Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Kay Craddock

Kay Craddock

Some years ago my mother Muriel and I were discussing what we had achieved in the business. When I said that my father, Les Craddock, would have been so proud of my becoming President of ILAB, she just looked at me and said that he would have been the President. My father died two months after we started the family business in 1965. He was a very magnetic and dynamic man, and things would certainly have been totally different if he had lived. In the circumstances my mother instinctively stepped back, and I found myself in the spotlight. I had previously been working as a secretary and, at the age of nineteen, I suddenly had a career.  Although I didn’t want to be in the spotlight, one of us had to take the lead if we were going to make a success of the business.

Our first shop was in Buckley Street, Essendon, a suburb of Melbourne, and we called it the Essendon Treasure Chest. There was a fashion for embarrassingly cute names, and it would have been considered highly presumptuous to use our own name. People would walk past the shop, and say that they gave us six months. Sometimes I wonder if those early negative predictions contributed to the longevity of our business. I have a natural instinct to meet life’s challenges head on, and neither of us ever contemplated failure.

In the beginning we sold everything from handicrafts and bric-à-brac to secondhand books. It was a truly eclectic collection, but we soon found that the books sold rather well. My mother would go to auctions at Kirk’s Bazaar, and bid on quantities of miscellaneous books, sometimes for as little as a pound when old Mr Kirk was desperate to get rid of them. We both felt very happy and comfortable selling books, but it was not an easy environment. Although we had a good rapport with the antique dealers, it took us many years to be accepted by the antiquarian book trade.

Australiana was the subject of the day. Whilst we knew little about other subjects, we knew nothing about Australiana, and certainly couldn’t be viewed as competition by the specialists. We both loved literature and beautiful books, and very early on I developed a strong interest in private press books. On one occasion a dealer accused me of running him up at an auction that included private press books. He thought I should have known that it was his speciality, but he didn’t realise how desperately I wanted to handle those beautiful books.

My mother and I worked well as a team. When we went on house visits to look at big collections, we would start at opposite ends of the room, working our way along the shelves and meet in the middle.  Sometimes the owner wanted to chat with my mother while I worked,  or it might be the other way around. In the days before the internet, we would go to the public library with our catalogue cards and pore over Book Auction Records to make sure that our estimates were correct. We didn’t have the experience to know the value of all the books that came our way, but we worked hard to educate ourselves. English and American booksellers’ catalogues were an important part of that learning process.

By the time we moved to Bourke Street in 1967, we were on the way to becoming proper booksellers. It was an exciting time with my mother’s auction purchases arriving by the truckload. We often had to close off part of the shop to accommodate the mountains of books. In November 1968 I issued our first catalogue under the name of  Bourke Street Treasure Chest Bookshop. It took a lot of courage to send out that catalogue due to my imposter syndrome, which I have yet to overcome. I left school at the age of sixteen, having failed my Intermediate Certificate - the equivalent of Year 10 today. A school friend predicted that I would never make anything of myself without finishing my education, but I wasn’t keen to repeat the year - and not confident that I would do any better in Maths, Science and French.  I’ve always felt that I’m still learning but, as my dear husband tells me, my university was life itself.

The shop’s evolution from its miscellaneous beginnings was largely due to my mother’s skill in buying books. From the start, we tried to buy stock in good condition, and to describe it accurately in our catalogues. I apply the same principles to all our stock - secondhand or antiquarian. Ideally you want to have a copy of a book as the author would have seen it. A good example is the importance of dust-wrappers on modern books. Gaston Renard taught me how to collate a book, and encouraged me to be myself and not to follow the fashion.  He was my mentor, and I would always talk to him if I was worried about something.  

I love being a general bookseller. I’ve been cataloguing some $30 books today, and I know that they will give some people a lot of pleasure. In the shop we meet customers who love books and are avid readers. They might only buy a cheap reprint, but the interest is there. If they visited more bookshops and perhaps a book fair, they might realise the connection between their love of reading and the romance of collecting. My advice is always to buy whatever appeals to you; if you can’t afford the best edition, buy the best you can afford. The first step is to have the book on your shelf. A customer might not know where to start, and it’s our job to be creative booksellers. Anthony Rota coined the phrase to include everything from the promotion of worthwhile but unappreciated authors to customer advice and assistance.

Anthony was another great mentor, whom I met on my first visit to England in 1971. It wasn’t an easy time, as I was generally viewed with suspicion as an unknown woman, who was not a member of the ABA. Anthony was one of the exceptions, and a bookseller for whom I had a deep respect and affection. Some of the other dealers were rather patronising in their assumption that, as an Australian, I must be overwhelmed by what I was seeing in England. Actually the State Library Victoria is one of the great libraries of the world. Australia has its own treasures and - what’s more - most of them weren’t simply inherited, but brought out here by people who really valued them.

