Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Fem Poel

[Perrier in the Bird Bath]

I’m just like any other misfit in the book trade. At some point you become unemployable and end up going into your hobby. I came to this country from Holland in the late '60s. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that my parents threw me out. I have always been a bit of a rebel and was expelled from school at seventeen. Before I left Holland, I worked in several new bookshops and learnt quite a lot about modern literature. It was a great time to be in the field with, for example, all the late works of Sartre and Camus coming out.

London really was swinging when I arrived, and so was I - almost by the neck sometimes. After a succession of jobs in advertising and this and that, I was made redundant. While I was looking for something else, I worked for a friend who had a little bookshop in Putney. After a year -and still no job in advertising - I tore up my CV and said, ‘To hell with it. I’m going to sell books’.

So I did my first catalogue which went all right - considering the pathetic stuff in it. At about this time, I met an enthusiastic book collector who dragged me round all the book fairs, and very soon I was sharing my first stand. Then came the idiotic suggestion that we should move to Grays Antique Market, where we lasted a few months. It was terribly boring, with nothing to do except sail paper boats in the river in the basement.

Antique markets can be quite deadly. I would say only two in ten visitors come to look at books and, for some reason, they come at four in the afternoon when you are desperate to get out. Years ago, I shared a stall in Antiquarius with Carol Manheim and Jim Thorp. None of us could bear to sit there for more than one day each, so we had to take on extra help. But the other stall holders were very nice - often so bored out of their minds that they found almost anything interesting. If you went to buy a bag of sweets, they wanted to know exactly where you had been and what you had bought and what you were eating!

I first got to know Jim Thorp when I was still in advertising and did a bit of 'running' on the side. I used to go to George Jeffreys and pick up something in the barrows, rub out the price and take it along to Jim’s old shop on Holborn Viaduct. I also did some dealing when I spent a year in Scotland. In the 1960s, books were much cheaper in Edinburgh, so I used to come down and sell things in Cecil Court. At the time, I had a boyfriend in Edinburgh, which reminds me - he offered to give me £5,000 to start my own book business. It was a decent sum in those days, but what did I say? ‘Forget it. There’s no money in anti-quarian books.’

As things turned out, I have dealt in all kinds of books at one time or another. Someone once called me the ‘Queen of Vellum’, and I suppose I am usually associated with it. Actually it all began with Joanna Booth, when I saw a shelf of vellum bindings in her shop in the King’s Road. She deals in antique tapestries and fabulous wood carvings and always has wonderful window displays. When I saw the vellum, it really knocked me out and I said, ‘That’s it. I’ve got to have them’.

Then I began to notice that there was a lot of vellum around for very little money. Nowadays if you really work hard, you can still find good antiquarian books cheaply - but it’s getting more difficult. Of course I prefer my vellum on an important book. But I’m happy to buy a row of theology if it is nicely bound in vellum — some of my customers buy it purely as furniture.

When I started to deal in antiquarian books, everyone advised me to visit Maggs. But I was terrified to go into that grand house in Berkeley Square. In fact they could not have been nicer. A lot of people were very helpful to me in the early days. I was so shocked to read in the PBFA Newsletter recently that Edward Sanderson had died. He was one of my first allies when I started doing fairs. Leo and Philippa Bernard of Chelsea Rare Books have also been very good to me right from the start.
Nowadays I do most of my business at the Hotel Russell and in Portobello Road.

Actually things have gone rather quiet there recently. People come in and just pick up a book for the sake of picking it up. You also get some idiotic questions, particularly from tourists. The other day, a woman asked me, ‘How much are all these books?’ People also take out the last volume in a set and ask the price. When I point to the first volume, they say, ‘You don’t sell them separately?’ Someone should write a book about the amusing remarks made by the general public.

Of course you also get some very nice regulars at Portobello - dealers and collectors. Without them, I might as well go and sit on the beach. As I specialise in Continental books, I am very dependent on foreign buyers. This is particularly so at the Russell, where most of my stand is taken up with Continental antiquarian books. During my first years at the Russell book fairs, I shared Stand 20 with Camille Wolff of Grey House Books. Each time was a riot. Granny Cam (as she likes to be called) and I had such fun doing the fairs together. I often told her we were like Laurel & Hardy. She is such a fabulous person - there is no one like her in the world.

