Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Janette Ray

[Soul Trader]

Janette Ray

I came into bookselling through a route taken by many specialist dealers, approaching from knowledge of my subject rather than experience of the trade. In my youth I wanted to be an urban designer, and studied town planning at university. I was doing academic research when I met Peter Inch. We were both very interested in books and wanted to find something to do in common. In the early 1980s we set up Inch's Books and traded from offices in York. It was essentially a catalogue business, specialising in architecture and town planning. Each of us brought specialist knowledge to the development of the business.

When our partnership came to an end, we went our separate ways. I started my own business from home in 1995. The local booktrade in York was very supportive, and I had a lot of encouragement from other dealers in the field of architectural books. Although there are very few women in the book trade in this country, some of the best are dealing in fields related to mine - Julia Elton, Nancy Glaister and the late Sue Biltcliffe who was a great influence and support.

Starting again has been a fantastic opportunity. If you already have some experience and customers, it allows you to develop without all the vestiges of the past. At the outset I was most concerned about how I was going to find the right books. In this I have had great help, particularly from Richard Axe. When my spirits were flagging, he always told me to buy more books and it was very good advice. You need to make a lot of time for the acquisition of books. Good material sells itself; the real issue is being able to find it.

Loving books has to be tempered with the need to earn a living. When I started my business, I went on various courses to learn about marketing and financial planning. One or two people laughed at me, but I wanted to organise things on a businesslike footing. I couldn't afford not to make a success of it. York's reputation as a book centre is on your side when you set up. And for a specialist in architecture, there are certainly advantages to being in an historic town, with a high-profile centre for architectural studies at the university. I'm on the committee of the York National Book Fair which will be held this year on September 23-24. I do a lot of the promotion, and Peter Miller and Tony Fothergill put in a lot of effort chivvying exhibitors to bring quality stock. It's become the best regional rare and out-of-print book fair in the country and the largest in Europe.

Over the last five years I have gradually built up a stock to the extent that I'm opening a shop in York in the autumn. The business has expanded too much for me to continue with it at home. May be I'm bucking the trend, but I was never keen on an indivisible work and home life, especially as I have two children. In any case, I like the idea of a shop. Perhaps this has something to do with my family background in the rag trade. From a very young age, I have worked in shops on Saturdays and in school holidays and I loved it.

Although the shop represents expansion, it's not a substitute for my core activity as a catalogue bookseller. In the field of architectural bookselling, the catalogues put together in the early days by the Weinreb team were fabulously researched and I learnt a lot from them. I always look forward to receiving catalogues from Charles B.Wood III, who always has a marvellous mix of traditional and idiosyncratic texts, and yet you can see a linking thread running through them. A good catalogue is rather like a coat hanger, on which you can hang interesting material.

I like the personal service of catalogue business. If someone orders an item that has gone, you have the opportunity to suggest something else that covers similar material. The ability to do this becomes more important as the 'standard' rare books become increasingly difficult to find. It's a great skill, combining persuasion and knowledge. I like to think of it as adding to a customer's collection in a creative way. Most booksellers would agree that they like their books to go to a good home. Many of us are classed by the Inland Revenue as 'Sole Traders' and I believe we require soul mates - in the sense that our customers can become friends.

The development of a relationship with Internet customers is the exception rather than the rule. In my experience customers tend to be one-off, and interested in low-priced items. There are lots of costs involved in selling on the Internet; it's labour-intensive and, for a small business to make it pay, it needs to be very well orchestrated. Although computers are essential in terms of catalogue production and administration, the Internet can simply replace one kind of drudgery with another. And it certainly fails when it comes to nurturing collectors.

My subject area is very international and I need to stock books with a wide cultural reference. Design is very much tempered by fashion and I need to keep an eye on current trends. At the moment there's a lot of interest in the 1970s and the early work of Terence Conran and his contemporaries. These are areas of book collecting that may not fall within the traditional interests of the antiquarian book trade, but the material is being keenly collected.

British institutional buyers are also important to my business. In terms of academic courses, the field of design is a real growth area, particularly in the new universities. If you have unusual material, they have money to spend. As we move into the 21st century, Britain is catching up with Europe in becoming more design-conscious. I'm not saying that the British are not interested in modern design, just that they don't demonstrate it in a very public way. Compared to European and American cities, there is very little major investment in public design works. Tate Modern is making a step in the right direction.

The books I like most are associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, whose members were highly innovative individuals who bucked the trend. They were polymaths, architects, designers, crafts people, philosophers and, above all, individualists. I would like to be like that.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in July 2000

Janette Ray

A Poland & Steery Co-production