Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Serge Plantureux

[A Window of Opportunity]

There are various versions of how I got started in bookselling. The one I choose today goes something like this. When I was about eight years old, a relative died leaving a house stuffed with interesting bits and pieces. I remember going to visit it with my father, who was keen for me to take an interest in the contents of the house and encouraged me to select a few items for myself. I chose some curious hat pins, a stamp collection and some books, although I couldn’t really appreciate them at the time.
A few years later, a similar situation cropped up. I was having a party with some school friends in an old house which was just about to be demolished. In the attic, I came across a stack of old books and took them to add to my collection at home. Although I wasn’t actually selling books at the time, I was already gaining useful experience in dealing -buying and selling stamps in the market in my home town of Châteauroux.

As for the books, another unusual opportunity came along when I was about seventeen. I was lying in front of the television with a friend one Sunday afternoon, doing absolutely nothing. This began to annoy my mother who grabbed a newspaper and read out an announcement about an auction that day, telling us to switch off the television and show some initiative.

So we went along to the auction and found a general sale in progress. The auctioneer was plodding through a large book section volume by volume, much to the boredom of the people in the room who had mostly come for the furniture. They were shouting at him to hurry up, so he announced that he would sell the remaining books in one lot. No one could really see what was left. But, as we were the youngest there, we jumped over the tables and got to the front. I had a quick look, liked what I saw and I bought the lot.

The time was coming for me to leave home and move to Paris to study mathematics. The first thing to say about being a student in France is that the system is totally different from England. Good students are encouraged and supported by the state and receive a monthly salary in addition to free board and lodging. Of course you are expected to work hard, but I still found time to pursue my growing interest in the book trade. I was still dealing in stamps to a certain extent, but the move to Paris opened a new chapter in my interest in books.

In fact I came to Paris with a dream. Have you read Balzac’s novel La Peau de Chagrin? Briefly, a young man visits an old antique dealer and wants to buy a piece of magic leather which has the power of preserving youth. The novel contains the most wonderful Balzacien description of the mysterious shop and I came to Paris determined to find it.

I had absolutely no doubt that Balzac based his description on a real shop, and spent my first nine months in Paris looking for it in almost every street. One day I found a premises which exactly fitted the description - and there it was in the rue de Visconti opposite the place where Balzac had his own printing house.

But it wasn’t easy to get in. At first, I could only find a window, which seemed very odd - just this window and absolutely no sign of a door. So I walked round the block at least twice and finally a man appeared, so I asked him how to get into the shop. He just smiled and said, ‘you have to deserve it’. Of course this appealed enormously to my imagination.
Anyway he told me to knock at a door with no name on it, which I did and it was eventually opened by the elderly occupant, Monsieur Deschamps. As he stood in the door, I caught a glimpse of the fascinating interior, stuffed with books and bits and pieces, with an unmade floor and just a storm-lamp for lighting. He questioned me closely and finally asked me to name one book which I was looking for.

I knew this was a trick question - one wrong answer, and I would never get in. Anyway, I managed to think of Bernard Naudin - I don’t think he’s very well known outside my own home town. He was working in the late 19th century, and illustrated a number of anarchist pamphlets, a few books by Diderot and Anatole France. He also invented the Naudin type which was used in two or three publications. Anyway, the old man replied, ‘that’s a good answer. Come back next Wednesday’.

For the next couple of years, I took time off from my studies to visit Monsieur Deschamps several times a week - simply to sit in his shop and listen to him talking about books. In his time, he had been a well-known figure in the Paris book trade, specialising in books on the history of ideas, politics and, of course, Balzac. He died six years ago.

It was a wonderful learning process - I used to take a book off his shelves or bring in one of my purchases, and he would explain exactly what was good or bad about it. He also knew about publishing - in 1929, he had published Regarde, a children’s book by Colette with illustrations by Meheut. This was his one and only publication and he strongly advised me against publishing as a way of earning a living.

To some extent, I ignored this advice and spent a very happy year working for a publisher as part of my university course. It was a useful time, learning all the aspects from technology to copyright and I made good contacts which I’m still able to draw on for the production of my own catalogues. Actually, at one point, I seriously considered staying on, but my employers took fright at the suggestion. Apparently, I’m none too obedient and rather full of my own ideas.

During my student years, I also had to negotiate the tricky problem of military service. In my case, the problem was aggravated by the fact that my father was an old soldier and simply couldn’t accept the idea of his son dodging military service. But one thing was quite clear in my mind -I wasn’t going to spend one minute in uniform. Actually I think this was the first big decision I ever took on my own.

Fortunately, in France, there are still a number of legitimate ways to avoid military service and one of them is to work in some official capacity for the French Government overseas. So I applied to teach maths at the French International school in Rome. Normally there’s tremendous competition for these appointments, especially in a place like Rome. For example, if you want to teach a popular subject, like history, you have have to be the son of a minister to stand the faintest chance of being chosen.

But in my subject, it was rather different. Most mathematicians do their best work before the age of 25 or 30, so they don’t want to waste time teaching school children in Rome. In my case, I was longing to go to Rome. After two years of waiting, the job came up and I got it, went to Rome and had the most wonderful time. Of course the salary wasn’t good and it was an expensive place to live. So there was one obvious thing to do - I started selling books for the first time on a regular basis.

Italy is quite simply a wonderful country for books and the book trade. Not only are the books particularly nice, but they are usually in good condition - and, on top of it all, the Italian dealers are a great bunch of people. It’s all a question of becoming accepted - even initiated - and then the doors open. I would say this is one striking contrast with the Anglo-Saxon world, where things tend to be more welcoming on the surface, but then the door often closes.

