We moved to St Andrews when my husband was offered a post at the University. Pat Hunter, the wife of one of his colleagues, asked if I knew anyone who would like to help start a bookstall in the market. She and Gillian Stone had met at an auction and had agreed that it was a shame there seemed to be no outlet for secondhand books in St Andrews. They were looking for someone who could drive, and that was my only qualification for the book trade. I had a young child at the time, and the prospect of occasionally getting out of the house was very attractive. I took up the offer and joined Gillian and Pat, very much as the junior partner. They were both much more bookish – in fact Gillian went on to run Titles Bookshop in Oxford for many years and Pat ran a bookshop in Caernarvon.
Gillian had discovered that anyone could buy a licence to trade in St Andrews market – people had always assumed that it was just for fruit and vegetables. The bookstall opened in 1968, and we had quite an entertaining time. When we first started, University wives would sweep past and say, ‘What a good idea. Which charity is it for?’ When we replied that it was for us, it was considered rather infra dig. At the end of our first day we emptied the money on the table and said, ‘Now what happens?’ I became the accountant, and we agreed to plough everything back into the business. For at least the first year, we took out expenses only.
In 1969 we moved into a shop, though we were still regarded by the tradesmen in St Andrews as three ladies playing at shopkeeping. I gave birth to my son on the day that the shop opened. I was tied up in motherhood for some time, and Gillian and Pat were very kind in their willingness to carry me. Eventually Gillian moved down to Devon, and then Pat to Wales, following their husbands’ work. Before Gillian left she advised me to regard Pat as a truffle hound, ‘She will find the good books, but you must price them’. Pat was extremely knowledgeable, but she wanted to read the books. Winkling them out of her to sell could be quite a problem.
Pat and I were joined by Jenny Green (later Hopgood), who had a background in bookselling in St Andrews. She had previously worked for a book shop that went bankrupt. The administrators sold the remaining stock in Edinburgh where they thought there was a better market. Actually the books were tailor-made for St Andrews, and we were able to buy them very cheaply and get off to a flying start.
Jenny taught me a valuable lesson: that new books should be divided from secondhand and that the money from sales should be kept separate. In the new book business customers want to buy what they have seen reviewed. They come in clutching newspapers, and want to be up with the bestsellers. I once got hold of Waterstone's Bottom Twenty list and was surprised by the number of books that I could sell. For example, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization was on the list. I would probably put Melvyn Bragg’s Speak for England in my cheap box – but not if it had been called Speak for Scotland.
Some people find old books a total turn-off – you never know who has touched them; they might be covered in germs. On the other hand you find customers who wait for a secondhand copy and would not dream of buying a book new. Sometimes I buy a book with a specific customer in mind. But I don’t offer it to them: they prefer to find it on the shelves. Some customers don’t like to be offered books, fearing they may have been priced accordingly.
In the secondhand trade, the nearest one gets to a bestseller is a list of people who would like a book should it become available. I once had a long waiting list for Wood’s East Neuk of Fife. After approaching the first four on the list and discovering that they were all dead, my nerve failed. So I put it on the shelf and waited for a purchaser to walk in off the street. With old books, I just want to be sure that somebody somewhere will buy them before the business closes down.
Book shops tend to prosper in tourist spots. At the beginning of each season, we review our stock from a Brigadoon point of view. The Scottish Tourist Board is constantly being told to move away from the tartan-and-shortbread image, and to present Scotland as a modern nation, highly advanced in computer science. However the BBC’s recent series ‘Monarch of the Glen’ helped to reinforce the popular stereotype. For the tourist market we need to have in stock plenty of George McDonald, D.E.Stevenson. Lilian Beckwith, and books on William ‘Brave Heart’ Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie. But we try to cover the range, from pamphlets to serious monographs for the many visiting academics who pass through St Andrews.
The previous Principal of the University was very quick to spot the nature of the game, and recruited a number of academic superstars. He approached the field as though it was the football transfer market. The result is that St Andrews is among the best in the United Kingdom for Classics, Mathematics and Psychology and has many other strong departments, including of course the Department of Fine Arts where Prince William’s presence will doubtless help to attract many students. The University already has a large percentage of American students and is rather American in its arrangements with semesters and course modules.
Every May I buy textbooks from students, and it is an important part of our business. Someone decided to set up a website for students to exchange books with each other, which would have effectively put me out of business. But the site didn’t get many hits, and I noticed that the books weren’t shifting. Part of the reason is that this year’s students need last year’s students’ books, and they have usually left St Andrews. Also, people don’t particularly like bargaining with each other. The Internet hasn’t damaged our business. In fact I did a little experiment to prove it, putting a few dozen books on the Internet and the same selection on a table in the shop. They sold faster off the table.
