Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Eric Korn

Eric Korn

Eric Korn insists he’s really quite arrogant. And I take his word for it, though it’s not one that immediately springs to mind after an hour or so of running up against his quite disarming modesty.

‘I’m a failed academic – couldn’t cut the mustard as a research scientist. I started working on snail brains at Oxford, moved to Toronto, had a very productive year in Southampton and finally ground to a halt in Liverpool. Before leaving, I helped organise an open day, for which I used old zoological illustrations for all the public notices about lavatories, cloakrooms and so on. It took me a couple of days to dig the stuff out of libraries and, although I had spent my time at Oxford amongst the wonderful dark canyons of The Queen’s College library, this was probably the first time I had handled books as objects.

‘I was sharing a house at the time with a young graduate student called Murdoch Mactaggart. He was trying to make his way by selling the odd book or two. As my academic career began to come to pieces in my hands, I thought I might also have a go at buying and selling. I remember the first book I bought was a seventh or eighth edition of Johnson’s Dictionary. It cost £30, which seemed pretty amazing. Soon I discovered you could buy quite cheaply at auction. This was in the late ’sixties.

‘The first lot I bought cost me £4.10s and contained several hundred books. I must admit I thought I was bidding on some tiresome T. S. Eliot – probably the Elizabethan essays – but ended up with a volume of Canadian scenery. And such was my ignorance of the trade that I almost gave it as a Christmas present to my Canadian in-laws. But I was vaguely aware that the library had something called Book Auction Records, and thought I’d better check it first.

‘I came back white and trembling. Apparently the book had sold for the amazing sum of £100. As there were plenty of other books left in the lot, it seemed like a fairly easy living. One or two of these books a week would see me all right.’

In the early 1970s, Eric moved down to London with his wife and baby. They had very little money, the roof leaked and the books lived under a plastic sheet.

‘My wife had a job which kept the business going, while it wasn’t making any money. (It still isn’t making any money.) I began to do lists and sold a book from time to time. Darwinism and nineteenth century science soon began to emerge as my subject, and I took particular pleasure in selling to the Zoology professor who had fired me.

‘I never had any formal apprenticeship, but I was very lucky to have met Richard Freeman, the Darwin bibliographer, while I was still young and eager. Everyone needs some form of tutelage, although it needn’t be very formal.

‘I went to auctions about twice a week. It was all a bit intimidating, and I always had the feeling that there must be something wrong with a book if other dealers let me have it. It’s the Groucho Marx syndrome – any book that I can afford can’t be worth having. But then I found that you could buy defective seventeenth century books for about £2 and I bought plenty of those.’

Eric is a familiar figure at bookfairs all over the country and in North America. They are an essential part of his business and, most of the time, he enjoys them, ‘except when I’ve had a bad one and I’m stuck with some rapidly deteriorating currency or no money with which to buy stock for the next fair’. There was a time when he did thirty a year, and he only learnt to drive very recently. He used to transport his books by train, to the immense annoyance of British Rail. A woman with two children, a pushchair and shopping is bad enough, but a man with twenty crates.... Eric vividly remembers mucking up the Glasgow-to-London service when he tried to get his entire stand on to a train at Crewe. The time-keeping never recovered and he spent the rest of the journey changing glasses and rearranging his hair to dodge the ticket inspector.

‘I remember one of my first Boston fairs. It coincided with a rare book librarians’ conference, and this had been touted as a terrific advantage to all of us. I had a bad fair – probably because I had rotten stock – and was in a sore temper. I remember thinking that you could spot the librarians because their lips moved.’
 Eric is quite an expert on bookfair behaviour. On the eve of the June fair in 1987, he examined the different type of visitor in his column in the Times Literary Supplement. For the private collector, he recommends the following ‘foreplay’: ‘Make it clear that you are an insider. This is best done by examining a few books at random, looking at the prices and returning the volumes hastily to the shelves, while fixing the dealer with a conspiratorial nod.’

‘After joining the ABA, I wasn’t allowed to do a fair for about ten years. I don’t think they liked my T-shirts. Actually I tend to put on a suit for the first evening of most international fairs but I do rather object to this element of inconvenient grandness. Some of my best friends are members of the ABA (long pause) . . . and I enjoy being a member because it means I can do fairs in North America. But I stopped doing the London fair two or three years ago. It’s all becoming rather expensive and I disapprove of the poshness. There’s a tendency to behave as though Utopia’s already come, and I dislike the level of hypocrisy when we all know about the practices that continue to disfigure the trade. Of course I can’t speak from experience – no one has ever thought it worthwhile to invite me into a ring!

‘My favourite type of customer is usually a scientist or research worker who is interested in the contents of the book, but is also moved by the magic of having a first edition. He’s probably got the text in Picador, and kids himself that there are any number of good reasons for having the first edition as well.

