Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Robin Greer

[Travels in Wonderland]

Robin Greer

I started bookselling in 1967 in Chelsea Antique Market. Originally the plan was to sell general antiques and bits and pieces of junk. But I had an uncle, George Greer, who was a bookseller and he advised me to have a few books and prints on my stall. I quickly discovered that I had a natural affinity with the books whereas, if I liked a piece of china, it was usually not worth having. John Russell Taylor’s The Art Nouveau Book in Britain had just come out and it became my bible. There was a Rackham and a Dulac in my first pile of books, and my eyes took a shine to them immediately. Within a month of opening, I was concentrating only on books.

After three years or so in the Market, I opened Chelsea Rare Books. Initially I just took a half-shop in the King’s Road, which had been occupied by an estate agent. Among the odds and ends left behind, I found a notebook in which someone had written, ‘another day passes, and no one has come in’. I also found an oil painting of Diogenes in his barrel - just to complete the scene. After a few months the tobacconist next door asked if I would buy him out - and, I must say, it was great fun having a sweet shop, if only for a few hours. I put up a sign in the window saying, ‘Half Price Sweets’, and people drew up in vans. Within half a day everything had gone. Curiously enough Mark Lawrence was just down the road - a tobacconist who became a bookseller.

I began to irk under the responsibility of running a shop. After seven years of dealing with the general public, one begins to tire of the question, ‘I had that book when I was a child. Why is yours so expensive?’ I also disliked the fact that interesting items tended to go before one had time to research them. Nor had the opportunity for private buying materialised to any extent. However I was probably being impatient as I gather that Leo and Philippa Bernard had plenty of opportunity when they bought the shop in 1973.

Of course working from home has its own drawbacks. There are the interruptions of family life, and the difficulty of convincing one’s partner and children that sprawling on the sofa with a book counts as work. I have to remind myself that it is terribly important to get out and about as much as possible. One needs to keep in touch, look around and see what is actually available. After all, statements of rarity must be based on something.

Nowadays I am able to spend much more time researching, which gives me great pleasure. Perhaps it satisfies thwarted scholarly ambitions. My involvement in the Imaginative Book Illustration Society can probably be explained in such terms. IBIS was formed in 1995 by Geoffrey Beare, a collector, and myself. We felt that there was a need for a society to help promote research into the subject of imaginative book and magazine illustration. As I explained in an article published in the ABA Newsletter (December 1998), the aim of IBIS is to stimulate bibliograph-ical research. Each of the ten newsletters published so far has had, as its core, a working bibliography of an illustrator - from Charles Bennett to Erroll Le Cain. This year will see the publication of our first Journal, to which I am contributing a bio-bibliography of Willy Pogany, one of the major illustrators of the Golden Age.

When I started bookselling, there were very few dealers in children’s and illustrated books. During the last thirty years the field, and indeed bookselling in general, has been transformed out of all recognition. One has only to think of Justin Schiller’s contribution to the whole world of children’s literature, and the sheer size and scope of the Weinsteins’ business at Heritage Book Shop.

Some wonderful children’s books are still being published today. The Roald Dahl books, for example, have already become classics. It is not difficult for an adult to spot a good children’s book - after all, some of us never grew up... As a dealer, it is important to be aware of trends in popular culture. One’s investment last Christmas should probably have been a Teletubbies ‘Annual’.

I have also worked quite a lot in the field of travel books. I started The Traveller’s Bookshelf with my good friend Jenny Steadman. Although Jenny does most of the work, it is very pleasant to be involved. Travel literature is great fun - almost as much of a wonderland as children’s books. Although it makes commercial sense to buy the same books over and over again, I love buying completely fresh material. When I look at financially successful businesses, there always seems to be a certain ‘regularity’ of stock. But I like to buy something I have never seen before; the filter of interesting material inevitably brings one into contact with interesting collectors.

When I think back on the early days, there must have been so many wonderful books that I overlooked. I would love to get in a time machine and travel back thirty years. The depth of the market is so remarkable and that is the fun of the trade.
When I had Chelsea Rare Books, I remember getting hold of a virtually complete set of Trollope novels to show a customer. He had expressed a strong interest in collecting Trollope and duly arrived in the shop, with his bibliography, and started going through the books. Several hours later he announced that he no longer wanted to collect Trollope. What was the point? There was no fun in the chase - a cheque would buy it.

It is possible to make a general rule that if you just buy for money, it will be a bad investment. But if you buy because you love the book, you may possibly also make money. I enjoy my books as much today - if not more than ever. Of course there have been ups and downs in one’s enthusiasm but, by and large, as a cross-section of humanity, booksellers and book collectors are a pretty nice bunch of people.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in April 1999

Robin Greer

A Poland & Steery Co-production