Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Sally Edgecombe

[A Labour of Love]

Sally Edgecombe

‘Must we talk about me? I’m sure you’re much more interesting. By the way, you’re younger than you sound on the telephone. I don’t know what I was expecting, but not you. And you seem awfully jolly for someone who doesn't drink. I read that in one of your articles. It must have come fairly near the beginning as I never read more than the first paragraph. After that you tend to go on about books.

‘I must say I worry about your tape-recorder. There’s such a fearful hubbub going on here. (An Italian restaurant in the throes of an office party.) You’ll find I sound exactly like a duchess. Don’t you want any of this lovely wine? Dear God! I hope you’re not a Vegan as well. Philhelmina! (Enter the restaurant owner.) This lady’s going to grill me. Let’s have some brandy.

‘If you really want to know, I’m not a duchess. My father was a soldier, and I grew up in Ireland during the War. It wasn't a bookish home. I read William, Enid Blyton and that sort of thing. And, being convent-educated, I’m really quite uneducated. I’m 53 now, which is important to mention as so many people like to think they’re younger than I am.

‘When I first walked into Clarke-Hall’s bookshop, it was like entering a different world. I was working for a solicitor at the time, and thought I was perfectly happy till I heard myself asking for a job. That was back in 1959 and I started in 1961 after a few hiccups hither and yon.

‘The shop belonged to Justin and Adelaide Clarke-Hall. They were the most wonderful people. I came from a rather strait-laced background and there was something very liberating about their almost hippy approach to life. It gave me a tremendous insight into another kind of living.
‘At the time I joined, the shop was in Wine Office Court, opposite The Cheshire Cheese. The prints were in the basement, secondhand books on the ground floor, and I worked on the new books upstairs. It was an absolute flood of books, and there were times when I just felt like going away to travel a bit. But, in 1964, my daughter was born and Justin made me a partner in the firm. I’m terribly close to my daughter and, when she was born, I really began to concentrate on working for her future. Now she’s a 27 year old graduate, my partner in the firm, and comes in to help me out when she can.

‘In 1969, the firm moved to its present premises in Bride Court, with the print department in a shop opposite. It was around then that I became more involved in the older books. Justin had a good stock of Dickens and Trollope. But if someone asked for a book he didn’t have, he was inclined to leave it at that. I thought we ought to try a bit harder. In those days we didn’t have any Johnson, although customers were always asking for it. I encouraged Justin to buy a Dictionary, and he sold it almost immediately.

The Clarke-Halls were very unworldly people. In fact, I was quite worldly in comparison. But they wanted someone with a fresh approach, and rewarded me with generosity, responsibility and even love. After Justin had a stroke in 1974, Adelaide more or less said to me, "OK, kiddie, you
get on with it".

‘So I took over and had a very difficult first few years. Almost as soon as I started, the boundaries of the London boroughs changed and — not to bore you with the details — we lost about 50% of our library trade. This really affected the sale of new books, so we started madly cataloguing the older material. It was very hard work and long hours. When I was eventually forced to see a doctor, he said I was suffering from a "heightened sense of responsibility". I suppose I’m a bit like a swan - calm on the surface, but paddling away underneath. I did manage to give up smoking, but I still have to chew gum, which, as one of my friends pointed out, most people give up by the age of two.

‘Bookselling can be a pain. Books are heavy and dirty, and I simply can’t bear counting plates and getting thirteen one time and twelve the next. A wise friend told me that you don’t have to know everything — just where to look it up. I’ve been selling books for thirty years, and I don’t know a damn thing about them. But I’ve learnt to say, "I don’t know. Tell me about it". Actually, it’s a sign of confidence to be able to say this. When you’re young, there’s a tendency to think that you’re expected to know everything from Johnson’s date of birth to Dickens’ date of death.

‘When I interview staff, I’m not particularly looking for a middle-class graduate. On the contrary, I’d rather have someone who’s had to fight her corner. (I don’t employ men. They look you up and down, think you’re a silly old woman and rip you off.) My girls tell me I’m a good boss. My present assistant told me I was the first employer to comment on her brain. She’s got a very good one, but she’s also good-looking and that some-times obscures one’s impression of any-thing else — (not that I’ve experienced this myself…) The same goes for Catherine Porter, who
was here for five years and went on to do very well at Sotheby’s.

‘Staff are very important. It’s no good going about playing the boss. Everyone’s got to work here and there’s no place for any passengers. It’s a kind of team spirit, and I a]ways try to give my girls a job where they can see the direct result of their efforts. I’m also rather keen on good manners. When you can’t find something in Marks & Spencer, an assistant will always take you to it, rather than pointing vaguely in the right direction. I like my girls to get up and help customers in the same way. It doesn’t matter if they don’t really know what they’re looking for. The fact is that the customer will notice: they have interrupted their own work to be helpful.

‘Most of my trade is - with private customers, which is the real pleasure of my business. I’m fascinated by other people, and I’ve had a lot of very entertaining customers. (Few of the stories are printable!) Many of them become friends and send postcards when they go on holiday. I find Johnsonians, in particular, are very friendly and generous with their knowledge. In a shop, you never know who’s going to come in and that’s the charm of it. I once had a six-foot Rastafarian asking for books on tatting. Anything’s possible. It often makes me think of my time at Unilever when I used to get up in the morning and know exactly what was going to happen all day. Bookselling’s not like that.

If I could run the shop on air, I would. Unfortunately, one has to know so much about money these days, and I’m just not interested in it — except in so far as it allows me to buy more books. I once tried to do the accounts myself, and the VAT people came down on me like a ton of bricks. They sat in the shop for two whole days and finally calculated I’d done myself out of twenty pence.

Apart from the customers, I suppose my other great love is buying. It’s rather like gambling, and I find it very exciting. Various people know what I’m looking for, and they come in to the shop and offer me books. You’d probably call them runners, but they’re much too dignified for that term. I used to go to auctions when Justin was here and Hodgson’s was round the corner. Sometimes I go out on the road, which I enjoy enormously, but I seem to be buying less and less. The trade’s in a bad way, and I’ve had to lend the firm quite a lot of my own money just to keep going. The overheads are crippling. As for having the separate print shops, of course it’s an indulgence. It means two rents, two business taxes, two everything.

‘Personally, I’m not very optimistic about the future. But I can’t speak for my colleagues, as I’m not in touch with many of them. Having said that, I shall always have a special affection for Martin Hamlyn. He’s funny, clever, scholarly and writes wonderful catalogues. I also have a very warm friendship with Michael Hosking who’s very clear-headed about the business of bookselling. And I’m fond of David Brass who was very kind to me when I started. But Clarke-Hall is not really a trader’s shop. My books are priced for the customer to put on his shelf and enjoy.

I did have a few years with the ABA, editing the newsletter. Perhaps they thought it was a suitable job for someone from Fleet Street. Anyway, Justin thought it would be rather a feather in my cap to get onto the committee. I’d almost given up trying when someone rang me up and said I’d been co-opted. I didn’t even know what it meant. Anyway, I did it for three and a half dreadful years. I’m definitely not a committee lady!

‘Did you enjoy the mashed potato? They do it so well here, and it saves one having to wash the beastly pan. Now tell me about yourself. Oh God! I can't believe you’ve got more questions. There’s nothing to say. I just walked into a bookshop and asked for a job. I suppose if I had my time again, I would make sure the business had proper financial backing. Justin and Adelaide were loving and caring, but they weren’t business people. Anyway I try to run the shop as they would have liked. There’s more to it than making a buck.’

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in October 1992

Sally Edgecombe

A Poland & Steery Co-production