Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Rudi Thoemmes and Rachel Lee

[Business as Usual]

Rachel Lee

I came to England in the summer before the 1974 World Cup. I was 16 at the time and originally came just for a couple of months. Somehow I got stuck here. I remember thinking the food was terrible and survived on food parcels sent from my parents in Germany. My father was in the book trade, working for Baedeker in Essen. While I was finishing my education here, I made extra pocket money by selling things like Punch to solicitors in Germany.

I started being a little more serious about bookselling when I went to Bristol University to read philosophy. Simon Finch was there at the time and he was also getting into old books. In my last year my bank manager was anxious to know exactly how intended to clear my overdraft. I told him that I was going into old philosophy books. After an initial gasp of disbelief, he was very supportive.
By the time I began dealing full-time, I already had a family to support and things were very difficult financially. I needed a loan but my bank manager was only authorised to lend up to a certain figure. I had something bigger in mind and my application was referred to head office and turned down flat. The problem was solved when my bank manager arranged to give me two loans in two different accounts.

During the early 1980s, no one else was specialising in philosophy and I moved into the gap. The timing was lucky and I had no real competitors which made it possible to build up a stock very quickly. Bernard Quaritch were starting to do human sciences, but they were very much at the top end, whereas I was dealing more with second-hand books. I was also lucky to be starting when it was still possible to sell large collections, especially to Japan. In my second year of bookselling, I began concentrating on that aspect and, by the mid-80s, it was almost too easy to make a lot of money. During that period we were basically a two-man business — I worked for a time in Gloucester with an assistant, and then moved to Bristol and worked with Herb Tandree who is now in charge of the secondhand department.

We were doing tremendous business and got very quickly used to earning big divis from the sale of collections. So we began to think that perhaps we could apply the same successful recipe to other areas. In some respects this turned out to be a big mistake. For example, we expanded very rapidly into modern art books at the wrong time. We also had the insane idea that publishing would go well with antiquarian books. I remember thinking there wasn’t much difference between old paper and new paper. But there was...
At the time we were doing a lot of business with Kinokuniya. After a boozey lunch with a friend who ran their London office, it was suggested that we should start publishing and that Kinokuniya would co-publish whatever we did. So we produced our first boxed sets on the history of philosophy. For the first eighteen months we didn’t have to think about what publishing really involved as Kinokuniya were selling our books so well in Japan.

After a couple of years, we began to realise that we didn’t know anything about publishing. It’s so different from selling old books. You’re not trying to find one customer for one book. You’ve got to find hundreds of customers for the same book. I always remember showing our antiquarian catalogue to a publisher’s agent in Malaysia. He said ‘I like those retail prices. But they’re going to be difficult to sell. I think I’ll just order one copy of each’.

So we went into the late 80s with two completely new animals to deal with —the modern art books and publishing. Meanwhile, our core business of selling collections had gone down. The market was largely driven by special budgets in Japan which were drying up rapidly. When your overdraft is bigger than your turnover, suddenly you have to stop and focus on what you’re doing, which is great for learning…

We cut out the modern art department and refocused on our core business of books on the history of ideas. I also came to the conclusion that the collection market was never going to come back in quite the same way and that something would have to be put in its place. Our publishing activities were already showing signs of going somewhere and so we decided to go for that area.
What we needed most was expertise in distribution, marketing and some more editorial input. Although Kinokuniya were still going strong in Japan, we needed someone who was powerful all over the place. At this stage I met David Croom, who was then managing director of Routledge. Within two minutes, we both realised there was potential for a joint publishing venture.

The outcome was Routledge/Thoemmes Press which is now established as a publisher of essential source material in the social sciences and humanities. We also have the Thoemmes Press which is entirely owned by us and specialises in the fields of philosophy and the history of ideas. Routledge has a very well-established distribution network which also has advantages for our second-hand and antiquarian books. Basically anyone who buys a new title from our publishing department automatically becomes a victim to receive our secondhand catalogues. Similarly, if there is a lot of interest in one of our antiquarian items, that title automatically becomes a candidate for reprinting. Historically a lot of the reprint houses of the 1970s grew out of antiquarian bookselling, for example Kraus and Garland. We also use antiquarian booksellers as editors - there’s a lot of under-utilised talent there.

These days I spend 95% of my time on the publishing side of the business. Rachel has taken over the antiquarian department but it’s nice for me to be able to stick my head in from time to time. We are members of the ABA and the Verband Deutscher Antiquare and have exhibited at the Stuttgart book fair. It’s probably the best fair in the world for meeting private customers. For some reason it attracts people who only buy books there. I would not particularly want to do a fair in this country, although we’ve done them in the past. I can’t say I’m very impressed by the ABA. Pettiness is a word that comes to mind. Somehow there’s a lack of vision and a third-rate atmosphere about it, by which I mean that it isn’t very professional and some of the best talent has been refused membership. As a foreigner, there’s also something offensive about the heavy presence of the English class system. All this stuff about cricket matches in pleasant surroundings ... They should look at other organisations and pick up some good ideas.

