Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Peter Miller

Peter Miller

I grew up in Blackpool and bought my first book at the age of twelve from a sixpenny stall on the way home from school. When I was a bit older, I started bringing the odd book down to Foyle’s. I can remember going into the cavernous basement which looked like a left luggage office, and trying to sell my books – with occasional success.
 I went on to read English and history at York and regularly visited Spelman’s bookshop, where I eventually got a summer job in 1968. Incidentally, there was rather a clutch of us at York at the time – Chris Johnson, Brian Lake, Mervyn Jannetta and John Fuggles. I don’t think I regarded Spelman’s as anything more than a temporary means of earning some money – although I found the environment very congenial. In those days I was more interested in finding work in a gallery or museum. Anyway, I much enjoyed working with Ken Spelman and we got on very well – he’d known me for some time and seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm for books.

As Mr Spelman was planning to retire, he decided to offer me a partnership in the business, which I accepted. I was only twenty-one at the time, with no other work experience. Looking back, I’m sure I didn’t appreciate just what a generous offer he’d made – 25% of the business and the freehold of the building. Mr Spelman duly retired in June 1973, and I found myself in complete control of the business at the age of twenty-six. I think Mr Spelman was unusual in making such a total break from bookselling. He certainly displayed a level of detachment most dealers don’t possess. But he’d always said that he wanted to enjoy a period of his life not dominated by the ‘profit principle’ – which is exactly what he did, spending much of his retirement developing a garden.

During the 1930s, Spelman worked at Bumpus and was very familiar with the grand London carriage trade. After the War, he unexpectedly inherited some money and used it to open the shop in York. I suspect he would probably have liked to run a rather political bookshop – he’d been a conscientious objector during the War. Instead he opened a more general secondhand shop, without much emphasis on antiquarian books. I remember a customer asking to see the antiquarian section, to which Mr Spelman replied, ‘We don’t arrange the books in chronological order’.

His shop was an example of how to do things decently. He was quite insistent about keeping good accounts and answering letters promptly – I’m not so good at that! He also taught me many of the basics – how books should stand on a shelf. Ideally, you should be able to pull out a book without affecting the position of the books on either side.

People often call me Ken Spelman, but I’ve never considered changing the name of the shop. For one reason, it’s very important to maintain continuity and the good will, which goes with it. Also, I don’t need to see my name up there in lights. Funnily enough, Mr Spelman himself hated being called Ken. But he’d named the shop back in the egalitarian ’40s!

When I first took over the business, I made very few changes. It was, after all, a well-established shop with an effective way of doing things. With hindsight, I suppose I might have been a bit bolder – it took me a long time to rev up. I sup- pose I didn’t have any grand plan for the future – it just seemed a very congenial way of earning a living. But one of the nice things about secondhand bookselling is that you can allow your enthusiasms to flourish, and my own tastes have gradually become more and more reflected in the stock.

The look of a bookshop is very important to me. And, over the years, I’ve got Spelman’s the way I like it – an open fire, pictures on the walls, and the books standing up like little soldiers. The shelves came from an old subscription library in Bradford, which was disposing of miles of turn-of-the-century breakfront oak.

I hope visitors find the shop welcoming in an unobtrusive way. I still enjoy dealing with the public – something I thought was bound to dim. But I don’t particularly enjoy being stuck in the shop all day – my concentration needs a lot of re-charging, and I’m happiest doing a variety of activities. Nice chunks of work resolved in different areas – that’s my ideal day.

During my first few years, everything rolled along much as it had always done. Then, in the late 1970s, a new period began with the arrival of Tony Fothergill. He was at York University at the time and originally came to work for me on a temporary basis. In many ways, it was an exact repetition of my own experience with Mr Spelman. I saw at once that Tony had a lot of pep, and offered him a partnership in 1984. He took to computer technology – not my strong point – and started producing catalogues, which continue to be his great contribution to the business.

At about the same period, I became increasingly involved in committee work – first with the PBFA and then the ABA. I’m not particularly a ‘committee man’, but some so-called friend always nails you to the ground! In my case, it was Paul Hutchinson – a jolly nice chap, but very persuasive. . . ‘You’re the man for the job’, he said, and I found myself vice-chairman of the PBFA, working on the regional structure of the Association.