Over the years I have discovered the precise number of golf books to put in the window in order to tempt golfers inside – more than five golf titles in the display and you put off general customers; fewer than five and the golfers walk past. Sometimes I like to include titles that I have deliberately ‘golfed’ – Beatrix Putter, The Road to Wigan Clubhouse, Sir Gawain and the Green. Jenny Hopgood and Pat Riedi, her successor in the new book department, worked hard to ensure that we always had most of the ‘in print’ golf books in stock. Had I realised from the start that it made sense to specialise in golf books, I would have put more early effort into the antiquarian side.
At the end of the season, general stock begins to encroach on our golf shelves. One golfing customer found Flush next to Bernard Darwin. ‘Virginia Woolf!’ he said. ‘What’s her handicap?’ Joseph Murdoch’s The Library of Golf.1743-1966 is the standard bibliography. Murdoch numbers are frequently quoted in sale and booksellers’ catalogues. Murdoch sold his own collection on the assumption that it would be kept together. But the guy who bought it waited a few years and then auctioned it.
The most expensive book that we ever sold on the market stall was a golfing title, John Kerr’s Golf Book of East Lothian, 1896. We sold it for £4; today it would sell for £2,000 – as the customer who bought it so often reminds me. During the 1990 Open Championship, a Japanese golfer came into the shop and bought a copy of every golf book in stock. I mentioned this to a journalist on The Daily Telegraph, without giving my customer’s name. The next day the journalist had to fend off inquiries from the tabloids who had already written their story and just needed a name to put in the blank, ‘Mr…, whose handicap is in treble figures, is so keen to improve his golf that he is filling his tiny flat with books about how to play the Royal and Ancient game. Any Scot could tell him it’s not swotting but swinging that gets the birdies singing.’
On one occasion a woman came into the shop wanting books about Greg Norman. I casually mentioned that when Greg had been in the shop, he bought a copy of Power Golf by Ben Hogan. Top golfers are the new aristocracy and Greg, like the Queen, didn’t appear to carry money. Instead he turned to a ten-year old boy who was with him, and said, ‘Pay the lady’. The effect of this story on the woman was quite striking. Quivering, she said, ‘He was here? In this shop? Please write down exactly what he said’. She left the shop studying the paper bag on which I had written, and murmuring ‘Pay the lady’, like a mantra.
Speaking of which, one of my favourite customers played golf over the Old Course with the Dalai Lama. Hugh Richardson was an eminent Tibetologist, author of the standard work, Tibet and its History, an authority on Tibetan manuscripts, the last British Consul in Lhasa, and a member of the Royal and Ancient. I bought books from Hugh on three occasions as he moved into ever smaller premises. His wife was suffering from dementia and he needed to fund her nursing home expenses. In St Andrews we have many fascinating people, and it is always very sad to meet them as they prepare to move into retirement homes or make other changes that involve parting with their books.
I once had a call from the wife of an extremely elderly gentleman living in Dundee. She said that if I didn’t come to look at his books, they would go in the dustbin – which wasn’t a great inducement to go. But I didn’t know at that stage that, in her opinion, there was only one book and that was the Good Book. Luckily I decided to go, and found myself in the home of H.J.Plenderleith, international authority on the conservation of antiquities and works of art. Born in 1898, Plenderleith had won the MC in the First World War, and had worked at the British Museum for most of his distinguished career. He told me that he had been at the Museum in the 1930s when the Elgin Marbles had been scrubbed to ‘improve’ their colour. Needless to say, it had been done without his approval. When he retired, he set up ICCROM, the international conservation agency based in Geneva.
Although he gave most of his working library to the University of York, I was still able to buy some wonderful material, including copies of his own books, all standard works, such as The Preservation of Leather Bookbindings, and The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art. Before taking the books away, I went to say goodbye to him in his room and said how much pleasure they would give to other people. He was visibly touched and I saw tears in his eyes. He should not have been separated from his books before he died, but at least they didn't go in the dustbin.
Every so often Rhod McEwan says that I ought to talk about the future of the shop after I retire. I have only dabbled in golf books compared to Rhod, who follows the tours and has devoted his life to it. If I had known that I was going to sell books on golf, I would have worked harder at it. But I went into bookselling thinking that it would do until I got a ‘proper’ job when the children grew up. This shows a terrible contempt for bookselling, but it is more a reflection of the portfolio life that many women tend to have, with many part-time occupations.
I suppose the time will eventually come when I sell the business and retire. But writing about the shop makes me realise how much I enjoy it. Jenny Renton offered me a regular column in the Scottish Book Collector, and I have been writing ‘In Quarto’ for the last four years. Bookselling puts me in touch with interesting people, though one reader remarked, ‘Are all your customers barking mad?’ I’m also glad to be in something that helps students, and involves recycling – something that isn’t often said about secondhand bookselling.
Margaret Squires was interviewed for The Bookdealer in November 2001.