Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Keith Fletcher

[Doing it My Way]

Keith Fletcher

In the last two years, there have been some big changes in my life. I’m no longer working with my father (Bill Fletcher), and I don’t have a shop to run. People often ask what I miss most and what I miss least about leaving Cecil Court. Actually, the answer’s the same for both questions — people coming through the door.

When we moved out of Cecil Court in March 1992, my father let go of the business and has genuinely retired from bookselling. I moved into a converted warehouse near Tower Bridge and my office looks straight into the kitchens of the Pont de la Tour restaurant. It’s a fascinating view and I’ve picked up some wonderful culinary tips. Every morning I watch them preparing the crèmes brûlées finishing off the sugar with a blow-torch.

I couldn’t accommodate the big book-case from Cecil Court, so I had a couple specially made to allow for the unusual height of ceiling and the cast iron pillars which were part of the original warehouse. At the moment, my stock feels rather depleted but I do have about forty incunabula and a number of other books which I simply couldn’t bear to part with when we emptied Cecil Court. Of course I don’t know how easy it will be to sell them without a shop window.

This is part of the challenge of my new environment. In Cecil Court, we were able to behave like spiders in a web - the books were there and we just waited for people to come in. Now I must learn to initiate absolutely everything. For example, I should get down to doing some catalogues, which is another big change. After years of sitting in a shop, I will have to feel my way into thinking in terms of a catalogue. I used to buy books jf I thought they would look nice in the window. Now I shall have to ask myself, ‘can I write a good note on this book and make it tempting for somebody?’

Then there’s the question of specialising. Originally I wanted to concentrate on incunabula, but I doubt if that’s feasible - at least at the moment. I shall certainly be exhibiting at fairs regularly. In fact I produced my first catalogue for the Milan Book Fair recently. At the moment, I’m on the book fair committee for the Grosvenor House. For better or worse, there’s been a member of the Fletcher family on every ABA London book fair committee.

I get the feeling people are looking forward to Grosvenor House. For the first time in years, we’re sixteen people oversubscribed, which has to be a good thing for us - if not for them. The image of the fair has certainly been lifted and we’re aiming to create a higher level of success for the exhibitors. Some people seem afraid or even critical of going upmarket. But surely that’s what most of us in business are striving for? Anyway, we’ll see what happens quite soon now.

It’s difficult to make predictions in the present financial climate. My father always said that the book trade is the last to go and the last to come back in a recession. I’m no economist but I some-times think the politicians may be correct when they say the recession has ended - and we simply haven’t noticed because this is the norm from now on.

It’s an extraordinary fact that more and more people are trying to make a living out of fewer and fewer books. The mountain of unprocessed grist for the bookselling mill just isn’t there anymore. In a sense, it’s a disadvantage to have lived through the easy years. People who came into the trade ten years ago have grown up in a much tougher climate. As a result, they are often able to adapt more easily than those of us who have known the good times.

When I started in the trade, there was still an embarras de richesses. This was in 1957 when I left school and came to work for my father. As a young boy, I often went to country house sales with him - it was an adventurous day out and I enjoyed listening to the dealers’ talk - all the fishermen’s tales about the books they had and the ones that got away. I don’t think there was any deliberate teaching on my father’s part - I just picked things up by osmosis. Sometimes he would explain why he had wanted to buy this book and not that one, but there was nothing very formal about the instruction.

When the ABA announced its new training scheme, I did just think about applying to see if they would take me without academic qualifications! 0f course you hear people questioning whether bookselling is a subject you can really teach. I think the real question is whether or not we need more booksellers. If we do, then they may as well know what they’re doing.

