Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

David Brass

David Brass

‘The book trade is full of bright people, who are very well educated but don’t actually make any money.’ We stopped to ponder this teasing paradox while David’s magnificent gold watch glinted 22-caratly in the morning sun.

‘I started working for my grandfather at the age of eleven, and hated it. It was just a way to earn pocket money. When I was twenty-one, I came into the business full-time and still hated it. The turning point came two years later when I went with some friends to Paris for a weekend. I saw a book I recognised and came back to London and sold it. At that point, I remember thinking, "Well, this is a good game", and it’s been great fun ever since.’

David learnt the business from his grandfather and uncle, Jack and Sam Joseph, who traded briskly as E. Joseph of Charing Cross Road in premises now occupied by Quinto Bookshop. After a while, he moved to Bernard Quaritch to learn the art of cataloguing. E. Joseph had not issued a catalogue since 1936, but nevertheless managed to thrive with no mailing list and few records. But they knew their books and turned them over with tenacious sales ability. In his chapter ‘Bookmen I’ve Liked’, Fred Snelling mentions the Josephs and their assistant, Harry Green who ‘could sell you almost anything, if he put his mind to it.’ (Rare Books and Rarer People, 1982.)

‘Harry did all the country auctions and took me along as his assistant. Then he died quite suddenly in 1968 and I took over and found myself doing at least one country auction a day between 1970 and 1975. I suppose I was fortunate to be exposed to so many books and there were far more around in those days.
‘It was my idea to start doing catalogues again at Joseph’s. When I came back from Quaritch, I suggested the idea and my grandfather said, "Fine. Who are you going to send them to?" It took me until 1977 to build a mailing list, starting from scratch. Today we have 3000 people — not one of them inherited.’

In 1982, David took a tremendous gamble and moved the shop to an upstairs office in Vere Street. Rare books were selling rather better than the secondhand stock and it was clearly time to move away from Charing Cross Road. ‘I wanted to get out of a shop environment and try to recreate a gentleman’s library. It was a major step to give up our walk-in trade. People said "He’s crazy. I give him six months", but I never looked back.

‘Today I am in partnership with a group of American businessmen and the firm has great potential to grow. There is also a fair amount of stock held jointly with Heritage Bookshop and Jim Cum-mins, but we are partners in those books alone. I also had an association with Richard Sawyer till last year. Although the chemistry was fine, we really did not complement each other.’

‘The secret to success in this business is a great memory for books you have seen before, and flair to recognise books you haven’t seen before. I find I can remember books, but forget almost everything else. Am I a good boss? Well, no one seems to leave. Peter Kay has been with the firm since 1958, Clive Moss since ‘77, and Pam Douglas since ‘82. And my secretary Vivien’s been here for over three years.’

Vivien is well suited to working for one of the very few Chief Executives in the book business. ‘During the recession, we have actually taken on more staff and bought more stock, but it is hard to maintain turn-over. Many collectors are not in a position to buy at the moment, but they’ll be back when the economy turns, and I guess that might happen in the early part of 1992. But whenever it happens, people with the stock will do very well.’

‘I don’t have books on my shelves by accident. They’re all carefully chosen so I’m never in the position of saying, "Great! Got rid of that." We specialise in modern illustrated, English and American literature, finely bound sets and children’s books. Private Press books have held up remarkably well, possibly because they have been severely under-priced for a long time. That’s one area about to take a big jump up.’

‘Although I no longer catalogue the books, I like to discuss descriptions with my staff. Catalogues can be very boring, full of technical terms which put off the non book collector.’

David feels very strongly that books have been the Cinderella of the collecting world for too long, and that his firm is probably uniquely placed to raise their profile on behalf of the trade in general. Recently he issued a new-style catalogue entitled First Edition. Great Volumes of Great Works, which blazes a colourful trail through the somewhat foxed (other-wise fine) world of bibliography. One hundred books are simply described, lavishly illustrated, and priced from £30 to £78,000 in the best marketing tradition of something for everyone.’

Louise Ross exactly caught the spirit of this catalogue when she described it as ‘Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat’ in the ABA Newsletter. And perhaps there is something of the impresario about 
David, always dressed to step into the limelight. Nowadays David occupies centre-stage on the international scene as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. ‘Actually I’m looking forward to my past president’s badge. One of the main reasons for doing ABA committee work is to put back something into the trade which has given me such a fascinating occupation. But it can be a thankless task at times.’

‘I have brought the running of the London book fair well into the twentieth century. It’s an opportunity for all of the book trade to exhibit or attend, and that’s the right balance. As for the Park Lane critics, there’s no other place in central London available for the price.

‘Of course I regret things I haven’t done, mainly because I’m much busier now with my own firm. For example, I want to prepare a code of ethics within the book trade, and do more work on harmonisation between the ABA and the PBFA. Really the President is a figure-head who tries to get the whole trade to run smoothly and amicably.’
As regards the future of E. Joseph as one of the few remaining family firms, David has three children, two of whom are still too young to decide.’

‘My son is eighteen and not coming into the business. He wants to read economics and then become a financial consultant. My nine-year old daughter is an avid reader, but who knows … The book trade takes a certain type and my son will do better in finance. Originally I was going to be an accountant. I am a streetwise businessman, or so everyone keeps telling me, and now I’m agreeing with them.’

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in December 1991

David Brass

A Poland & Steery Co-production