Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Norman Storey

Norman Storey

My father was only eighteen years old when his father died suddenly, leaving him with a mother and three young sisters to support. Dad used to kick around doing anything he could get until this tragedy happened. His uncle, Ben Bailey, was a very successful bookseller with a shop in Newington Butts. Ben was persuaded to take my father on at eighteen shillings a week; he gave his mother seventeen and retained the other shilling. Dad worked for uncle Ben from 1906 to 1929, with a break in the First World War when he served as a despatch rider and transport driver.

One day my father came home and told my mother that he had got the sack. I remember his exact words and, with a child’s imagination, pictured Uncle Ben giving him an actual sack. It turned out that Ben’s son, Percy, had been acting dis- honestly in the business. My father told him, ‘Either Percy goes, or I go.’ Now Ben was a bluff old boy and he wasn’t going to sack his own son. So dad left. He had £40 to his name and a young family to support. My mother reminded him that he had been going to Ireland for a sale on Ben’s behalf, and told him to go on his own account. He went to the sale and made £100, a fortune in those days, and it set him up in business. From 1929 till his death in 1955, he built up a very successful book business, first in Enfield, then Cheshunt and, from 1935, in Cecil Court.

Before the War, my father and Bill Fletcher used to pal up and travel the country together. Dad always owned a car and drove to auction sales when most of the booksellers went by train and had to struggle home with sacks of books. On one occasion my father drove to a sale and the auctioneer announced that there would be a delay until the booksellers’ train arrived. Quick as a flash, dad said, ‘It’s all right, sir. We’re here now.’ The sale started and my father bought all the books and was off in his car before the others turned up. He probably attended more auction sales than any other bookseller, driving thousands of miles with Bill Fletcher. There’s a story of the two of them on their way to a sale in the depths of the country and turning a vital signpost the wrong way....

The ring operated prolifically before the War, and afterwards to a degree. It was always controversial. But this is one way to look at it – though I’m not advocating any particular view: if a bookseller buys at a sale, the vendor receives the benefit of his knowledge for nothing. When the ring buys a £100 book for £20, the vendor obviously suffers. But if he had paid a bookseller to value his property in the first place, he could have put on an appropriate reserve.

As a child, I told my father that I wanted to be a bookseller because he always had money in his pocket. He was very pleased when I decided to join the family business, but wanted me to get other work experience first. I worked for a hosiery manufacturer before going in with him in 1942. The following year I joined the Royal Air Force as a rear gunner with Bomber Command. Some time ago the Evening Standard ran an article on my experience in Lancaster bombers. The journalist picked up on my fear of heights – when I climb a ladder in a bookshop, I still feel giddy. Strange, when I’ve been 21,000 feet over enemy territory without a parachute. I was too tall for the cramped gun turret, so my parachute had to be stored in the fuselage. If ordered to bale out, I would have had to open the turret doors behind my back, reach for the parachute, clip it on, swing the turret through forty-five degrees and roll out backwards over the Ruhr.

In 1947 I was back in London. My brother, Gordon, came out of the Navy at the same time. My father had two shops in Cecil Court, number three and number nine, which he turned into a nautical bookshop after buying the library of Francis McMurtrie, editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships. At the time we were the only big dealers in naval books with Francis Edwards, and I soon turned it into a fantastic business. After the War there was a glut of books on the market. Estates were broken up and libraries that had been formed over hundreds of years were smashed up. My father remembered going to a vicarage to look at a library of theological books. Nobody wanted them and they were literally throwing them away. Then STC came out, and people started selling books by numbers. It was an odd situation – suddenly everyone went mad if a bit of tatty old theology was not in STC. At the same time, you could have a wonderful early illustrated book, but no one was interested because it was probably quite common.

Things were also pretty chaotic in Europe; so much had been destroyed. The Germans were coming across and I did very well with German illustrated books, which was rather funny as we’d just been in a bloody fight with them. There was also a French bookseller who came to Cecil Court regularly – Maurice Tisserand, a sort of Parisian cockney. He used to load up his car here and get through Customs by ‘charming’ the officer with gifts for his children. He kept his stock under a billiard table in a café in Paris.
 Max Elte was another great character, and a very important Dutch bookseller. He wouldn’t deal with the Germans for years after the War. Max had lived in the unpronounceable town of Scheveningen, and had come home one day to see his family being marched away by the Germans. He never saw them again. Max spent the War in hiding in Amsterdam. He never expected to return to find his shop intact. But a firm in The Hague had looked after his books, and he was able to start again after the War.

In the ’50s, we would get at least four or five good foreign customers a week. There was a chap named Meyer who came over from Jerusalem. My father had kept a Roberts Holy Land for him, bound in full red morocco gilt, as new. He wanted £60 for it, but Meyer protested, ‘ Storey! I couldn’t give you £60 for that. But I could give you £40.’ My father looked at him and said, ‘Meyer, if I was a thief, I could afford to sell books at your price.’ Meyer replied, ‘Storey! Don’t be an honest man on my behalf.’