The following year I joined the ABA, and the inaugural Australian Antiquarian Booksellers’ Fair was held at Monash University. We were one of eight Australian exhibitors, joined by Jocelyn Baines of Bernard Quaritch from London, and Reg Longden from New Zealand. The reaction of collectors to the fair was like farmers at the breaking of a drought. More than one collector fell into an ecstatic trance. From our point of view, it was a supreme delight to meet a phalanx of dealers arrayed with their shiniest wares on display. We had children’s books and English literature on our stand. It was completely different stock to everybody else. Kenneth Hince was behind the idea for the fair, and had excellent contacts with the English trade. In fact he probably persuaded Jocelyn Baines to come out here. Wallace Kirsop, the eminent historian of the book in Australia, was also involved in the first fair, and helped to bring it to fruition.

On the eve of the second Australian Antiquarian Booksellers’ Fair in 1974, the first formal meeting was held to establish an Australian and New Zealand Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. We met on 22 May at the Fisher Library of the University of Sydney, followed by another meeting in Melbourne on 25 July to coincide with one of Leonard Joel’s book auctions. From the outset of my career, I’ve collected articles relating to the book trade in Australia and internationally, and my archive includes a pretty comprehensive collection of papers documenting the formation of ANZAAB. It’s clear that those discussions were conducted in a spirit of goodwill and animosity. Some people wanted the association to be inclusive of all booksellers, and others wanted it to observe the highest professional and ethical standards. 

Ken Hince advocated an inclusive approach, arguing that we needed to attract as many booksellers as possible; once they were members, we could help them to meet the required standards. The case for exclusivity was championed by Gaston Renard who had my support, and his argument eventually prevailed.  The new association was founded in 1977, based on the example of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. We didn’t look to other parts of Europe or to America. In my own experience those who had influenced me most were the English dealers.

Ken became ANZAAB’s first President, and I served as the third President from 1986 to 1989. In the early days Ken certainly collaborated a lot with Gaston on ANZAAB’S development. I believe they received informal advice from John Lawson of E.M.Lawson and John Maggs, who were both important English dealers and specialists in Pacific exploration. In the early days of the association, our members’ customers were mostly in the English-speaking world. Ken and Gaston were unusual in having more international contacts. In the year that ANZAAB was founded, my mother and I moved our shop from Bourke Street to King Street, and changed the name to Kay Craddock - Antiquarian Bookseller Pty Ltd.  My mother insisted on using my name alone for the sake of my long-term career.

We moved the shop to Collins Street in June 1990. It was almost twenty-five years to the day since opening the Essendon Treasure Chest. You might wonder what a little old bookseller is doing in one of the most famous streets in Australia, but the shop has become a landmark in Melbourne. For many years we were puzzled by the number of visitors with backpacks and maps in their hand, and then we discovered that the shop was listed in a Lonely Planet guide as one of Melbourne’s attractions.

Barry Humphries was a regular visitor to the shop. His great comic creation Dame Edna Everage came from Moonee Ponds, which was in those days a rather dreary suburb just down the road from Essendon. When Barry performed in one of the theatres in Melbourne, he would come to see us and treat the shop as a haven. We tried hard to stop people from approaching him, but he could be very kind to some of them. I remember a young boy who was interested in comics. Barry had a long talk with him, and that young man later became a dealer in the subject. Since Barry’s untimely death in 2023, many of our customers have contacted us with their reminiscences of meeting or at least seeing him in our bookshop. He was a dedicated book lover and a true champion of the antiquarian book trade throughout the world.

In 1996 I was the first bookseller from the southern hemisphere to be elected to the ILAB committee. Four years later, I was elected President, but not without opposition. I remember an awkward phone call from the President of the ABAA, first begging me and then ordering me not to accept the position. They maintained that I knew nothing about the internet - which was true - and that my lack of knowledge would hold back the development of the International League. The internet was seen as something that you either knew about or you didn’t, in which case you couldn’t possibly be taught. I replied that my ignorance made me the ideal person, because I needed to learn about it quickly, and in a way that would be easily understood by others.  Actually I was more concerned about my inability to speak French, which is the second language of ILAB. I gave my acceptance speech in English with the last sentence in French. I had to write it out phonetically, and it began ‘Maize army’.

When I became President of ILAB, I was the first woman to hold the position.  Although I don’t usually bother about such things, ILAB was very much a European boys’ club in those days. I thought that I should attend committee meetings in a slack suit until the assistant in a fashion shop asked why I wanted to wear trousers in a room full of men. From that moment on I did my best to look feminine. It was a small detail, but very powerful psychologically.

Having sat through many short meetings and long dinners, I was determined to get more work done during my time as President. One of my aims was to improve communications with our national affiliates. I started sending out reports on our meetings, and I received positive feedback from booksellers who were pleased to feel part of ILAB, and to understand it better. I chaired my first meeting in Boston just after 9/11. It was a very tense time, flights were cancelled, and a number of national Presidents were not able to attend. In the event we had a good meeting, during which I arranged for us to have a working lunch. After the initial shock of eating out of a box, everyone worked very well together. In fact I noticed that the French and Germans had dropped their habit of glaring at each other across the table. Sometimes a different approach is successful just because it’s different. I’ve certainly found that to be true in my life.