‘I’m quite good at offering books and some day I’ll get round to having a fax when I can work out where to put it. I enjoy talking about my books, but I’ve trained myself to hold my tongue a bit. The one really telling category in Driff’s list of impossible bookdealers is “follows around recommending the stock”. In the end the book must speak for itself.

‘We need to remember that the customer is always right – even when he’s wrong, which is 90% of the time. Of course you shouldn’t encourage him to rip out title-pages and frame them on the wall. But if he chooses to collect fourth editions in poor condition, that’s his privilege. After all, he can’t buy everything unless he’s terrifically rich in which case he’s not one of my customers. I’m against all this condition fetishism so that a book can’t actually be touched. The Japanese have a word for the patina an object acquires from being handled – it might be ika, or perhaps that’s horseradish sauce.’

Eric keeps most of his books in a house in North London. The office is simply furnished with a cardboard box, and a very busy-looking desk overlooking a garden full of dogs.

‘I’ve occasionally had assistants, but they’ve never been more than people to talk to. They all seem to undertake hugely elaborate office systems which never get finished. Then they leave and I’m stuck with this large box, full of wants lists and other vital information that I don’t immediately throw away or lose. Nowadays I normally have a vague recollection that someone in the box wants the book I happen to have in my hand. Then I spend about two hours digging in the box, by which time I’ve lost the book and/or my glasses which I seem to mislay at the distressing rate of one or two pairs a day.

‘I’m reluctant to see computers in a prominent position in a bookshop. It’s rather like turkeys cultivating cranberries. Plainly people are going to be reading books less and less. No doubt the novel will soon come on disc or with an accom- panying video. It’s difficult to predict what will emerge as the collectable artefact. There are no manuscripts anymore. Everyone writes on computers nowadays – I wouldn’t be without my word processor.

Throughout the 1980s, Eric wrote a regular column for the Times Literary Supplement. It was highly-acclaimed by readers and critics alike. But then the editor changed and the column was ‘murdered, assassinated, axed, executed, chopped’. In 1989, Carcanet published the collection of columns in Remainders from the Times Literary Supplement. 1980-1989.

‘The new editor wanted to remake the magazine in his own image. I got swept out with the new broom, although I still do reviews for them. While I was writing the column, I received lots of letters – half of them were nice and half were demented. There was a man who had been advised by his analyst to find a stress-free job. So he gave up his academic post and became a dustman, which he didn’t much enjoy. He thought it might be nicer to be a bookseller and wrote to me with a list of questions, “Is it possible to avoid stress as a bookseller? What do books cost and how much should I sell them for?”

‘Writing is both a pleasure and an agony for me. There are days or even months when I can’t do it. Even Trollope used to say things like “Only 8,500 words and it’s half past two. What will become of me?”’

Eric described his creative method in a piece for the TLS, which is also a vintage example of his unmistakable style: ‘I write, when I do, groaning and sweating with infacility, like a bantam trying to lay an ostrich egg, or more forcefully, a kiwi trying to lay an Aepyornis egg, clucking and cursing while the unhatched, uncounted chick is already fossilized in my (strictly literary) oviducts’.

Eric tends to resist anything short of a direct insult. When I tentatively suggested that his writing might possibly display an unusual degree of free association, he conceded, ‘Well, all right, but that’s the one advantage of having an undisciplined mind. I suppose I have a wide range of interests and soak up all kinds of unrelated stuff, and that gives me an ability to extrapolate and connect ideas that might seem unconnected. If you’re heavily structured,’ (pauses and looks at cardboard box) ‘it’s harder to find profitable cross-fertilisation’.

Perhaps this accounts for Eric’s performances in the Round Britain Quiz on Radio 4, on which he regularly crosses a bantam with an ostrich to hatch the right answer to almost any question.

‘I was introduced to the quiz by a literary friend of some eminence. The BBC originally wanted him to do the quiz, to which he replied, “God, no! But I do know someone who seems to have spent his entire life preparing for just such a quiz, in the absence of any more valuable product”. So I went along to the audition. It’s basically a question of being able to think on your feet.

‘I really don’t know all that much, but I know I’ve got a reputation in the trade for finding fault with other people’s books. There are some dealers who won’t let me in because I can work through a case and find the defects they’ve missed. But it doesn’t require great intelligence – just the ability to turn over one page after another and to notice that on the whole books don’t end in the middle of a sentence. However, I was at Farringdon Road when George Jeffery described a copy of A Sentimental Journey as defective because it ended “I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s.”

‘Bookselling is a slow craft to learn, and once you begin to master it, then Alzheimer’s takes over. I’m full of admiration for all these smart young booksellers, but I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes. They’re hideously dependent on bankers, and changing fashions. Many of them don’t have their own style. My style? (pauses and looks at cardboard box) ‘Ineffectual, probably. I suppose people might say about me, “Whatever happened to him?” or perhaps “Nice chap. Shame about the books.”

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in September 1992





Eric Korn

A Poland & Steery Co-production