As an undergraduate, I was able to indulge myself in the bookshops of Oxford, many of which are no longer there. Thornton’s in Broad Street was an iconic secondhand bookshop, where I loved spending my spare time. I knew nothing about what made a book collectable; I just knew what I liked. I was reading Physics and Philosophy, and was generally interested in the history of ideas. I would particularly look for old scientific books – initially with the intention of seeing how wrong they were, but always ending up impressed by how right they were. A lot of the ideas contained in books from, say, the 1850s echo the latest findings in modern science.
As a child, Nikola Tesla, the great Serbian inventor, was one of my scientific heroes. He is best remembered today for his dispute with Edison over electricity distribution, which was in effect the first standards war. Edison fought a dirty campaign to champion his direct current over Tesla’s alternating current. Tesla’s own publications are few in number, but his experiments were reported in a vast number of books dating from the late 1880s – vividly illustrated books on electricity, describing how to make an earthquake, sparks the size of a house, and other experiments likely to appeal to the young reader. Tesla became quite a cult figure as a result of the dispute with Edison, and certain items, especially the reports of his lectures at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers are quite valuable today.
I’m sure you rarely come across a bookseller who didn’t start life as a teacher. My only plea for originality is that I taught Physics. While I was teaching, I started doing the occasional book fair with my mother, who shared my enjoyment in handling old books. A member of the family suggested the name of Eagle Books, being the emblem of Bedford and, as my father was Polish, it also suggested the double eagle of Poland. We exhibited at modest little fairs in the area, and I soon found that I was enjoying it a lot more than lecturing on thermodynamics to sixth- formers. On my way to school, I would walk past a shop at the bottom of Magdalen Bridge. One day I noticed that it was being fitted out as a bookshop. I watched the shelves go up, and then the books come in and finally it opened as The Bookshop at The Plain. There was something about seeing someone else have a go that acted as a trigger for me, turning a dream into a real possibility.
My teaching colleagues thought I was fifty years too young to become a second hand bookseller. One colleague told me that he had never been in a second hand bookshop when there had been another customer present, and no one understood how such a venture could possibly pay the bills. But I continued to think about what I really wanted to do with my life and, on a visit to my parents in Bedford, I noticed that this shop was for sale with a flat above it. At the time it was occupied by a remarkable set of characters, selling organic carrots under the wonderful name of The Sunflower Wholefood Cooperative. I formed a natural bond with them, and they were delighted at the prospect of selling the premises to a bookseller.
I went to my bank in Oxford, explained what I wanted to do and asked if they would lend me the money. My request was met with the usual incredulity that a mortgage could be paid off by the sale of second hand books. But they asked for my business plan, and after a few weeks it was ‘goodbye’ to a nice regular salary cheque and ‘hello’ to the world of books. My mother and I took over the premises in July 1991, and it was shelved and ready for business by the end of August. A lot of people shook their heads sadly. Bedford’s reputation was not good either for sourcing or for selling books. I hope the Eagle Bookshop has done something to change this.
Over the years, as my mother’s role in the shop faded, my reckless side was in danger of going unchecked. Thankfully I have a wonderful team (Tony, Jean, Andrew, Patrizia and, most recently, Vanessa) who keep both the shop and its proprietor in some sort of order. Without my mother’s input in those early days, though, there would be no Eagle Bookshop.
For the first two years we received endless telephone calls about organic carrots. But the Cooperative’s customers were very supportive and provided me with a ready-made customer base. There were two local dealers who were both very supportive – Aidan Mackie, who specialises in G.K. Chesterton and is now in his 80s, and Richard Wildman who had a small shop, unfairly savaged in Driff ’s Guide. Hedley Morgan is another Bedfordshire bookseller, and a most accomplished one. He is easily the shop’s most frequent visitor and, over many years, his custom, advice and friendship have been invaluable. He instilled in me the importance of condition – his own books are always in superb condition.
In the early years, there was no money in the business but it was hugely exciting. I lived in the flat above the shop, and enjoyed lots of bachelor evenings, cooking sausage curries and talking philosophy long into the night. I met my wife through the shop. She was a regular customer to whom I had been giving increasingly large discounts. In the end it became cheaper to marry her! We have two young sons, both of whom like to help in the shop – Adam, I suspect, for the pocket money, but Freddie genuinely likes the books.
