by H.P.Kraus, when I turned up on his doorstep with my badly duplicated list of books and all the assurance of youth. The door was opened by an assistant who looked surprised but nevertheless took my list. After a while Kraus appeared and we sat down together at a long table. He read every item on the list slowly and meticulously. Finally he said, 'You have nice books, but there is nothing here for me. I am very pleased to see there is nothing incomplete. Never buy a defective book unless it is a Gutenberg or a Caxton.'

The eighties were a time of gross inflation, and often books that had been priced a couple of years earlier looked cheap compared to an inferior copy being sold at auction. Edward Heath once remarked that he planned to spend his old age buying books from dealers who did not mark up their prices, and selling them to dealers who did. To an extent that is exactly what I did. There was great scope for buying from stock and in those days people had stocks to buy from. For example, I would go to California and just by visiting three dealers - Zeitlin, Levinson and Warren Howell - one would see a vast array of early books on all subjects and at all prices.

I set out to concentrate on early books for two reasons: there is no conflict with my own collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century books - mostly English, French and Classical literature in good editions and contemporary bindings - which I began as a schoolboy; secondly, I find the first century and a half of typography the most interesting. So my bookselling is a bit of a self-indulgence.

The bulk of the stock is fine and rare early Continental material up to 1600, but we also deal in STC books - English books printed up to 1640. Incunables have survived remarkably, but there is still a very limited supply which is not reflected in their price. I believe that they do not attract the interest that they deserve. Often this is because they are dismissed as theology - and this is not an age that is interested in theology. But many people do not realise that theology in the fifteenth century encompassed everything from law to philosophy - to medicine. Because it it hard to pin down into modern categories, it makes it difficult for booksellers and for librarians - what do they sell it as and what do they buy it as? The result is that many very beautiful and interesting early books fall between two stools.

The Gutenberg Bible was the first serious book that I had the opportunity to buy. Many years ago in New York, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. An institution had decided in principle to sell its Gutenberg, and I was given the opportunity to buy it, if I could raise what now seems like a tiny amount of money within a given period. I was unable to do so and the opportunity will never come again. I would love to own a really nice copy of a book printed by Caxton - I never have and, again, this has also become an elusive dream.

If I had my time again, I would like to have done an apprenticeship with a good firm - made my mistakes while I was being paid for it … The ABA diploma in antiquarian bookselling was an extremely good idea, and I was sad that it did not ultimately flourish. While you cannot teach either the buying or the selling side of the business, you can certainly teach everything in between - the ability to collate, describe and investigate volumes, a knowledge of the principles of bibliography and the standard reference literature. Nowadays one can assume that any young person entering the trade will be familiar with computers.

I am not in the slightest computer-literate, although the business is computerised. I tell myself that the time it would take me to achieve a basic knowledge of computers is totally disproportionate to the reward. Actually the real reason is that I just don't like them. Of course they are very useful in the right context - for a company like Waterstone's, for example, with a huge stock. But my business is entirely the opposite end of the spectrum. We deal in a relatively small number of relatively high-value books. However we have had sales from the Internet - certainly enough to justify adopting that approach.

The Internet is particularly useful for selling books to people who might not actually have been looking for them in the first place, and would not consider themselves book collectors. They may be simply using the net to research a professional matter or a hobby and, in the process, discover that interest in their subject dates back to 1500 or 500. They may then become intrigued by the early literature available on the subject. Ironically the computer may help to spread a greater appreciation of books.

We exhibit at a few book fairs each year, rotating them so that we do not repeat the same fair more than once every few years. I have most doubts about the London fair - I am not convinced that Olympia is the right place or that enlarging the fair is the right approach. The market has changed a lot in recent years. When I was first seriously active in the early 1980s, the big market was institutional and private collectors were the poor relations. In recent years individuals have become much richer and institutions, by and large, have become poorer.

This has brought about a major change in the type of books that are most eagerly sought after. I find that today I am more likely to sell a single book for $10,000 to a private customer, than twenty books at $500 a time to an institution. The new types of private collectors tend to be very busy people who have to fit book buying into a high-powered professional life. They also tend to be - in the manner of the very rich - somewhat lazy people who expect things to come to them. They might consider going to a small, high-quality international fair which is conveniently located and will not take long to go round - in the style of Milan, for example. But there is room for both types of fair - something aimed at well-established collectors in a central location, while Olympia could focus on becoming a big antiquarian/serious secondhand fair with easily accessible books in terms of price and interest.

The nice thing about bookselling is that it is Christmas every day - there is always something exciting in the post. I used to enjoy especially receiving catalogues from Schäfer, Alan Thomas and Deighton Bell. Their descriptions contained a lot of serious learning lightly worn. Today one enjoys most the 'surprise' catalogue, perhaps from a provincial European dealer who has just bought a local library with some good early books - a new supply of the unusual and the worthwhile. We issue at least one Early Book catalogue a year, for which my assistant, Leo Cadogan, does more than half the work of collation and description.

There was a line in the Book Collector some time ago, reviewing one of my catalogues with words to the effect, 'Sokol showed his usual selection of out of the way books'. I was rather offended at the time, till my then assistant pointed out that it was better than saying, 'Sokol showed his usual selection of rather ordinary books'. A recent acquisition might illustrate the Book Collector's point. I bought a very lovely copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle in a strictly contemporary quarter calf binding. Sixteenth century pigskin is usually the earliest binding found on this work, because it a very heavy book and the calf bindings almost without exception fell apart. This copy is bound in fifteenth century calf; it is something to appreciate both as an artifact and as a text. I like my books to be appreciated for both these aspects.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in December 1999

A Poland & Steery Co-production