Having said that, I would not have liked to run my business in Germany. London remains the big book centre and it’s still much easier to trade here than anywhere on the Continent. As much as I agree with some of the ideals of closer European union, in practical terms it’s a load of bollocks — more difficulty, more bureaucracy and more forms. Why is it that it’s much easier to do business with the Far East than with Europe? Hans Marcus once told me that his big mistake was to stay in Germany after the War. There’s so much bureaucracy there and it’s all coming here. Hans was my sort of mentor and he’s told me some wonderful stories about the trade. I particularly like the one about a Dutch bookseller whose shop burnt down and the stock wasn’t insured. The next day, while the shop was still smoking, he set up a table and chair outside with a sign saying ‘Business as Usual’. It’s so important to keep at it and to see the funny side of things.

I always think if you can survive twins and still be semi-normal, everything else is easy. I have four children including twin boys who are now eight years old. My wife is a director in the business, but she’s not much involved on a daily basis. Rachel became a director four years ago. Although she’s in charge of the antiquarian department, she’s also looking at new subjects.

When people meet Rudi for the first time, they often expect an older man. He was still in his twenties when I started working for him. Sometimes we used to tell visitors that old Mr Thoemmes didn’t come to the office very often. I started in the book trade in 1978 as Dominic Winter’s assistant at Taviner’s. The first auction we did together, Dominic thought it would be a good idea for me to hold up the books. Nobody took any notice until I dropped a book and we soon gave up the idea. After a while, I graduated to doing ‘trips’ as we called them. This involved going off in the car and calling on all the dealers listed in Sheppard’s in a particular area.

The aim was to introduce our auction services and sometimes I had quite a hostile reception. But it was an exercise in confidence-building and I also made a lot of friends. I remember going to the Bournemouth area and calling on John Ruston’s shop which was run by Marco, his blue-point Siamese cat. Rudi and Simon Finch both came to our sales regularly while they were at Bristol University. The various auctions attracted an amazing variety of characters, including a woman who used to come to sales and steal the toilet rolls, light bulb and soap from the ladies’ loo. There were also people who brought volumes of Book Auction Records and sat there looking things up and bidding according to the last record.

Auction houses are such a good ground for learning. When I started with Dominic, I didn’t really know anything about books. But you learn quickly when you have the opportunity to see so much. The book department at Taviner’s steadily grew and we were able to take on a porter, but there were never more than three of us and it was incredibly hectic. We worked on a monthly sale schedule and often stayed all night to get the catalogue done. Somehow the mo-mentum carries you along — there’s a tremendous buzz in an auction house.

In 1987 I decided to go freelance and did some cataloguing for a number of people. But it didn’t work easily and was just too bitty. Dominic left Taviner’s the following year and, because of his partnership agreement, was not allowed to set up in the same business within a certain radius of Bristol. So he settled in Swindon and I found myself working part-time for him and part-time for Rudi in Bristol.
Dominic held his first sale in Swindon in the summer of 1988. We had terrible traumas producing the catalogue because of a computer fault, which was eventually traced to the hard disc. On the morning of the sale, there was a further trauma when Dominic completely lost his voice. A few minutes before the sale was due to start, he was still rushing round the chemist's trying to get something for his throat.

I was in a complete panic and rang Frank Herrmann begging him to send someone down from Bloomsbury Book Auctions. We had met a number of times and he gave me quite a talking to. Basically he wanted to convince me that I had all the knowledge to take the sale and that I should just go ahead and do it. I wasn’t so convinced. So I rang an auction house in Gloucestershire and they promised to send someone — but obviously not in time for the first lot. I was given a double whisky and started the sale. David Slade bought the first lot — I don’t think he particularly wanted it, but just to help me out. After about 150 lots, the relief auctioneer arrived. I never took another sale again. Although it’s something I would like to be able to do, the learning process is just too painful — not just for me, but also for all the dealers with trains to catch.

After a while, my work for Dominic and Rudi developed into two full-time jobs and I had to make a choice. I was living in Bristol and the journey to Swindon, especially on a foggy day, is not the nicest drive in the world. So in 1989 I started working full-time for Rudi with responsibility for the antiquarian stock. As we specialise in English and German philosophy of the eighteenth century, I have tried to improve my German and now have a grounding in the language. I have also tried to understand the subject better. But for writing catalogue descriptions, the main thing is to be able to explain why a particular book is important and where it fits into the history of the subject.

We buy a lot of our philosophy stock privately. When professors retire or die, we often buy their libraries. The name of Thoemmes is well known in academic circles. The late Karl Popper was a good friend of the firm. Only a few months ago, he wrote a piece on Thoemmes Press saying that he was very flattered to be amongst its authors as we always seemed to publish dead philosophers. Shortly after that he died.

I’m also involved in some of the company’s publishing projects. Recently I worked on a reprint of the first editions of Jane Austen’s novels, edited by Louise Ross with a new introduction by David Gilson. We have published a series of paperbacks on Subversive Women - radical texts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, written by women whose works were originally considered too dangerous for wide circulation. The series aims to point out that many of the arguments we assume to be more or less contemporary have in fact been around for a long time.

Although I don’t like labels, I suppose I would describe myself as a feminist. To me it simply means equal opportunities in all things. I have a two-year-old son and my partner is a golf professional. Kelvin works very long hours in the summer and at weekends, which means our child care arrangements are a bit seasonal. It’s quite usual to find people working here on a Sunday, simply because it fits in with their domestic arrangements. Thoemmes is a very easy-going company.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in October 1994

Rachel Lee

A Poland & Steery Co-production