At the moment, I’m chairman of the ABA June bookfair committee. It’s a tremendous effort organising the move to Grosvenor House but, every now and then, things need a bit of a jolt. The fees have had to go up – and I’m quite sure the expectations of those exhibiting will also go up. The fair catalogue will be produced as before, but we intend to spend much more on publicity. I hope many exhibitors will discover that it really is the opportunity in the whole year to meet a lot of new customers.

I’m also involved in exciting plans for a post-graduate diploma in antiquarian bookselling at University College London. It still has to be formally approved by the Senate committee. But, all being well, the course should be starting in October 1994. The idea came up at a party a couple of years ago. I was having a drink with Anthony Rota and Barry Bloomfield and we happened to be talking about training for booksellers. With the decreasing number of general bookshops, the opportunity to acquire a proper training in antiquarian bookselling is also decreasing. Therefore, if the ABA is really serious about maintaining the highest standards, it should be addressing this problem.

The plan is for a one-year full-time and a two-year part-time course at University College London under Robin Alston. The teaching will be based on the existing syllabus for rare book librarians – with more practical aspects of the antiquarian book trade grafted on. As a joint enterprise between University College and the ABA, we shall be supplying our own lecturers for relevant aspects of the course. Quaritch have been very supportive – Nicholas Poole-Wilson, Andrew Hunter and Joan Winterkorn have already thrown their hats into the ring. Anthony Rota and Laurence Worms have also undertaken to do some teaching. And Barry Bloomfield has been immensely helpful with all his contacts in the library world.

Graduates will emerge with a proper grounding in bibliography, a knowledge of the reference literature and some familiarity with the workings of the trade. They will also become computer-literate in relation to antiquarian bookselling, by which I mean they will be familiar with all the essential databases. I’m sure they will also emerge committed, well-informed and in an excellent position to get jobs.

We’re hoping to attract a lot of overseas interest. I think it’s fair to say that London is still perceived as the centre of the antiquarian book trade and, as far as I know, there isn’t a comparable course elsewhere. I’ve also thrown my hat into the ring and will be teaching aspects of finance and law in relation to the book trade – (drew the short straw there ...) And I shall be lecturing on art and architectural books – much more to my liking.

I’ve always had a strong visual sense that informs my bookselling. If it looks nice, then I want it. If I have one serious regret in life, it’s my decision to go to university instead of art school. My grandfather was a commercial artist and designed the illuminations at Blackpool. I lived with him for a time when I was a boy and we went on sketching trips together. He was very encouraging – though he taught me a lot of commercial artists’ tricks, which I’ve never managed to shake off.

Over the years, I’ve kept on painting for my own pleasure. In 1988, I really tried to work at it and took three months off work to paint. We exchanged houses with a family in Italy – they got our home outside York and we got a marvellous farmhouse overlooking Fiesole and Florence. A very unfair exchange! Anyway, I painted every day, mostly geriatric watercolours and all so derivative – Cézanne wishing to be Bonnard.

I suppose I couldn’t expect much else in three months, but I was just hoping for a bit of fluidity. Somehow I couldn’t release myself – the energy and the brio simply weren’t there. When I got back to the shop, it took me a long time to settle down. Bookselling just doesn’t test me in the same way. I suppose I find it relatively risk-free – at least in an emotional sense. You don’t have to scoop very much from inside yourself. Anyway, I doubt if I’ll ever devote myself entirely to painting again.

Bookselling, in comparison, provides a lot of satisfaction – little explosions of pleasure every day. There’s always something new to discover and I still enjoy it tremendously. And I have the instant pleasure of being surrounded by art and architectural books, painting manuals and drawing books. I suppose one could call it my vicarious paddling in the shallows of artistic activity.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in November 1993


Ken Spelman died in 1995 having brought his garden in Norfolk to some maturity, as he had wished. The ABA Diploma foundered, being too expensive to run in London, though plans are still in place to resurrect it as a distance learning course.

The June ABA Fair was moved from Grosvenor House to Olympia in 1998 and, under Adrian Harrington’s guidance, has never looked back. And the painting? I still manage to do a little from time to time – but with no great improvement, I’m afraid.

Afterword added in 2004


Peter Miller

A Poland & Steery Co-production