Many people are quite pessimistic about the future of the book as a physical object in our digital age. Although I’m always disconcerted to see young children with iPad in hand, I’m encouraged that many of them are at least reading. I feel very strongly that something should be done to introduce children to the magic of seeing print and image on paper. If they discover the pleasure of books at a young age, they will have friends for life. You can always be sure of your books. For some time I’ve wanted to prepare a course on book collecting for children, and perhaps see if it could be introduced to schools. I just need to take the first step, but doing so is sometimes enormously hard for me. I’m fine when I get going but you wouldn’t believe the nervous energy that it takes. 

When we had a copy of Schoeffer’s 1472 Bible in the shop, we were struck by the number of teenagers who came to look at the book, and were visibly moved by it. I noticed the same reaction to our copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio. Young people know the story of Romeo and Juliet, for example, and are fascinated to see it in a seventeenth-century book. I can only describe the atmosphere in the shop as an excited ‘vibe’. I’m concerned that many young people never have that experience, and it’s our job collectively to spread the word.

My husband Jonathan Burdon and I began a series of ‘Basics of Book Collecting’ seminars in Melbourne in 2006, in which we really did start by saying ‘this is a book’. Although Jonathan is a highly respected thoracic physician, he is also a bookseller dealing in the Special Forces, and looks after our military books in Collins Street. Jonathan is a member of the Burdon family booksellers. His late mother, and two of his sisters have been part of the book trade for a long time, and his sister Sally was the second female to become President of ILAB - both of us related by marriage.

At our book collecting seminars, we were surprised to find experienced book collectors Perhaps they were interested in what we had to say about caring for books. Parts of Australia have a difficult climate for keeping books in good condition. If a book is foxed, I can tell pretty accurately where it comes from in Australia. Sydney’s foxing is often pale and splotched, Adelaide’s is small and dark, and the further north you go, it turns into large, watery patches due to the humidity.

When I advised a customer with an excellent collection of private press books to keep them out of direct sunlight, he took it to extremes. The books were kept behind glass in a room with the blinds down. As a final precaution, he had wrapped them in brown paper with the fore-edges facing outward. His wife and family were forbidden to touch them.  I told him that the whole point of his collection was to enjoy it.  I gently suggested that we take a couple of books out of the book case and show them to his wife. After the collector’s death, his wife contacted me and said that they had spent some lovely times looking at his books together. Incidentally it’s always a great honour to be offered a collection that I helped to build. I see it as an opportunity to look after the collector’s family and to find a new home for different and wonderful books.

Jonathan and I put up our hands to organise a book fair in Melbourne in 2012. It was at a time when fewer and fewer people were coming to fairs - and they were always the same people. Nothing was being done to introduce the joy of book collecting to a new demographic, and so we established Melbourne Rare Book Week, which also helped to promote the fair. It’s a week of lectures, exhibitions, book launches and events celebrating the world of rare books. It works phenomenally well and, as long as I’m on the committee and have breath in my body, all the events will remain free of charge. I don’t want the cost to prevent someone from attending an event.

In 2023, we signed a new five-year lease on our shop in Collins Street. I intend to go on working as long as I’m able to do so. Recently my next-door neighbour, who is involved in business development and marketing, encouraged me to have a go at social media. I think he was fascinated by the idea of a woman in her late seventies, who had begun her career on a manual typewriter, making use of Instagram and Facebook. I already had the idea of writing occasional articles based on our bookseller’s archive, and so my neighbour encouraged me to write a blog. I hesitated at first because I’m not a writer, but there’s always something in daily life that reminds me of an anecdote. Nowadays I enjoy writing about them under the heading of ‘Marginal Notes’ on our website. The evolution of technology has always been part of my many decades in the book trade. I issued my first catalogue using a manual typewriter, and printed it on a Gestetner copying machine. Nothing has changed except the speed of communication.

When I die, the business will die with me, although not immediately. My husband is deeply involved in the shop, and we’re very fortunate to have Alison Sayers and David Cosgrove, who could keep the business running until it’s no longer viable. Kay Craddock - Antiquarian Bookseller will never be for sale. I’ve seen highly respected firms become disreputable under new ownership. You might think I’m being terribly egotistical, but it’s just my strong sense of family pride.

When my mother was made a Life Member of ANZAAB, she said that she couldn’t have done it without me, which is absolutely not true. We were equal partners in a business started with my father but, above all, we were best friends.  In 2007 I was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia. My father would have been so proud, but I couldn’t help wondering how it had happened to someone who left school at sixteen. I felt truly humbled until I remembered the words of Golda Meir, ‘Don’t be so humble - you’re not that great’,  but I’m very lucky to have spent nearly sixty years doing a job I love.

Interviewed in December 2023 for ANZAAB.

Photo: Kay Craddock, 1978. Source: The Age. 












Kay Craddock


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