During the mid-1980s, Italy experienced a tremendous economic boom and I was very fortunate to be there at that moment. The people were happy, spending money and eager to buy back their culture, much of which had disappeared overseas in the wake of the Grand Tour. Although I was a foreigner, I’m sure I was so quickly accepted because of the general mood of good humour and excitement. It would be much more difficult to repeat the exercise in the present economic climate. I must say the recession is still most noticeable in England. You can smell it in the air and see it in people’s faces. Of course it’s spreading to France - the same tired look and lack of enthusiasm. I gather your politicians talk about signs of recovery. I studied statistics for many years and I know how they can be used.

Having said that, I think the ABA has made a well-judged and positive decision to move to the Grosvenor House next week. Sometimes when you want to change your life, you start by moving house. The principle is the same with the June fair, and I’m sure the outcome will be most invigorating and a boost for the English book trade in general. I believe there’s even a new lady in charge of publicity and she knows what she’s doing.

I’m looking forward to making my debut at the fair, sharing a stand with my colleague, Antonio Pettini from Rome. Actually we were encouraged to exhibit by Andrew Hunter at Quaritch and Diana Parikian. Of course I discussed the idea with my wife and colleagues and we all thought that now would be an excellent time to take part.

We liked the idea of the new hotel, especially after all those complaints about the Park Lane. I didn’t go last year, but colleagues came back to Paris with bad reports about the fair. One or two dealers even said, ‘this is the end of London as a centre for international book fairs’. Everyone had become so disillusioned, but this year I sense a completely different atmosphere and I’m sure the organisation will be absolutely flawless.

Another thing I like about London - you can be as eccentric as you like. That’s a real freedom which you don’t find so often on the Continent. Also, I’m looking forward to the unpredictable aspect. When I do a fair in Paris, for example, I can more or less tell in advance what will sell and what will not. In London, I can allow myself to dream the bookseller’s dream that someone new will come along…

Actually I’m very concerned about this whole business of new collectors. As a trade, we are not doing nearly enough to encourage them. For example, the entrance fee to the Grosvenor House fair is too high - do you want people to come in or not? In future, the organisers might consider reducing the price of one or two stands to encourage exhibitors from Eastern Europe, where there is such a rich book tradition but not much money. I’m sure their participation would inject fresh interest and ‘virgin’ material which might easily make up for the loss of revenue from the stand.

To a certain extent, the book itself is under threat. Everywhere I go, I see young people with photo-books, comic books, anything - but not printed books. Gone are the days of Printing and the Mind of Man - that remarkable catalogue and exhibition which were, in many ways, the swan song of the British book trade. It certainly epitomised the whole idea of making the printed word accessible to all and not just the preserve of a privileged elite. But somehow we have lost our way and today a large proportion of the population has very little contact with the printed word.

Perhaps booksellers themselves are under threat. The other day an Italian firm sent me information about a computer service, supplying details about Italian books — collations, prices and so on. I know there are similar services available in other countries and I hope they all fail before they take over the role of the traditional bookseller.

We’re rapidly approaching a crucial point in the history of our trade. It sounds ironic but everything has become too well-documented, too well-catalogued and too widely accessible. This is most obvious in a country like England, where dealers are so generous and open with their knowledge. You only have to look at the approach to cataloguing, and the obvious commitment to share and record useful information.

Unfortunately, the English approach often produces a most undesirable state in which everything becomes frozen - the excitement goes out of the subject when there’s nothing new to discover. As a French dealer once remarked to me, ‘there are no virgin books in England’. This is not the case in France, where the tradition is completely different. Of course we have the same knowledge about books, but the transmission is mostly oral.

Perhaps this is an aspect of the Anglo-Saxon character which I mentioned earlier - an emphasis on organisation and attention to detail. In my exper-ience, this often leads to a certain rigidity. Now you may think I’m being anti-English. Well, while we’re on the subject, I do blame you for one thing and that is the quite insane fashion in which you have allowed the auction houses to flourish. In France, we hate auctions and arrange things in such a way that they simply can’t dominate the market. Auctioneers and booksellers have opposite interests - it’s as simple as that. Ask me how to improve the book trade at a stroke and I’ll tell you to close down all the auction houses.

At a crucial time like this, I’m very interested to hear about the ABA post-graduate diploma in antiquarian book-selling. I hope there won’t be too much emphasis on pure bibliography at the expense of more practical experience. If I were in charge, I would ask my students to turn up with £50 and then send them off with four hours in which to buy books. We would then meet to discuss their purchases and, in the next session, they would be sent off again - this time with four hours in which to sell their books.

Of course I admire enormously dealers who know all the bibliographical niceties of every book they handle. But the beginner really needs to know the basic skills of buying and selling a book quickly - before he sinks under the terrible weight of dead stock. At any one time, I never have more than 100 books in stock, unless I’m preparing a catalogue.

Catalogues have been very important in my development as a bookseller. So far I’ve produced several lists and two catalogues — Crimes & Légendes and Mathématiciens & Magiciens - and I’m working on a third and (probably) final catalogue of antiquarian books, entitled Les Cinq Sens (The Five Senses). I regard them very much as a form of apprenticeship. Although there is still so much to learn, the initial stage is nearly completed and I’m already thinking more generally about the future. Cata-logues are an expensive way of doing business - always a big headache for a small amount of money, and I can’t imagine going on with them for much longer.

Meanwhile, I got married recently. My wife, Inès, is a lawyer and very happy in her work so I don’t think we’re envisaging a business partnership together. But I’ve got other ideas in mind and a decision will have to be taken at some point. So I’ve decided to sit down on my 33rd birthday in July 1995 and just ask myself, ‘what shall I do next?’

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in June 1994

A Poland & Steery Co-production