Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Hamish Riley-Smith

Hamish Riley-Smith

My family had a brewing business. When it was merged with another company, I decided to get out of brewing. I had always spent a lot of time in bookshops and thought perhaps that I would become a bookseller. I started in 1974 at the age of thirty-three as a runner – in the most literal sense: I bought or borrowed books from one bookseller and then went down the road to another dealer. A runner in the French book trade is known as a ‘courtier’. In the French dictionary, this is defined in English as a ‘broker’ or ‘travelling (book) salesman’. But if you look up the English word ‘courtier’ in the French dictionary, it’s translated into French as ‘courtesan’.

Bookselling isn’t easy and it gets harder. When you know nothing, it’s easier because you buy things with no knowledge of rarity, condition, and all the other factors that might trip you up later. Quite soon I decided that there was more chance of earning a living by specialising in a certain type of book. I eventually drifted towards ‘thinking’ rather than ‘pretty’ books.

I don’t exclusively deal in PMM books – although people often assume this. In fact I started specialising in early Arabic books and manuscripts. This came about rather by accident when an institutional library in Saudi Arabia ordered a third of one of my early catalogues. I went to visit them and in due course was invited by the University of Riyadh to put on the first exhibition of Arabic books and manuscripts ever held in Saudi Arabia.

It was a nightmare. I spent three weeks in Arabia and no one bought anything. I had shown the collection privately to a member of the Saudi royal family. After the exhibition closed, a professor from the University of Riyadh began negotiating with me – on street corners. After the third week, I threw up my arms in despair and said that I had received an inquiry about the collection from America and would be leaving the next day. That was a bit of make-believe but I felt the time had come to bail out. An hour before I left, a truck turned up at my hotel to collect all the exhibits. I scribbled an invoice on the back of an envelope and was paid three days later. I continue to deal in Islamic science and medicine. In 1979, the Japanese entered the market and it was the start of an amazing decade for the book business.

There are many ways of making a living out of rare books. You can be an expert on a subject, an author, or an ‘ism’. I chose to go for brand names – Newton, Adam Smith, Darwin, Marx and the culs-de-sac of knowledge behind these figures – the first critic of Adam Smith, the person who made Marx change the text of Das Kapital and so on. This PMM approach was very successful in the 1980s. Percy Muir was a neighbour of mine in Norfolk and one of the instigators of the Printing and the Mind of Man exhibition. I got to know him quite well in his declining years, and he told me how he used to sell books to Ian Fleming on the theme of first ideas – the first book on economic thought or, for example, an account of the first manned flight.

I visited Japan in 1979 and 1982 and have done a lot of business there, although the market is very subdued now. The Japanese interest in books on economics and social sciences can be explained in terms of education. In Britain educated people traditionally read Latin and Greek at University. In Japan, you read economics and social sciences if you are going to be anyone of any importance. A section of Adam Smith’s library went to Japan in 1922, after the books were spotted by a professor from Tokyo University on the pavement outside a bookshop in Charing Cross Road.

The Japanese have a great respect for knowledge, particularly in its first transmitted form. They like first editions, but they also value first translations because they demonstrate the movement of ideas. I sold Roy Harrod’s papers to the Japanese – it was a major economics archive and the material should have stayed in this country but the British weren’t interested. There is a parallel to recent Japanese collecting activity in the behaviour of the English in Italy during the eighteenth century, and the Americans in Europe a century later.

Although the Japanese economy appears to be on the way up again, this need not apply to the trade in rare books. For one reason, they are very worried about their demography – the Japanese nation is getting older. This means that private universities have to compete to attract students, perhaps choosing to spend their budgets on better sports facilities or computers, rather than rare books.

The other problem is that Japanese universities tend to act together – if one stops buying, they all stop. In any case, only forty out of, say, 800 universities were actively buying rare books during the good years. I have sold less than a handful of books to private Japanese customers. Their way of doing business is to employ an agent. It’s the same in all walks of life, and has the advantage of providing full employment.

You have to move with the times. In this business the most difficult thing is to move with the change in prices. If you bought a copy of Copernicus in 1980 for £15,000, the same copy would now cost £250,000. It takes a certain mental adjustment. The prices of Newton’s Principia and Darwin’s Origin of Species have also moved dramatically. These books are invariably described as rare, but I could put four copies of Newton on this table within a fortnight. A good guide to rarity is to consult an elderly dealer on a book in his specialist field. If he hasn’t seen a copy for thirty-five years, the book is rare.

The difficult part is to sell these books at a profit. How do you create added value? Let’s say you walk into Sotheby’s or Christie’s and buy Palladio’s great work on architecture, Venice, 1570, for £10,000. The hammer falls and it’s yours. How do you increase the price – it’s still the same book? The only difference is that you have it for sale, and no one else does. On the other hand, if you happen to know that a rather obscure book is in fact the first criticism of Marx’s Das Kapital, then you might be able to buy it for £80 and sell it for £800. In this case your specialist knowledge creates the added value.

By and large, I don’t think intellectual ability is important for bookselling. It’s more of an innate craft in trading. The greatest booksellers are often nearly illiterate. It takes neither intellectual effort nor very much time to buy a book for £10,000. Then what? You might write a catalogue description, but most are cribbed from fairly standard reference works, and that’s the end of the day’s work. Booksellers who are much more active than me will disagree with this.

But I’m simply making the point that the book business hardly compares in intellectual effort to many other occupations. Every book on your shelves is a book you can’t sell. In this business you become your own best customer. Your books will sell for less than you paid for them at your executor’s sale, because you were the only customer for them.

I’m still not much good at finding things by scanning the shelves in a bookshop, which I put down to lack of proper training. The ‘Eng.Lit.’ boys are brilliant at getting down on their hands and knees and spotting things on the bottom shelf – Look! There’s the third book printed in Perth with the comma in the right place.... By comparison, I’m a simpleton; I go for brand names. Every bookseller plies his craft in a different way.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in January 2000


Hamish Riley-Smith

A Poland & Steery Co-production