Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Jim Thorp

[Photo Finish]

Jim Thorp

The firm was founded by my grandfather, Thomas Thorp, in 1883. It would have been interesting to have known what bookselling was like in his day. Unfortunately he died before I was born. Even my father didn’t work with him for all that long. In a family business, the first generation is always the most motivated because they are the ones who chose to go into it. The second generation benefits from their experience and the third generation either builds on the accumulated knowledge or reacts against it. I come into the last category, but only to the extent that I have changed the business.

I started off in the mid 60s and went straight into my father’s shop which was in Albemarle Street. It wasn’t so much that bookselling was my true vocation - more a case of not knowing what else to do. I had originally planned to do something in the field of natural history, but this ceased to be a viable option when I messed up my A-levels. My brother, who is three years older, had also fallen into the family firm. He lasted six months before deciding that bookselling definitely wasn’t for him. In those days there was a tradition of starting at the bottom and slowly working your way up. My brother felt he had been stuck with the routine tasks too long - six months at that age seems like an eternity. Curiously enough, if he had stayed in the business, I probably would not have gone in as we didn’t get on very well at that age.

For a long time I wasn’t convinced that bookselling was for me either. After a few years I myself gave up and went into management accountancy for about eighteen months. When I rejoined the firm, there was a great improvement. I suppose I had proved a certain degree of independence and felt I could do things more on my own terms. Perhaps my father had also had time to reflect. He might have taken it a little for granted that his sons would share exactly the same interests. When I came back, I was allowed to go out buying and began to form my own interests.

In those days one bought books in much bigger quantities. Thorp’s was one of the last firms that still used canvas bags to collect purchases from auctions. It was back-breaking work filling the bags to the top and staggering about like a man delivering coal. There were more books around both at auction and privately. On average once a week, we would probably need a van to collect private purchases. There was almost a conveyor belt approach. If anything wasn’t quite right, we wouldn’t necessarily put it in stock. It might, for example, go on a pile for somebody like George Jeffery to collect. The number of decent books that went on to Jeffery’s pile must have been astounding.

This went on till the mid 70s when we noticed a sharp decline in the number of books coming through privately. It was inevitable as a lot of those books came from big country houses and large private properties in London. The people who collected them came from a generation that just doesn’t exist any more. Whatever the state of the economy, that situation could not be replicated again.

During the 60s and 70s, Thorp’s usually put out six catalogues a year. My father tended to deal with the early books. Mary Murray, who was quite well known in the trade, catalogued English literature, and John Simpson looked after the angling books, which was his speciality, and one or two other subjects. He was incredibly knowledgeable and taught me a terrific amount about bookselling in general. He’s no longer in the trade but still buys books and has a phenomenally good collection on angling and of book-plates.

If I asked my father how something was done, he would be only too pleased to help. But there was very little formal teaching from him. If either of my sons wanted to come into the trade - at the moment they show no signs of doing so - I would send them to do their training elsewhere. I don’t know if my father ever considered this for me. At the time one would happily have gone somewhere like Maggs or Quaritch. I remember being particularly impressed by Ted Dring who was a director at Quaritch.

Nowadays there are a lot of hard-working booksellers around, and some of them are very knowledgeable indeed. On the whole there’s probably more knowledge in the book trade than there was. But of course today dealers and collectors have a much wider range of reference books. If you take something like colour plate books, in the early days you had to remember everything for yourself until people like Tooley came along (English Books with Coloured Plates, 1 790-1860, 1954). But the best gift in bookselling can’t be learnt, and that’s the ability to pick out a book you don’t know anything about and know that it is something significant.

After eight years or so with my father in Albemarle Street, we moved to Holborn Viaduct and stayed there for about twelve years. My grandfather had actually started the business in Reading before moving to Guildford and London. At some point quite early on, the Reading side was closed and Thorp’s had a presence in London and Guildford. We still have the Guildford shop, which is now run by my cousin and is mainly a new book business, with additionally a very large range of remainders.

Every time we moved, the customers changed a bit. In the West End you see more eccentrics. I have a vivid memory of John Betjeman coming to the shop in Albemarle Street rather the worse for drink. He used to visit John Murray and then come to us quite regularly. On one occasion he got a large folio out on the floor and was trying in vain to lift it, not realising that he was kneeling on it.

In Holborn Viaduct I became very irritated with one person who came in every lunch hour. He read another chapter from the same book and then put it back on the shelf. Every so often he laughed, which irritated me even more. He always arrived on a bicycle and one day, while he was reading, I slipped out, let down the tyres and took his pump. He finally finished his chapter for that day and went out to the bicycle. Watching his face through the window was incredibly good entertainment. The following day he came back again and this time he bought the book. By this stage my conscience was beginning to prick, so I produced the pump saying, ‘this was found in the shop. Is it yours?’

We also had regular visits from Mr Howlett the runner of all runners. He was very knowledgeable, especially on modern first editions. He carried his books around in a cardboard box and travelled everywhere by Green Line and British Rail. Year after year he wore the same trilby and coat which became gradually more threadbare. Whether this was part of his act or not, I don’t know - obviously you would feel more generous toward him than to someone who was well dressed. But he had a good eye for a book and we bought a lot from him over the years, as did a number of West End booksellers.

In 1983 we moved to St Albans at which point my father retired. I had been living in Chingford and, much as I liked London and still do, I wanted to get out and not have to commute. There were not many places in that part of North East London that could support a book business, but I thought St Albans might be a good place and the right property turned up at the right time.

