Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Peter Burridge

[A Bookseller and his Duty]

Peter Burridge

In my final year at college I joined some friends on a trip to India in an A35 van. We got as far as Turkey and then diverted to the monastic state of Mount Athos in northern Greece. I immediately became hooked on Athos and later wrote my doctoral thesis on its monastic architecture. After qualifying as an architect, which had always been my chosen career, I spent a couple of years in prac-tice. I also worked as an investigator in the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments, before joining the School of Architecture at Hull where I lectured for over twenty years.

During the early 1970s I spent two years’ leave of absence as Research Fellow at the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. The opportunity largely arose from my work on Athos, and gave me the chance to extend my studies into the early Christian monasteries of central Anatolia following in the footsteps of Sir William Ramsay. The political situ-ation in Turkey at that time was a bit dicey. There was a major problem with terrorism and the Institute was under armed guard. As the poor lad had no watch, he did not know when the curfew had been lifted and it was not unusual to hear a rifle being cocked as one came and went.
My duties at the Institute included looking after the library, with which I became very involved. It contained a first-rate archaeological collection relat-ing to Turkey and adjacent areas. Although there was an active purchas-ing policy, the library was grossly under-funded, as is regrettably the case with so many similar institutions which rely to a great extent on gifts. My work in the library gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn about early travellers in the region and to get to know their books. They became friends and my involvement with them sowed the seed that grew into Quest Books.

By the mid 8Os I decided that it might not be a bad idea to build up a book selling business based on the expertise I had mainly acquired in Ankara. The name of Quest came to me in a flash of inspiration — I think I was in the bath at the time. It seemed appropriate both for my interest in archaeology and travel. I looked in various directories to make sure that no one else already had the name. There was no Quest Books in the 1983 Sheppard’s, although one was listed in Dorset a few years earlier. Unfortunately I did not have the gump-tion to pickup the telephone and check if it was still in existence. There is in fact a business of that name still operating in Weymouth today. As far as I know, there has only been one occasion when some-thing intended for me was incorrectly addressed.

Quest Books came into existence in 1984, but was very low-key until I was able to devote all my time to it. Bookselling is a full-time job and not some-thing to play at. As soon as I hit 50 in 1988, I took early retirement to devote myself to Quest. The business had been chugging along for a few years, while I began to learn the ropes and do a few book fairs.

If the diploma in antiquarian bookselling had existed when I retired, I would have done it before anything else. There is so much to learn and I believe the diploma is an excellent way to grasp the rudiments of the trade and much more. Instead I was fortunate to have tremendous friends — one just has to think of some of the booksellers near me in York. Peter Miller, Tony Fothergill and Colin Stillwell were all very supportive. In fact I found colleagues gener-ally willing to share their expertise. Bill O’Neill is one of my best friends in the book trade. He is of course a great expert on Greece, Turkey and other areas of the Middle East where he has lived and travelled extensively. Although he did not exactly sit me down on a toadstool and tell me what I needed to know, I learned a tremendous amount talking books with him over glasses of whisky.

The business is based at my home in Millington, a village near York. My wife, Veronica, is a librarian by training and keeps things running on a daily basis with Nicola Mole, our assistant. Nicky came to us purely by chance at a moment when our typist walked out on the eve of a catalogue. Nicky meanwhile had just moved into the village. That very evening we went over to meet her, and discovered that not only was she looking for a job but that she also had experience of the book trade working for Sawyer’s.

Veronica and Nicky do everything from invoicing to packing, while I buy the books, write the catalogues and maintain contact with our customers. For a while I also had shelf space in Jack Duncan’s shop in York, where Mark Christodoulou has first-rate medieval stock. But I soon found that I needed to put all my resources into catalogue production. Nowadays catalogues are the shop window of Quest, and I believe they must always be our strength. It is essential to be able to describe a book accurately, to appreciate its qualities — both plus and minus — and to put it in its context. Ideally a good bookseller’s catalogue should serve as a bibliographical reference work. I would love to have the time and ability to produce a first-rate bibliography of my area of interest, which would inevitably overlap with Leonora Navari’s catalogue of the Black-mer collection of books and manuscripts on Greece and the Levant.

In our current catalogue we have a selection of journals in the field of Byzantine studies. It is impossible to work on orthodox monasticism without being involved in Byzantine studies and ipso facto I have become a Byzantinist. France and Germany have a tremendous tradition in this field, but there is also a lively interest in the States, Japan and some Australian universities are building up impressive Byzantine departments.
People working in this area today are more likely to be remembered for their scholarship than for their travels. I would love to have been born 150 years ago and to have travelled in the Levant. The age of the great travellers is ebbing away. Nowadays one can no longer hope for the kind of discoveries that Robert Curzon made in his Visits to Monasteries in the Levant.

I have a tremendous respect for Gertrude Bell and David Hogarth whose books are still very much in demand. J.B.S. Morritt is perhaps not such a familiar name. He travelled in the Levant in the late eighteenth century and his published letters include a marvel-lous account of the Mani, very rarely visited in those days although it has recently been put on the map by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

As a result of being a specialist bookseller, I have the opportunity to get to know my customers, and at least once a year I meet a good few of them at confer-ences and PBFA book fairs. When I buy a book I can probably put four or five customers’ names to it immediately. There is a great satisfaction in finding the right home for a book. This is particularly true of an academic book when it goes to someone doing good work in the same area. When I was a full-time acad-emic, I was looked after by friendly book-sellers who knew my needs and kept me informed. I was in fact receiving the service I am now trying to offer.
The growth of the specialist bookseller has been one of the more striking changes in the trade over the last twenty years. Of course it has not always been change for the better. I regret the loss of general secondhand bookshops that existed in virtually every major town. But I do not believe that specialist dealers contributed to their disappearance which is more likely to be explained by the rise in high street rates and rents.

Occasionally one meets a general bookseller — usually rather aged and for whom one has tremendous respect — who finds it perhaps a little difficult to accept that people are coming into the trade with different backgrounds and ways of selling books. But I feel very strongly that we specialists have something to offer the general trade. In a sense we work hand in glove with general booksellers by providing a valuable outlet for their more specialist stock.

I certainly do not believe there are too many dealers chasing too few books. In fact the number of books in circulation is increasing dramatically. One only has to compare the size of Whitaker’s Books in Print today and five years ago to see the increase. Over the next twenty years these books will become the secondhand booksellers’ stock. There will of course be changes in the way we buy and sell them, due to the enormous developments in information technology. On thr whole however booksellers are not computer-friendly. I certainly need to see and touch a book before I can sell it.

Looking ahead I hope to expand our catalogues both in quality and quantity. But I would always aim to stock books for the impecunious student as well as the established collector. When it come to pricing, some members of the public find it difficult to understand the level of overheads that most booksellers face. I heard a case the other day of an academic who sold his library and was appalled at the prices charged for his books in the dealer’s catalogue. We need to get the message over that bookselling incurs certain expenses — catalogues are not cheap to produce — so that members of the public can accept the need for a realistic mark-up.

A bookseller needs to be aware of certain professional responsibilities — he or she owes a duty to the people from whom he buys and to whom he sells. But he also owes a duty to be fair to himself. Quest Books would not survive if it did not make a profit. The balance struck must be perceived as fair by all parties.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in August 1996

Peter Burridge

A Poland & Steery Co-production