I have much enjoyed sharing ideas and learning from my customers who have always been very generous with their knowledge. As a scientist, literature was one of my areas of ignorance. Customers would come in and ask for a novel by the title, assuming I would know the author. I would scuttle off to my reference books, find the answer and come back looking more knowledgeable. There was a lot of bluffing at the beginning, but having a bookshop is the best university in the world. In my wild youth, although I didn’t read much literature, I was arrogant enough to enjoy writing bad poetry and scribbling down ideas for novels. Hisham Matar lived for a few years in Bedford, and we used to discuss our writing and encourage each other. A few years later his novel, In the Country of Men was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and went on to win the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. Meanwhile I’m still stuck on the thirteenth page of my novel.
I have a fondness for Percy Muir for introducing me to bibliography through his Book Collecting as a Hobby. In a series of letters to Everyman. It was a joy to read and filled me with enthusiasm to go out and explore the world of books. It was, of course, hopelessly out of date with its advice to look in the tuppenny baskets and pick out a few random examples of seventeenth-century books. The book itself has become a period piece but, at the same time, it contained a lot of valuable information. Seamus Stewart’s Book Collecting: a beginner’s guide is much less well known, but is also very good at communicating the excitement of book collecting. Every book in my shop is part of my collection – albeit a dynamic one. If I didn’t have this attitude to my books, it wouldn’t be the wonderful job that it is. Sometimes I really fall in love with a book and then perhaps I take it home, where I have a few things that I can’t see myself parting with – mainly the great landmarks in science.
It’s a common pattern for booksellers to end up with too much stock and no cash to pay the bills. We all love books and naturally try to accumulate as many as possible. I ran out of space in my shop within a few years, and in 1997 my wife and I moved out of the flat, and opened the first floor as a Science Room and a room for Mathematics and other Arts – Mathematics being the supreme art. In 1998 we expanded again, this time in terms of books, by taking over the entire stock and reference library of F. E. Whitehart, who had specialised in Mathematics. We also acquired Fred’s mailing list, and started to produce our own Science catalogues.
The increased shop space and the catalogue business enabled us almost to double our turnover in the space of a few years. We also launched our website which I like to think is rather different from the general run of booksellers’ websites (www. eaglebookshop.co.uk). I wanted something that would be fun to use – a virtual shop where you could just click your way around the shelves. A lot of people were involved in the project, and it was a wonderful example of a cooperative venture.
By 2004 we were running out of space again. I had just paid off the mortgage on the shop when the building next door came on to the market. I managed to persuade the bank to lend me the money for the next stage of our expansion. We were able to knock through the wall upstairs to create more space for the bookshop, and rent out the adjoining downstairs shop to pay the bills. In the event I changed my mind about the shop, and came up with the idea of opening it as a cooperative art gallery. A number of my customers were local artists who were always looking for somewhere to display their work.
The Eagle Gallery Artists was formed, and I receive a percentage of their sales to help pay the bills. This amounts to a fraction of what I could earn in rent, but the gallery brings more people into the area, and boosts our business indirectly. During the summer we have parties in the garden, and joint cultural events with the gallery, creating a little cultural centre in Bedford. It’s a case of thinking slightly imaginatively.
This business is about expanding without the quality going down. It’s important to keep the stock fresh. We use eBay to raise cash from old stock. Vanessa Kay is my first full-time employee and her work is largely devoted to looking after our listings on eBay – from scanning images to despatching orders. We started to experiment with eBay in 2006, and it has worked well as an exercise in cash flow management. I’m pretty ruthless about pruning the stock, and will happily reduce the price on anything that has been around for a long time. If it’s a collectable book and priced over £30, we’ll put it on eBay. For books in the £20 and under bracket, I’m happy to put them on our £2 shelves, or on our £1 trolleys outside.
The trolleys were quite an investment in hardware, but they sell an enormous amount of books, and encourage people to come into the shop. It’s important not to worry about selling a book too cheaply. You should make it easy for people to do business with you, and be prepared for the next person to make a profit. Don’t try to save money by closing one day a week or switching off the lights – give people a reason to come and visit you.
I predict that the secondhand bookshops that have survived the coming of the internet will become busier again, as people start to miss the hands-on feeling of browsing. Book collectors like the physicality of the object; they want to hunt in the corners of a bookshop, and not in the margins of a screen. It’s a myth that the younger generation is not interested in books. We have pupils from the local comprehensive school visiting the shop. They always ask to see the oldest book in the shop – children are fascinated by antiquity - and to see the ‘wow’ factor is one of my best moments in bookselling. I consider myself supremely lucky to work in the world of books.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in June 2008