In the short term it was a very good move. But the book trade has changed so much over the last twelve years that I question the viability of many book shops now. I don’t necessarily see myself having a shop in St Albans in a few years time. One possibility might be to amalgamate the two shops - the Guildford premises is much larger and could accommodate the St Albans stock.

Theft is always a problem with a shop anywhere these days. We have had two of note: one in Holborn Viaduct, which was part of a series of thefts which took place in London about fifteen years ago; and another in St Albans about five years ago which involved the mysterious disappearance of books. The value was in the region of £20,000 and none of the books has been recovered, probably because they were mainly plate books which can be ripped up and immediately lose their identity. The most effective thieves are often the ones that look most innocent. The people you are so intent on watching are either very small-time or perfectly harmless, but perhaps a little eccentric - and the book world has its fair share of eccentric personalities.

I definitely feel that I have put my own stamp on the business, but it has taken a long time. My father, for example, did not deal in prints or pictures of any kind. Now they are a large part of my turnover. I now sell anything from antiquarian prints to modern etchings and lithographs, mainly because I was attracted to that field by my own personal taste. During the recession, this side of the business has held up more strongly than the books. It’s strange how difficult it is to get book buyers to buy prints and vice versa. Book buyers tend to be male and print buyers female, but I don’t know if this is a universal observation. Looking back I should have moved into the print market much earlier. The heyday was back in the 70s and early 80s, although things are still reasonably buoyant.

As a general bookseller you certainly have to be a bit of a jack of all trades. Inevitably you won’t have specialist knowledge of any one aspect but, on the other hand, you will probably see opportunities for buying which the specialist might miss. Occasionally we do a catalogue on a particular theme and I have always found that the most creative aspect of bookselling. Nowadays the cataloguing is done on computer which has saved a terrific amount of time, effort and printing costs. But in the last twelve years or so, it’s noticeable that far fewer libraries buy books in any great quantity. The vast majority of them seem to be either bereft of funds or very careful about how they spend them. Meanwhile my Japanese business has increased, particularly in the number of private customers. It seems to have happened of its own accord. I’ve never been to Japan but I assume that, like anywhere else, they have something of a grape vine.

As one starts to get older, one’s customers should look younger. But they don’t and I suppose one should be worried about the advancing age of many book collectors. Perhaps there’s going to be a rebirth of collecting. There are a number of younger collectors around but they tend to buy in different fields from the older generation, partly due to the cost involved. Perhaps the ABA and the PBFA should be trying to place more publicity in the press. I’m certainly not advocating heavy expenditure, but a few well executed articles in the weekend newspapers might help. There are plenty of book programmes on radio and television, but so often they are devoted to new books except for perhaps one episode a year.

Most subjects have now been ‘discovered’ by collectors. Look at the way printed ephemera has taken off over the last few years. We used to put most of our ephemera into envelopes for one or two customers and might charge them a nominal amount for it. A lot of what went into those envelopes would fetch quite a bit of money today. It has become much more difficult for a bookseller simply to use his acquired knowledge to make a profit here and there. There is much less variation in price nowadays, partly because there are so many reference books telling you what something is worth. Also the book fairs have made it much easier for people to compare prices. But there’s still a terrific variety of books out there. Sometimes people come to me at the Hotel Russell and say, ‘there’s nothing interesting in this fair’. Actually what they mean is that there is nothing on offer at a price they would be prepared to pay.

Sometimes I find the market atmosphere of a fair rather irritating, when almost everybody seems to think that the price marked in a book is merely a starting point on a downward spiral. I’m sure there’s a certain amount of bluff over discounts. Many private customers will still buy even if you refuse a discount. At the Russell fair, there’s a regular visitor who has acquired the name of ‘Badger’ because he has a way of badgering - always protesting that prices are too high and saying he’s never coming to another fair and then next month he’s back ... I once called him ‘Badger’ to his face when he turned up in St Albans and took me by surprise. I don’t think he noticed.

About six years ago, I was on the ABA June book fair committee, with special responsibility for the catalogue - not a job I would wish on anybody. People promise a lot and deliver little and all the time there’s a deadline to meet. The work involved in organising a book fair is quite enormous. There’s so much to think of. It’s important, for example, not to have people sharing a stand where there’s a known history of contention.

Exhibitors seem to have theories about the location of stands. You hear people saying, ‘so and so has done marvellously well therefore he must have had a good stand’. I think this aspect is over-played, as regular visitors come into a fair and go straight to the dealers that interest them. Having ticked those off, they then wander round regardless and try to cover everything.
I used to do the Park Lane fairs regularly but I’m not doing Grosvenor House. I can’t honestly say I was very impressed by my visit there last June. It was all so cramped and the exhibitors didn’t seem to have got decent value for money. If a collector wants to go to a book fair, he is mainly concerned with who is exhibiting and not where he’s exhibiting. It probably wouldn’t make any difference if the fair was in Islington.

It’s very difficult to be a dealer and a collector. I used to have a collection of mountaineering books which I disposed of just before the prices went up. I still have a small collection of books on the bicycle - not so much cycling as a pastime, but more from a mechanical point of view. I’m still collecting photography monographs which is a subject I’ve been interested in for many years. In fact I want to make more room in my life for my own photography. I cover everything from portraiture to still life, landscape and street photography. Bill Brandt’s work influenced me a lot and I’m a great admirer of Robert Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and Sebestiao Salgado. Recently I’ve begun accepting commissions for photographs. It’s a small germ that’s growing.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in April 1995

Jim Thorp

A Poland & Steery Co-production