We also had a lot of American visitors, especially the dealers around Fourth Avenue in New York – Sam Weiser, Jenny Rubinowitz, Albert Gutkin, Jake Brussel. They were all after the same books. If they arrived in the shop together, you had a job keeping the peace. Jenny ran the Fourth Avenue Bookstore, and was a great character. She used to come over by ship, arrive at Southampton and, en route to London, call on the Petersfield Bookshop. She never left the country without paying all her bills first.

In 1955 my father died unexpectedly. He had been to a sale in Monmouth and dropped dead on the way home, aged 67. I had only been married for a year when we were suddenly left with a business and no money; everything had been left to my mother. There was a man named Mercer who was our landlord in Cecil Court. He had done a lot of fire watching with my father during the War and they had been good friends. When I told him that I couldn’t afford to pay the rent as the business account was frozen, he did not press for payment. Bill Fletcher lent me £500 and I paid off my debts as quickly as possible. From then on I never borrowed a penny.

I never wanted to work for anyone else. I had a lot of imagination and would not have been able to use it in someone else’s firm. I used to bundle up books and sell them for half a crown, and buy imperfect incunables, take the pages out and mount them – at £1 a page. One of my customers taught typography and was delighted to buy as many different examples as I could get. Just little ideas, but they were popular.

Soon after my father died, there was an ILAB congress in London. I couldn’t afford to attend all the events, but I did go to one at which Jack Joseph was present. There was also a Swiss dealer by the name of Hegnauer. Joseph took us to dinner, because he knew that nobody else was going to take any notice of us at that occasion. Jack was a very strange man – hard as nails in business, but he could also be very kind. Hegnauer was interested in buying copies of Beattie’s Switzerland. We arranged that I would supply them to him for £3 10s. In those days Mr Howlett was one of the best runners – a very eccentric man who always wore a ragged old raincoat and carried a cardboard box tied with string. I gave Howlett the OK to buy as many copies of Beattie as he could find. In those days they cost between 25 and 32 shillings. I used to pack them up, six at a time, and send them to Hegnauer for £21. The money came back by return. When I tell you that we were living on £8 a week, it was a very good business transaction.

Unfortunately I didn’t see eye to eye in business with my brother, which was a big tragedy. In order to break up the partnership, I had to give him the highly profitable naval bookshop. But under a year later, Gordon’s business had closed down. Meanwhile I took over number three Cecil Court and concentrated on general stock, with a specialist knowledge of nautical books and fine bindings. I also specialised in sets and cornerstones in any important subject. For a while I also dealt in periodicals. Ben Bailey had been one of the great dealers in periodicals, and my father also dealt in them. But it was very hard work and too much for virtually a one-man business, with my wife acting as secretary.

I also had probably the best knowledge of First World War aviation. Eventually I had a collection of over 500 original titles published up to the 1930s. To give you an idea of the scale of my collection, a man came into the shop one day boasting that he had twenty-five books on First World War aviation – in other words, everything published on the subject.... Sadly no library in this country would pay for my collection and I sold it to the Australian War Memorial Library.

I used to travel around a lot like my father. I would get in the car with the intention of going up to Scotland. But by the time I got to Manchester, I had nearly always spent my money. So I belted back to the shop and sold the books as hard as I could. Then a few weeks later I would go off somewhere else. I never saw anything except the inside of bookshops and hotel rooms.

My trips to the States were very hard work, but good fun. I never spent a single night on my own, as I had friends all the way round from New York to San Francisco and back via Atlanta. When I arrived in New York with a wad of tickets, the air line staff used to say, ‘What you wanna do, boy, see America ?’ I did very well buying in New England where the runners – they call them pickers – knew nothing about European material or books on Australia. You could buy marvellous travel books at two dollars apiece. In those days many American booksellers were only interested in Americana, except of course dealers like H.P. Kraus who was up there and knew it. He would come across to London to buy all the highlights at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Frank Hammond would say to Charlie Traylen, ‘Sod it. Let’s buy the bloody books between us’.

Hammond and Traylen were the two really successful British booksellers of the modern era. Frank was a very hardworking and knowledgeable man, with tremendous imagination for bookselling. Many people disliked him, perhaps out of jealousy. I always got on well with him. He went on holiday once and lent me his new Rover, at a time when my wife and I had nothing.

You need some natural bent towards bookselling, in the same way that a racing driver is that much better at driving than the rest of us. You could learn book auction records off by heart – it wouldn’t teach you how to tell the difference between a good fore-edge painting and a modern forgery. In my shop I had a lot of prints all at different prices. A customer came in one day and asked why the prices were different. I told him that some were steel engravings, some were copper engravings, or woodcuts or hand-coloured and so on. Then he asked, ‘Where can I buy a book that will teach me all that?’ When I told him that, to the best of my knowledge, there was no such book, he said, ‘Then how am I going to learn ?’ I advised him to try to get employment with a good print dealer and, after ten or fifteen years, he would probably know enough to run a print business himself. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘that’s very funny’, and walked out of the shop.

