Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

John Walwyn-Jones

John Walwyn-Jones

In retrospect, I was rather set up by fate to become an antiquarian bookseller. I got my first job in a new bookshop in Smithfield, which has long since disappeared. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it – new bookselling can be a very irritating business. Then one day an uncle of mine died. At his memorial service, I met an old friend who’d just come back from a ‘fabulous town of books’, which turned out to be Hay-on-Wye. I’d never been there, and liked the sound of it. So I went down and got a job with Richard Booth some time around 1976. At that stage, my knowledge of the trade was based on a quick skim through Eric Quayle’s Collector’s Book of Books.

Working for Richard Booth must be the bookselling equivalent of learning to ride in the Grand National. Within a couple of weeks, I was tackling most aspects of the business and going out in the van on private buys. The job lasted for about a year, when we hit a seasonal fall-off and I was given ‘new business opportunities’ – or whatever the expression is.

So I came back to London and got a job with Paul Minet, who was opening The World of Books in Sackville Street – a huge warehouse of a shop which I largely painted! But I didn’t much enjoy being stuck in there all day. The time to leave finally came when I noticed we were trying to sell half a ton of Shall We Join the Common Market? – several years after the event.

I decided to go back to Wales and formed a short-lived partnership with a couple of friends. For one reason or another, it didn’t work out, and this time I went up to Manchester and found a job cataloguing the library of the National Paper Museum. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about the remarkably extensive literature on paper-making. And it was during this period that I really became interested in bibliography as a subject.

In 1978 I came back to London again and began dealing for myself. In terms of training I’m sure I would have been much better prepared if I’d worked for an auction house or a major firm. I’ve always had a slight feeling of being on the outside, and it takes a surprisingly long time to work your way in – a kind of bookselling dance of the seven veils. Actually, in this respect, I’m pleased to belong to the ABA, which gives one a certain identity within the trade.

The name of Questor Rare Books was actually my father’s idea. I wanted something that sounded internationally searching, and ‘Quest’ just seemed a bit sawn off! Looking back, I got off to a rather misleadingly flying start. A wealthy friend of mine wanted to collect natural history books, and I sold him a copy of Gould’s Birds of Europe in my first month. Then he decided to become a monk, and that was the end of that.

I started doing PBFA fairs in 1979 dealing in a fairly general stock. I also had a stall in Camden Passage, which was an absolute nightmare – exposed to the elements and the rather grabbing general public. Later on I moved to Portobello Road – still trying to keep a general stock, though rapidly discovering that I was hopeless at ‘precision buying’, which is vital to survive in a place like that.

You have to know the market, and I was always chasing it. People would ask me for Hogarth, and I’d rush around buying those wretched little quartos and never have another inquiry again. My whole existence there was underpinned by one customer – a pimply youth who started spending four-figure sums, till his family took him away to Canada and Portobello became another cul-de-sac in my career.

By this stage I was beginning to feel it was time to specialise, and I decided to concentrate on bibliography. It’s a subject very close to the essence of the book trade, and one that gives me enormous pleasure. I very much enjoy bibliographical arcana and the less obvious material in the field – I still go into paroxysms of delight over an unrecorded Dibdin sermon or some nonsense like that.

Actually, my kind of dealing probably wouldn’t have been possible without the seminal influence of A. N. L. Munby. He made such an impact on the way one looks at books, and gave credibility to a lot of unregarded areas of book collecting. The bibliography catalogues of Marlborough Rare Books also made a great impact on me. If I were on a desert island, I’d like to have some of their catalogues, and some catalogues by Alan Thomas and Bernard Breslauer. I’d also like to take Brunet’s Manuel du Libraire et de l’Amateur des Livres, DNB – and my fax machine.

As things have developed, I’ve rather avoided the mainstream books in my field. In general, I prefer the more offbeat, unusual items and I particularly enjoy elucidating material – one of the pleasures of specialising. For example, Sotheby’s Principia Typographia is a familiar three-volume mega-tome, full of erroneous knowledge. But it also happens to be the first major study of watermarks. I’m not saying I’m the first to point this out, but it’s always satisfying to add to the received opinion of a book.

If I have any strength, I think it’s my ability to look at a book and find new angles of interest. There are 101 ways to sell a book. In this respect, I admire Serge Plantureux’s catalogues and his efforts to alter the way in which we look at books. It’s terribly important to make them interesting – an idea many booksellers seem to resist. But it does concern me that my field’s so small. An entire area of book collecting is often based on perhaps one or two major collectors, with a few wild cards thrown in. I’ve always found it best to ignore the old book trade truism – never buy a book with one customer in mind. I spend my entire life doing just that.

There must be about half a dozen collectors worldwide with whom I seem to be completely in tune, by which I mean my catalogues hit the spot every time. In a sense, I have no desire to collect books myself. I enjoy my customers getting their fix from books I’ve supplied.

In many ways, bookselling is a kind of ‘fruit machine’ existence. It’s easy to become completely hooked, and I’m always amazed by the role of coincidence and fortuitous circumstances. In my own business, I’ve identified an immutable law which says that anything quite clever will almost immediately be followed by a major cock-up. It’s all part of the rhythm of the business. Consequently I’m either extremely busy or doomed to extended periods of boredom. It’s an endless roller coaster of highs and ominous dips. Then along comes the ‘fluke’, and it all starts up again.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in December 1993



John Walwyn-Jones

A Poland & Steery Co-production