Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Nigel Williams

[Dealer Descant]

I earned my living as a singer until bookselling took over a few years ago. Although I did not intend this to happen, it has given me the opportunity to make a living out of two activities I would do for pleasure. After reading history at Trinity College, Dublin, where I spent most of my time conducting and singing, I became a classical singer. I did a lot of radio and television work, but the market in Ireland is fairly small and it is a precarious existence waiting for the telephone to ring.

In 1988 I moved to London to expand my singing career. As a freelance musician I often had time off during the day to visit bookshops. While I was a student I had started collecting modern first editions in an impoverished fashion. When I came to do my first catalogue in 1989, it contained a number of duplicates from my own fairly small collection. The catalogue was badly typed on two sheets and might be described as a selection of cheap, common and rather tatty first editions.

Although I had no formal training in bookselling, I learnt from reading catalogues, making lots of mistakes, and talking to dealers. For example, I vividly remember being introduced to the concept of dealer discount. At this stage I was devoting perhaps a day and a half a week to my book business which I ran from home. I do not have any capital but managed not to take money out of the business for the first couple of years in order to build up stock.

As the bookselling developed, my singing work became something of an irritation. A turning point came in 1994 when I moved into a shop in Cecil Court, and last year Stephen Dick of Piglet Books joined me. Stephen is very knowledgeable about detective fiction, children’s and illustrated books and we are expanding in that direction. We shared the premises for a while with Jake Fior and, when he decided to return to ‘running’, we took over the lease from Ann Creed who was here previously.

The shop has comfortably paid for itself, even with three members of staff. On average we meet one or two serious collectors each week. Another advantage of having a shop is the opportunity to sell books that would never sell through catalogues — for example, a relatively common book that might appeal to a passing customer whereas a collector would already have it. We also get a certain amount of books being offered in the shop.

I still produce catalogues and quote books to customers, which is rather like working from home. When I first started, my catalogues of P. G. Wodehouse probably pushed the prices up, but also made more of the books available. If you were unscrupulous, you could stockpile the works of a cheap, neglected author and build a market. But it has never been done very successfully, as there is usually a good reason why someone is not collected.

I am ashamed to say that I have never read a large percentage of the authors I deal in. From a literary point of view, many highly collected authors are not particularly good writers. However their appeal may be based on the fact that their work has been made into popular films. To a certain extent we concentrate on American-orientated popular novels. The collecting market in America is largely geared to modern books. We exhibit at two or three book fairs a year on the West Coast, where there are a number of people actively pursuing book collecting — and indeed with the income to do it.
The American market is more fashion-led than perhaps it is here. The fashion can be set by a rave review in The New York Times, or by a major dealer producing a catalogue on a particular author, or perhaps by an article in a collecting magazine. A feature in Firsts, for example, will certainly produce a few telephone enquiries.

Modern first editions are a bit like collecting by numbers — you fill in the gaps with copies in the best possible condition. Quite often there are issue points to worry about, but you certainly do not need the amount of antiquarian book knowledge required for collecting incunabula. The stimulation of dealing in modern firsts comes not so much from the content of the books as from the aesthetic pleasure of finding rarities — and finding them in attractive condition. It is very exciting to sell one of only two known copies of the first edition of The Thirty Nine Steps in a dust-wrapper, which we did a couple of years ago.

Whatever the merits of collecting dust-wrappers, there is something fabulous about finding a pre-war book in the form in which it was originally sold. Basically one is trying to have as perfect an object as possible. The point of buying a book from us is not to read it — I am not saying that the contents are not important to collectors, simply that they would probably read a favourite book in paper-back and keep a perfect copy on the shelf.

In purely financial terms, the dust-wrapper can be worth ten times more than the book. It is an ‘iffy’ area and I do ocasionally have problems with it myself. In the case of a rare dust-wrapper in unattractive condition, we would probably have it professionally restored and catalogued as such. At the moment we are having work done on the dust-wrapper for a copy of the first edition of H. G. Wells’ The History of Mr Polly. As the dust wrapper is not an integral part of any particular copy, I cannot see a major problem with supplying it from another copy — if it can be done convincingly. For example, the covers must be clean and look as if they have always been in a dust-wrapper.

In this country, there are several extremely good dealers in modern firsts who approach the field from various angles. Ulysses are superb at selling good books, with a certain type of literary association. Rick Gekoski has cornered the market in archives, manuscripts and authors’ properties. Bell Book & Radmall have been selling good literary first editions for twenty years. But purely in terms of financial scale, there is no one to touch the top two or three American modern literature dealers. Someone like Glenn Horowitz probably has a turnover ten times that of the largest English dealer in the same field.

Pricing can be pretty arbitrary and varies from dealer to dealer. How do you price an inscription? There was a book at the Los Angeles fair recently which contained an important inscription from a major Anglo-American poet to a major French poet. It started life at $1,600, went through two dealers and was finally sold for $35,000 in the space of a day. To some extent you have to price an item within the structure of similar important inscriptions that have appeared in the past few years. But inevitably someone will put more store in certain types of inscription than others.

We joined the ABA last summer and will be exhibiting at Grosvenor House in June. It is a shame that, apart from Blackwell’s, modern first edition dealers have stopped doing the fair. Perhaps it has something to do with its very antiquarian image. A move to Olympia might be positive in many respects, but it would be negative to lose the prestige of a central London venue. In an ideal world one would probably have two fairs.

In general book fairs are declining in quality, albeit increasing in quantity and perhaps the two are connected. As I started dealing full-time after the glory days of the late eighties, I never experienced the Russell fairs when people apparently queued all day to buy £500 books. Nowadays the people who turn up regularly are largely bargain hunters or hardened collectors who already have everything except the very scarce items. At the Russell last June, I only sold one book to a customer I did not already know. I am not saying the book fair concept is dying, but something needs to be done to attract new collectors. I am always struck by the numbers of cus-tomers in the shop to whom it would not occur to go to a book fair.

If I collected books, I would aim for neatness and completion. A missing book in the set of an author’s work would irritate me. Another type of collector is addicted to a particular class of book, for example pre-war crime novels in fabulous lurid dust-wrappers. Some people collect books of relevance to their occupation. I have just put together a set of Patrick O’Brian’s nautical novels for the ex-Commander of ‘HMS Victory’.

The stock on the shelves is to some extent our surrogate collection. Stephen and I enjoy the same sort of books and will usually buy something for the pleasure of having it — even if there is not much profit to be made — on the principle that you cannot have too many good books.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in April 1996

A Poland & Steery Co-production