Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Edith Finer

Edith Finer

People always assume I got into law books because my husband was a lawyer. Actually I studied economics, took a diploma in social sciences and trained as a juvenile probation officer. In those days you had to be twenty-six before you could do that job. As I was too young at the time, I decided to start a research agency. I was already married with children and it was just about possible to combine the work with running a home.
Of course it didn’t pay, but it got me involved with books and libraries. One thing led to another and people began to ask me to buy books for them. This was in the late ’fifties when many of the more recent university libraries were spending a lot of money on economics and the social sciences. They were still rather unfashionable subjects, and I could buy large quantities of books for four or five pounds. There were two or three established dealers in the field. I’m thinking particularly of Harding’s, and one or two others who didn’t have shops. By and large, the big boys were only interested in Adam Smith. I remember picking up first editions of Keynes, Jevons and Marshall for a couple of pounds.

At the time we were living in Hampstead and I was storing my books in the loft and cataloguing them on the dining table – in between taking the children to school, cooking meals and looking after my husband who was working a sixteen-hour day. The children were very good at lugging books around from an early age. It used to take half a day to clear the dining room before a dinner party. Every now and then my husband went up to the loft, which was absolutely stuffed with large folios and a billiard table. I think he was afraid the floor was going to collapse.

In those days, it was just about all right for a barrister’s wife to work. But it certainly wouldn’t have been allowed – in an unspoken sort of way – ten years earlier. If I had been a doctor, for example, it might have been different. But trade was another matter. When my husband became a judge, there was the usual investigation into every aspect of his background. Whenever I met his colleagues, they always knew about my business. It was considered a bit of a novelty.

The floor never collapsed but, after a few years, the time came to open a shop. My part-time secretary first suggested the idea, saying that she would be happy to run it. So we moved into a half shop in the Finchley Road, sharing with a greengrocer opposite Frognal. As my husband didn’t want me to trade under my own name, we called it The Frognal Book Shop. Then my secretary got fed up and I had to run everything. Fortunately, we lived nearby and I had some help in the home.

I filled the shop with general material, which was very cheap to buy in those days, and sent specialist catalogues to my institutional customers. It was very difficult to do much with the trade in those days. As a woman, you were more or less ostracised, unless you happened to be the daughter or wife of a bookseller. The trade wouldn’t buy my books and it was almost impossible to put them into auction unless you were in with the right people. Of course it was very different at Hodgson’s, where Fred Snelling was always very kind to me. I remember trying to sit down at an auction somewhere and a porter came up and said, ‘This is Mr so-and-so’s seat’. I’m sure I would have become discouraged if the trade had been my whole life, but I had my family and my institutional customers who were a pleasure to deal with.

Soon after moving into the shop, Sotheby’s had a big sale of history and law books by the tea chest. Nobody seemed very interested in the law books so I bought them in vast quantity, catalogued them and found there was a real gap in the market for specialist lists on the subject. Anyway I’ve always loved buying in bulk, and driving round London with the car so full I could only see out of the side mirrors. But the shop began to fill up and I had no storage space. So, after about two or three years, I moved into much larger premises in Lymington Road. It was just round the corner, and wasn’t very expensive because Camden Council were threatening to re-develop the area.

Over the years the shop filled up with books on art, literature, history, review copies and so on, besides my catalogue stock. I’ve always been interested in art books, particularly French art periodicals. They were very cheap in those days and few people realised they contained much of the best work of many well-known artists. I first started buying them during the ’sixties. It was fun to fly to Paris once a month for £10 return. I took the first plane out and went straight to my friend’s flat off the rue du Seine, where I left two empty suitcases. I then spent the morning buying books before returning to the flat for lunch. In the afternoon I bought books till it was time for an early dinner and then off to the airport with two very heavy suitcases. There was never any problem with the Customs. I just said ‘Don’t worry. They’re only books’. Nowadays we’re in the EU and I wouldn’t dream of buying a single book in Paris without masses of paperwork.