Over the years you learn almost exactly what to bring to a fair. The Greeks are buying a lot at the moment, so anything Greek tends to go well. Dante always sells and so does Rousseau. In fact there are a number of books which I can sell again and again. But there is so much competition these days, and I am often forced to buy more widely. The other day I bought some James Bond first editions, just because they were cheap.

As I do not have a car, I go on buying trips with a friend and we share the gas. I love going down to the South Coast - Howes is a marvellous bookshop. In London, I get about on my bike. Of course it’s a nightmare going to fairs without a car. I rely on taxis but, over the years, I have done my back in staggering around with all those heavy suitcases. An osteopath once told me not to lift things - I told him to tell me another joke.

One thing I will not do and that is pack and mail books. For one reason, I refuse to fill up half my house with Jiffy bags and bubble wrap. The June fair at the Russell was very convenient with Ken Golbourn upstairs doing all the packing. Normally, if anyone wants to buy a book, I ask them to collect it from me at the Russell. I would rather wait a month than mess around in the post office, which is not so good these days.

Where I live in SW6, the second post often comes at three in the afternoon. I’m on the 'phone almost every day doing my nut about this pathetic service. Sometimes I miss books just because the catalogue arrives a day later than anywhere else. Actually I buy quite a lot from catalogues, although they often turn out to be terrible mistakes - in Portuguese, or something else unexpected and unsaleable.

Somebody brought me some books from Eastern Europe recently, but it was all a bit tough-going. I can’t read any of the languages and I’m not sure there is much of a market for them here. It’s so easy to make mistakes with books that look much older than they are. For example, you can find late nineteenth century Polish books bound in a very antique style, just because clasps and so on were fashionable at that time. I have already made my share of mistakes with these books.

In general, I like to have a small stock and a quick turnover. As long as I can fill my two units at the Russell and six at Portobello, that’s enough books. I’m not particularly motivated by the idea of making money. It’s much more important for me to be out and about and completely free. Before a Russell fair, I might work really hard and rush all over the place spending lots of money and hoping to get it back within a couple of days. Sometimes I get a nasty letter from the bank - female managers in particular are not prepared to wait two days. In my experience, women in banks are the worst. I used to deal with a terrible cow, but fortunately there’s a new guy at my branch.

Years ago, I had a wonderful flash manager who came to work on a motor bike and wore lots of gold chains. I went to see him once about an overdraft and happened to have with me two bags of vellum books. When he asked me to explain my business, I just tipped the books onto his desk. He was absolutely fascinated and came to visit me at a fair. Although he did not understand books, he was willing to learn about the way the trade worked. You find a bank manager like that once in a blue moon.

Of course my business could do better, but I keep so much for myself. When I come across something really nice, it goes straight upstairs into my own collection. I don’t mind buying a defective book, if it is something very rare - a few missing maps here and there, and you can buy something wonderful for £100 instead of £28,000. A book is a book to me, and I’m very happy with them as they are.

I get a real high from my books. Although I have never had cocaine, I should think it is a similar sensation. When I buy something at Bloomsbury Book Auctions, for example, I cannot wait to get home and perhaps spend some time cleaning it up. Stephenson's Old English Furniture Cream is incredible stuff for vellum. You can buy it in a small hardware store in Jubilee Place and it really brings all the texture back. It gives me a real lift to handle nice books. I sometimes think that a lot of book dealers would be just as happy selling cat food - books are just a commodity to some of them.

Actually I would be quite happy running a pet shop. Perhaps I will when I retire, which is something I often think about. I love animals and share my home with two wonderful cats, Baedeker and Perrier. They are my kids - Burmese kids. I suppose I will get married eventually, if I get round to it. I might even leave the country - some-how one is always a foreigner in England. I’m probably known as ‘that mad Dutch woman with her vellum’.

I would not go back to Holland - you have to move forward, and I fancy somewhere bright and brilliant. You can live in Indonesia on £65 a month, but I would prefer the Dutch West Indies - the insects are not so bad and the climate is drier. Perhaps I will open a pet shop in Surinam. But every business has its ups and downs. You might come in one morning and find half your stock dead.

Meanwhile I do what I like. Some days I work and some days I don’t. Recently I was going to Brighton on a buying trip with a friend and we got stuck in the most terrible Wimbledon traffic. It was a hot day so we just forgot the whole plan, and, on the way back I bought a bird bath. I love the freedom to be able to do things like that. Oh God. There’s a blackbird. Perrier! Don’t even think about it.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in August 1994

A Poland & Steery Co-production