Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Robert Frew

[Organic Bookselling]

Robert Frew

I had been working in the movie business in America and could not find a job when I came back to this country in 1976. You could say I got into the book trade by default. Julian MacKenzie, my best mate from Cambridge days, was working at the time for David’s book shop. With his advice and help, I took over a stand at Camden Lock and started selling a few books. It was all completely new to me, although Jules had often talked about the trade.

At that stage bookselling was very much a stop-gap situation. I was also working in a restaurant and had started doing a Law course, having originally gone to Cambridge to read Law and then dropped out into more secondary subjects. In my first year of bookselling, Bernard Shapero came up to me with a Baedeker. He was only a school kid at the time. When I told him what I thought it was worth, he laughed in my face. It was obviously some rarity that I had failed to recognise.

While I was at Camden Lock, I teamed up with Malcolm Manwaring who was rather more serious than I was. A shop became available in Primrose Hill which he was interested in setting up. So a plot was made to take it over with Malcolm, Jules and possibly myself. I had become disillusioned once again with the Law and made a decision to give up all previous efforts and concentrate on bookselling.
After a few years Jules and I bought Malcolm out. As we had no money, we had to think of a way to give back his third share. He was happy to take it in kind and we ended up with a complicated deal whereby he went round the shop removing every third book. Each shelf had been valued at, say, £1,000, and Malcolm could take every third book up to the value of £333. If it happened to be something we particularly wanted to keep, we had the right of objection.

For a long time I used to be more of an administrator than a bookseller. Jules was definitely the key buyer. It was great having someone around who was so knowledgeable but, on the other hand, the only way to learn is by getting your hands dirty. Most of our selling was done through the shop, with a bit of an add-on for book fairs. Our first fair was phenomenally successful. It was at the Kenilworth Hotel and we were mobbed by the trade - as all new exhibitors are. I have a distinct memory that we took £600, and that was in the late seventies when it was difficult to get £60 for Pardoe’s Beauties of the Bosphorus.

Our stock was very general second-hand and antiquarian - Dickens first editions, Arthur Rackham, bits of travel, sets and bindings. We had a bit of a flirtation with selling new books which was not terribly successful. By and large things were going along OK. Primrose Hill Books was quietly growing, but we were constantly broke. One day a friend of ours from Cambridge days, who had become a successful banker, said ‘the problem with you boys is that you are undercapitalised. What you need to do is a Business Expansion Scheme’. This was all done over too many glasses of retsina in the local Greek restaurant.

In the book trade we were the first and last to have tried the Business Expansion Scheme which is now dead. We bent over backwards in our prospectus to stress that shareholders would not be investing in books but in a successful business. It was definitely not a scheme to sell portfolios of books as investments. This was an important distinction and one which we wanted to stress - partly because we believed that promoting books as investments was a dangerous line to take, and partly because we were aware that the ABA was against the concept after the Francis Edwards fiasco. In the event we still got chucked out of the Association, which we had only just joined, because, they argued, the ownership of our company had changed - we had become minority shareholders in the new Frew MacKenzie plc.

Unfortunately, as the E. Joseph debacle has shown, serious financial investment has inherent problems for the book trade. To launch the Scheme, auditors set a sum to be raised which they judged to be the minimum capital required to make the business viable. We were then allowed forty days from the time the prospectus was issued to raise that sum, which was set at £270,000. The fortieth day was going to be Christmas Eve 1985, which was a Friday.

On the Monday of that week we had only raised £100,000 and stood to lose everything. If you don’t make the figure on time, you have to return the money and pay the legal and accountancy fees which were already looking like £50,000. In the end we just scraped through to our minimum. Frew MacKenzie plc moved into 106 Great Russell Street and we had the money to kit out the shop nicely and to buy some good books.

The Scheme certainly raised a few eyebrows - some people thought it was a clever idea and others thought we were just being flash. The worst consequence of losing ABA membership was that we were denied access to the major American book fairs. Within the Association, I think there was a feeling that we were a couple of wide boys and what the hell did we know? Perhaps we were a bit green at that stage.

Frew MacKenzie plc lasted for approximately five years. It proved to be much more difficult to move the requisite number of books to cover our overheads, which had increased enormously. It’s difficult to define exactly what went wrong. Jules and I were very heavily motivated and really wanted to make it a success. If nothing else, we would keep a job and our share holding would increase in value.
Things became gradually more difficult. Hill Samuel had huge internal problems and we went through six bank managers in a year. They had started off being sympathetic to booksellers, but in the late eighties this rather waned and they were calling in loans all over the place. In the end they called in the overdraft and we were forced to start cutting costs. Jules was offered a job with Bernard Shapero, and I tried running the business on my own for a while.

