Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Jonathan Gestetner

[Sign of the Times]

Jonathan Gestetner

I am an engineer by training and was involved in the company that bears my name for twenty-five years. Gestetner was founded in 1881 by my grandfather, the inventor of the stencil duplicating machine. Incidentally, Mr Biro was unable to patent his ball-point pen as my grandfather had effectively already invented it by using a ball in the neck of a tube to roll ink across the surface of his duplicating machines.

Collecting is not in my family and I am not sure how I became a book collector. Most collectors are eccentric or, at least, extremely single-minded in the pursuit of their particular interest. One of my first areas of collecting was the history of London and, in the early days, I bought heavily from three dealers. At the time Stanley Crowe was the leading dealer in topography. I used to visit him in his basement near the British Museum and always found him an incredible fund of knowledge. I also bought from Bill Fletcher and Colin Franklin who were important influences in the development of my collecting. To an extent, I have tried to follow the example of all three.

At one stage, I considered buying a large collection of books, prints and maps of London, but decided against it. Buying potted collections is not a satisfying way to collect, as you are following somebody else’s taste. I do not understand the attraction of collecting where you simply tick off items in a bibliography. For me the thrill is coming across something interesting and unrecorded. I have the seminal collection in the almost unrecorded field of peep shows and panoramas, and something will have to be published on it over the next ten years or so.

There are times in life when you have to decide where you are going - defining moments, and mine came in the mid 1980s. We decided that there should be a change in direction and ownership of Gestetner, and I was therefore able to pursue a variety of other interests. I became a fine art consultant, advising people on building collections, and also dealing in books from home. After a while I decided that I would like to become involved with a bookselling business. I was looking at a number of opportunities when Michael Brand approached me and asked if I would like to buy Marlborough Rare Books. In January 1990 I bought the firm with my friend and partner, Guy Naggar. My wife, Jacqueline, is Company Secretary and, although she is not involved in the business on a daily basis, she works hard with me every year at the California and New York book fairs. We have two sons and a daughter, who show no sign of book collecting yet. My daughter is a lawyer and my sons are very entrepreneurial and interested in more lucrative businesses than the book trade.

Interestingly there is a continuity between my old activities and Marlborough Rare Books. Gestetner was involved in paper-making and printing; we had our own paper mill in Scotland and the firm was a major manufacturer of offset lithography machines. And of course Marlborough is well known for its interest in the history of printing and the origins of lithography.

Small businesses are much more fun than big businesses. I was running a company employing 15,000 people and now I employ four. However I cannot say that my knowledge of big business has been extremely useful for running a small one. Obviously there is an overlap, but the ethos is quite different. Bookselling has to be a passion - it does not always make sense as a purely commercial activity. If you look at the cash flow problems of keeping stock for as long as it takes to sell, you probably would not buy half your books.

When people ask what Marlborough specializes in, the short answer is art, architecture and bibliography. We like interesting books with an intellectual content; we try to keep up the quality and to buy books that are fresh to the market. Some people go glassy-eyed about descriptive bibliography, but for me it is just a means to an end - to understand the make-up of a book. Ian Marr is our cataloguing anchor-man and Michael Brand, with more than thirty years in the trade, has areas in which his knowledge is second to none.

In recent years we have broadened Marlborough’s base, largely in response to changes in book collecting tastes. There are fewer collectors today of festival books, for example. The same applies to the history of printing. And a number of our major collectors of architecture are not as young as they were. In the world of books, there do not seem to be many serious young collectors. Although there are plenty of young people interested in the fine arts, antiquarian books lack that all-important immediate visual appeal. I have a keen interest, indeed a passion for books, which I try to commu-nicate to anyone who comes through the door. But the seed of interest must already be there, and this is why attempts to link bookselling more closely to the antiques trade will probably have only marginal success. Bold and brave attempts have been made to try to broaden the range and appeal of book collecting, but they have not been fully successful.

The world is changing and inevitably the way we sell books will change. We talked at one time about moving the business downstairs and having a shop front in Bond Street, but I am not sure that I would like it. You look surprised, but I’m a very introverted person. It was my idea to have a sign-board on the pavement and it works very well. Of course there are the occasional time-wasters, but the fact is that one needs people coming in.


Marlborough is traditionally a catalogue-based business and nowadays we keep current catalogues on the Internet. But I am sure this will never become our main selling tool. At the moment people who surf the net tend to be looking for books at the lower end of the market. Funnily enough the Internet is helping to bring people back to the concept of reading lists of books for sale. Lately I had the impression that librarians, in particular, had given up reading catalogues - or perhaps they just don’t read ours.

My partner feels that three years is too long for a book to sit on the shelf. But in bookselling terms it is not very long as the book might only have made two catalogue appearances. Obviously one makes mistakes from time to time - because one overpaid or the book was not quite what one expected. But sometimes the mistakes sell first. We once put up our hand for the wrong lot and bought a book about which we knew nothing. We researched it, put it in our next catalogue and it was the first item to sell. As I remarked to Ian this morning, we sold three of my mistakes last week. Often the books bought for good, solid reasons fail to sell.

From time to time one makes discoveries. I am proud to have bought recently an unrecorded Repton red book. I was also pleased to buy an example of early Korean printing, dating from several decades before Gutenberg. It is now in the British Library, and I was told by the Librarian that I had sold them the earliest book printed with moveable type in the library. Not bad for a rooky bookseller.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in August 1998

Jonathan Gestetner

A Poland & Steery Co-production