My father was very keen for me to have the widest possible experience of bookselling. Shortly after I started working in Cecil Court, Jack Joseph took me on and I spent a year or so at 48a Charing Cross Road. One of the things I learnt was that nobody knows everything - not even Jack Joseph, who could endlessly trot out the points of this and the rare volume of that. And yet, one day, I saw him make a mistake, and it made a great impression on me. As a beginner I’d regarded him as being omniscient. I remember the incident very clearly: An elderly chap came into the shop wanting to sell a copy of Little Henry and Little Fanny, which consisted of cut out figures with different costumes, and a head which you moved along from one to the other as you read the story. At the time they were worth about £15 each and this chap wanted £2 for the pair. Jack wasn’t interested and, when we were alone in the shop, I asked him what was wrong. He replied, ‘You don’t want to buy them, kid. The heads have been torn off’.
In general, Jack had an encyclopedic knowledge of books, but not much of an instinctive feel for them. Once something was outside his knowledge, he couldn’t say, ‘that looks like a good book’. That was always my father’s strong point - and I’m only speaking in the past tense because he’s no longer dealing. He really had an uncanny ability to pick out the wheat from the chaff and was quite unsurpassed as a general seat-of-the-pants bookseller.

My father’s talents were perfectly suited to a style of bookselling which hardly exists today. Because there was no shortage of supply, he bought a book and sold it almost immediately, without needing to squeeze out the ultimate profit. It was a process that could be repeated again and again. From the 50s to the 70s, books were arriving in Cecil Court by the lorry-load. My father also had good contacts with a couple of furniture depositories. During the War, many people put their possessions into storage and then often discovered that they were no longer able to maintain a large house. So they disposed of some of their possessions and my father was often asked to deal with the books.

This was in the days when the stall outside our shop paid the rent. By the time we left Cecil Court in 1992, the entire upstairs shop no longer paid the rent. In economic terms, I don’t know how present rents compare with those in the 1950s. But the fact is that our market has changed dramatically and second-hand books can’t pay high street rents.

People talk about greedy landlords - and there are plenty around but the long-term problem is the lack of books. Having said that, I’m reminded of my grandfather’s advice to my father when he left school in 1922, ‘I don’t think you ought to come into this business. The books aren’t going to last’. He said that at a time when Rosenthal and Baer were producing catalogues with 5,000 incunabula. Nowadays the supply really has changed and you’ve got to make the most of your opportunities.

In this respect, I think my own abilities are more suited to the present situation. I’m very different from my father and my approach to books is - for want of a better word - more scholarly. I’m sure he would say that I tend to get bogged down in detail — trees rather than woods. But given that there are no longer any woods, my talents are probably more appropriate for today. The name of the game is to conserve and to catalogue, and this is the way the book trade is going in general.

After working for Jack Joseph, my father wanted to place me with a German bookseller. He did a lot of business with Fritz Neidhardt and arrangements were made for me to spend six months in Stuttgart. At the time I had a girlfriend whom my parents disapproved of - although the decision to send me to Germany wasn’t quite presented in that light. A couple of years after working for him, the first Stuttgart book fair was held - this was in the early ‘60s - and Fritz was on the committee. I was asked to come and help with some of the organisation, building shelves and things like that. This became a bit of a pattern and I went over to help Fritz during the fair for three or four years.

At about this time I also had a chance to work in the libraries at Yale. This was part of Jim Babb’s programme for establishing closer relations between booksellers and librarians. It was really designed for the offspring of booksellers, and the son of the man who owned Harrassowitz was the first to take up the offer - I was the second, followed by Mary Ann Kraus.
The Beinecke Library had just been built and there was an immense amount of work to be done moving everything in, reassessing subject collections and so on. It was a wonderfuL opportunity for learning about bibliography and bibliographical tools and I certainly cultivated a tenacity for tracking things down.

Although I never considered staying on in librarianship, the experience certainly stood me in good stead and today I’m Honorary Librarian of the Stationers’ Company. I must say I always wanted to be a bookseller, except for a brief period at the age often when I liked the idea of becoming a cabinet-maker. Funnily enough, my father had the same ambition at the same age.

Looking back, I suppose we could have made more of the business - perhaps been a little more Continental about stashing things away. But it was a very relaxed life, making a nice profit without needing to squeeze. Basically, we’re not empire builders — my father never thought like that and nor do I. As for my children, they don’t show signs of coming into the business. At one time, this would have bothered me, but it doesn’t anymore. Sometimes I think it might be nice to have someone here to help with the books. But I doubt if I’m easy to work with. I’m not good at delegating and I like things done my way.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in May 1994

Keith Fletcher

A Poland & Steery Co-production