It soon became obvious that I wasn’t able to turn it round single-handed and Frew MacKenzie plc came to an end in early 1993. I feel very guilty about letting down the shareholders who lost most of their money, but it certainly wasn’t through any malicious intent. By this time I was already on good relations with Pan (Panagiotis Chantziaras) who had a book business in Athens. He’s been a bit of a White Knight and we both put together a deal. Pan sold some of his stock and with his cash we were able to buy back the assets of Frew MacKenzie. In our offer to the shareholders, we undertook to take over the lease of the shop which would otherwise have been a liability to the company. Pan sold his business in Athens and moved himself and his family to London. We are now partners in Robert Frew Ltd. This time the ABA did not object to renewing our membership.

In Athens Pan had been limited to dealing mainly in Greek books and, although he did this very successfully, it suited him to join a somewhat bigger affair. I had the infrastructure and experience to offer a more global business. We have different areas of knowledge but tend to complement each other. Pan is very bold and I’ve fed off that to a certain extent. He encourages me to take more risks - calculated risks.

For many years Frew MacKenzie had emphases rather than specialities. Ben Weinreb really underlined to me the importance of having a speciality and we do now specialise in Greek books. This first came about largely by accident when we bought a very good library of 18th and 19th century Greek travel about fifteen years ago. That was my introduction to the subject and now I have a Greek partner.
We are also trying to build up our stock of early Greek printing, which feeds on from the travel books. It’s important to progress outward from a point of knowledge, rather than launching off in a completely scatter-brained way. A speciality helps you to develop a clientele and a reputation which can underpin a lot of other activities.

Since I went into partnership with Pan, we have increased our sales of prints and maps quite considerably. Of the people walking past the shop, one in a thousand is a potential customer for an antiquarian book, whereas 50% might buy a print. I suppose everybody has walls and puts something on them. The advantage of having a shop in Central London is that we do have a good through-put of people from all over the world. Our business is vastly dependent on export. The English collector has become minimally important in the grand scheme of antiquarian bookselling.

We talk a lot about getting a bigger shop, but it’s down to having the right staff. If you want to expand seriously, you need to have staff who are capable of adding on business. To a certain extent you can grow by dealing in more expensive books and keeping it all very minimalist. This is what you might call the Don Heald approach - a tough act to imitate.
Although our existing staff are very good, they can’t create new business because of the roles we give them. My assistant, Kate, is very keen to start dealing but I need her to do the administrative work. The problem with this business is that it’s very difficult to delegate. You can’t formularise bookselling; it’s not like selling sweets.

Recently I entertained students from the Diploma Course in Antiquarian Bookselling. As I showed them round the shop, I found myself saying that the most important thing was hands-on experience. There’s nothing wrong with the skills they are being taught, but the Course will certainly not make them booksellers - just as a student fresh from medical school is not yet capable of being a brain surgeon.

In our business people often don’t appreciate the importance of the dealing factor. There’s a lot of difference between being able to catalogue nicely and knowing what is a saleable book. I’ve seen very knowledgeable people make rotten booksellers. It’s very important to know what is in demand at any time. Auctions are an obvious way to spot the trends, but it’s essential to attend sales and not to rely on auction records. A book may sell for £1,000, but you have to be in the room to know that there were only two people interested in it at that level. You need that extra information before you can judge what is hot property at any one time.

Book fairs are also a very good school for learning because you see what actually sells. I’m the titular manager of the PBFA fairs at the Hotel Russell - though I can’t emphasise enough the amount of work that other people do. The organisation of the fair is constantly being looked at and thought about. The February 1995 Newsletter contained results of the London fair questionnaire, and the message seemed to be that there was no real consensus about any particular change.

If the average take was drastically falling or exhibitors were defecting to other fairs, one would certainly look at things very carefully. The story of desertion to the Royal National Hotel is a much over-played card. Putting on my dealing hat again, I’ve consistently found the Russell fair worth getting out of bed for on a Sunday morning. There's a hard core of about 100 exhibitors who really make the fair work for them.

Every time I pack up for a book fair, it’s the same nightmare. I look at the stock and think ‘God Almighty! What have I got here? It’s all been to such and such a fair already’. But whenever I go to a fair thinking I’ve got lots of fresh stock, I usually do badly. There’s something very important about the struggling factor. When you turn up with nothing to put on your stand, you are forced to go round buying. And buying skilfully, thinking about every single purchase ‘Can I sell this at a profit now, soon, reasonably soon, ever?' It’s vital to retain that focus which is easier to do when you’re struggling.

A lot of people dream of getting capital, but it can reduce this ability to focus. I’m probably one of the few people in the book trade who have been there and done that. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that a large injection of cash is not necessarily a good thing. Growth needs to be organic. It should come from within your business and develop according to your capability.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in March 1995

Robert Frew

A Poland & Steery Co-production