There’s no substitute for knowledge. I used to watch Hammond and Traylen at sales and try to learn from what they were buying. I would also watch Jack Joseph who was a very shrewd buyer. There was a saying in the trade that a set of books was either a Joseph or a Marks set. A Joseph set had to be immaculate, but a Marks set could have a bit of damage.

I didn’t learn as much from my father as I might have done, but one or two pieces of advice stood me in good stead. My father had two sets of Carter and Mace’s Tut-Ankh-Amen. I had only been in the business for a couple of weeks when I was sent round to Sotheran’s to deliver a book. When I returned, my father asked me if I had recognised any books. I told him that I had spotted another set of Carter and Mace. He asked me how much it was, and I replied that I hadn’t bothered to look assuming that it would be too expensive. Did I get a rollicking for that? My father was furious. ‘When you go into a shop and see a book you know, always look at the price. It might be their one mistake and you could pick up on it.’

Another thing my father taught me – if you can’t afford to pay for something, don’t buy it. We paid on the day the invoice came in. When I went out of my shop at night, I owed nobody anything. And I know for a fact that I was offered books for less money than firms that took two months to pay. My father also taught me not to worry too much about profit margins. It was profit that counted. I would buy a book for £20 and sell it for £25. When asked about this, I would say, ‘Wouldn’t you pick a fiver off the floor?’ In those days you could have small mark-ups because the supply was always there – you didn’t have to squeeze the last penny out of every book. I was in the business of buying and selling, know- ing what I was doing in a commercial sense. Eric Osborne was a classic example of a different style of bookselling. He worked for many years for Bert Marley at Dawson’s and was a wonderful researcher. Osborne would spend a week making a £1 book into a £2 book, or he would spend the same amount of time writing up a £250 book. Erudite people don’t necessarily make the most successful booksellers. You must have a commercial brain.

We’re in business to make money, but I feel that the book trade has become a bit too hard commercially. You see companies come and go, borrow a million and spend it like water, or individuals pop up with tremendous financial backing. This is a big change since my time. The other big change is the Internet. To my way of bookselling, you have to build up a personal relationship with your customers over many years, and be able to offer them exactly what they want. The Internet will take a lot of the personal touch – and the pleasure – out of bookselling.

There was more comradeship in the trade, more travelling around together because of the auction sales. We would all go up to a sale in the north – Frank Doel from Marks & Co., Bernard Simpson from Joseph’s, Johnnie Watson from Quaritch, and Charlie Harris from Francis Edwards. We would stay the night somewhere, have a few drinks and tell a few yarns. It was a good social life and made for friendships. The ABA used to give a dinner for every member who had done 50 years in the trade. Unfortunately they had given this up when my time came.... I was on the committee of the ABA until they wanted me to be President. I had a business to run and couldn’t spare the time. Over the years I attended nearly all the ILAB congresses and made some very good friends in Scandinavia where there were several booksellers of similar age and sense of humour – Hans Bagger, Ole Dam and Claes Nyegaard, to name a few.

In 1984 I sold the business and retired, aged 60. My wife and I moved out to Kingston and then recently to Eastbourne. Some booksellers like to go on and on, but I had earned my money and wanted to finish. In 1993 I was briefly called out of retirement by E. Joseph who wanted me to advise them. David Brass had sold the business to an American firm, and they needed some help. My name was suggested and I agreed to a day a week consultancy. I gave them a lot of sound advice and recommended that they move to a ground floor shop. The Vere Street offices were no good for a firm dealing in the carriage trade.

In Manhattan, space is limited so they build up in the air. People think nothing of going to see their solicitor or bookseller on the tenth floor. But in London people like to go in and out of shops, and you can’t change the mentality. I had the door of my shop open in the summer and people would come in and look around. When I closed the door, they were more reluctant to come in. Imagine trying to get them to go upstairs – immediately they feel committed to buying something.

I enjoyed my bookselling and my name was good in the trade. If I had borrowed money or been more ruthless, I could have made much more. But I was happy the way I was. I still have an interest in books, and will buy something now and again but more to amuse myself. People don’t have to like me, but nobody can turn round and say Norman Storey did them a bad deal.

Nowadays I’m President of the Air Gunners’ Association, which takes up a lot of time and gives me great pleasure. The Association was started after the War and I’ve been involved with it from the beginning. Nobody who wasn’t part and parcel of flying during the War can imagine the wonderful esprit de corps. I have been very lucky on two counts. Firstly I have enjoyed the comradeship that exists between all aircrew of World War Two, and have had many a pleasant evenings swapping stories over a few drinks with German night fighter aces, one of whom actually shot down over 70 of our Bombers. Secondly, I have had a wonderful so- cial life in the antiquarian book trade, travelled widely, and made so many good friends throughout the world. My business was good fun; my work was a pleasure. Life owes me nothing.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in June 2001




Norman Storey

A Poland & Steery Co-production