Once I had my own shop, dealers began to buy from me. Someone suggested I should try to join the ABA. So I consulted Bob Forster, an old friend from whom I bought bibliography. He agreed to second me, but suggested I find someone ‘bigger’ to propose me. I vaguely knew one of the Harris brothers at Francis Edwards and plucked up the courage to go along there. He was obviously taken aback by my inquiry and passed the buck to a senior colleague, who was so taken aback that he accepted my proposal. Afterwards I heard he had said, ‘Who was that woman?’ Anyway, I got in and did my first fair at the National Book League when it was still in Albemarle Street. The weather was exceptionally hot and I spent five horrific days in the basement opposite an old so-and-so who kept distracting anyone who showed the slightest interest in my stand.

I think I must have been one of the first dealers to sell books to the Japanese. I suppose I had exactly what they wanted – academic books on the social sciences. But I can’t remember how it all started- possibly a Japanese dealer came across one of my catalogues. Anyway, I took part in their first international book fair in 1974 and have been back two or three times.

In 1975, shortly after my husband died, I moved to Cecil Court. The shop had previously been occupied by two old ladies who ran a theatrical agency. They hadn’t touched it for forty years, and everything needed replacing – including the staircase. In those days the landlords were marvellous and it was soon fixed up the way I wanted it. As I didn’t have a store room, Hodgson’s picked up three van-loads of books from Lymington Road and took them off to their warehouse. They already had such a backlog, it was another four years before my books came up for sale.

I had some very good years in Cecil Court. In fact, there were times when you couldn’t help but sell books. And I was lucky to have a very nice assistant for many years, which meant I could work on my catalogues downstairs. Although I enjoyed Cecil Court enormously, in my last couple of years I became obsessed with the problem of stealing. It got to the point where I couldn’t keep any of my nicer books upstairs, nor could I buy anything in the shop. The chances were it was either rubbish or stolen.

About a year or so before I decided to close the shop, my assistant discovered he had very serious heart trouble at the age of forty-two. And I was developing problems with my shoulders, which made it difficult to do much of the heavy work. For one reason and another the time was coming to change my style of business, particularly as I have always felt you should be able to do everything yourself.

Although I have employed staff, I’ve always been in charge of the day-to-day running of my business. I think it partly comes from being self-taught. I don’t feel particularly confident about training others. Also, mine’s such a personal business, it’s difficult for anyone else to do things my way. For example, I’m always happiest doing my own cataloguing.

Anyway, now I’m on my own again. Recently I had two shoulder operations, and they’re all right – if I don’t lift anything heavy. And it’s very nice not to have the shop to worry about. At the moment, I’m putting together small collections on the subjects that have always interested me: prisons, hospitals, charities – in fact, anything to do with social welfare. When I was involved in juvenile probation work, I was fortunate to have met some very interesting people. It was during the War, and I worked in a very junior way with Eleanor Rathbone (Independent Member of Parliament for the Universities – a seat that no longer exists), under Eileen Younghusband (in the Probation Service) and several other women reformers who produced many of the ideas that Beveridge put into effect. They were the heirs of the Suffragettes, but there was never any big fuss about the female angle. Feminism didn’t come into it. They never made any distinction – just got on with what was right.

I must confess I’ve become a bit bored with law books. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many, and they’re becoming difficult to sell. Institutions aren’t buying – not even the great North American law libraries, unless it’s something exceptional. I still like English sixteenth-century law books, when I can find them and they’re not too expensive. I suppose it’s part of an inevitable change in my style of business. I’m certainly not buying tea chests anymore. My grandchildren have been a great help with my new computer, and I’m looking forward to doing smaller catalogues and sending them to around 50 of my best customers. I still enjoy writing lengthy descriptions, and can’t understand people who regard that type of cataloguing as a waste of paper. I often buy a book because the description sounds interesting, and I’m always pleased when people keep my catalogues for reference. There’s a difference between books as a way to make money, and books as books. It makes me sad when I hear of people going into the business as a business. I love my books and I want to sell them as books.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in December 1992

Edith Finer died on 21st October 2001





Edith Finer

A Poland & Steery Co-production