Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Sophie Schneideman

Sophie Schneideman

I was ten years old when my father gave me an unopened set of Brontë novels. I remember being torn between wanting to read them and not wanting to cut the pages. It’s my first memory of cherishing a book as a beautiful object. When I went to St Andrews to read History, I discovered many wonderful books in the university library but the idea of making a career of it hadn’t yet occurred to me. I was a very keen musician and had thoughts of pursuing singing as a profession, until I realised what a hard life it would be. I left St Andrews in 1990 in the depths of a recession when accountants were the only people in demand. I didn’t want to spend my time winding up companies, and thought that perhaps there might be an opening for me at Sotheby’s. Although there were plenty of short internships available, they paid almost nothing. If you were sent to the Victoria & Albert Museum, for example, you had to pay your own bus fare. Just as I was deciding that I couldn’t afford to work for Sotheby’s, I met John Maggs who offered me a job starting the following day.

I was put in charge of answering the telephone in the front shop. At the time I found it rather boring, but didn’t realise how imbued with the business I was becoming simply by all the activity going on around me. Fortunately John Collins took me under his wing quite quickly. He was a wonderful teacher and encouraged me from the start. I can’t remember showing any precocious talent for the business, but he gave me the opportunity to prepare my first catalogue – a collection of books and a couple of watercolours by the rather neglected figure of Thomas Pennant.

In those days Maggs was a rather old-fashioned business. I wondered if there was a place for me in the hierarchy, and decided to study for a part-time Law degree in case I didn’t find my niche. When Emma Pound left the firm, I took her place in the Bibliography Department, which I found very interesting. In pre-internet days, booksellers depended on their reference books, which we sold in large quantities, especially during the June fairs when dealers from all over the world would come in and buy piles of bibliographies. Working in the department helped me to realise that bookselling wasn’t beyond my capabilities as I became familiar with the tools of the trade. Catalogue descriptions had previously seemed rather opaque with their references to bibliographies by the authors’ surname only, or the initials of the title with no further explanation. The feeling of knowing nothing, which had been quite oppressive for some time, began to ease.

Eventually I moved to the Modern Department with Ed Maggs, and was given complete autonomy to focus on private press books. It was a very happy time for me with a lot of material coming in and the opportunity to learn about every aspect of private press books. Only after a decade in the trade did I begin to see the big picture, and to realise that I had found the subject that excited me. Everything is so deeply felt in private press books; there’s something special about owning an object created with such spirit in a world where there’s so much trivia. You have such an immediate connection with the person who made a private press book, and pulled the sheet off the press, forming a connection with every single page. I compare it to having an inscribed copy of a book. In 2004 things reached a peak when a relative of Alfred Dyke Acland, St John Hornby’s partner at W.H. Smith, showed me his wonderful collection of Ashendene Press books. It was a great moment and confirmed my decision that I wanted to deal in books that were beautiful and interesting, rather than just beautiful.

By that stage I was in my early thirties, I had got married and begun to find that dealers and collectors were taking me more seriously. In 2007 I decided to leave Maggs and start my own business. I had no capital and no stock, but I knew a number of very supportive dealers who let me borrow books on approval and generally encouraged me. Within a short time I found that I could earn at least as much money from ‘running’ books as my salary at Maggs. Before I became eligible to join the ABA, I was a member of the PBFA and exhibited at most of their fairs and loved them. I’ve met some of the most interesting dealers at PBFA fairs – they’re often great specialists fixated on small details, or they’ve run a general bookshop in a provincial town, been out on extraordinary house calls and seen everything in their time.

For the first year I worked from home but it became a little unnerving with my two young children running around with sticky fingers on a Gregynog special binding saying, ‘this is pretty, mummy’. My husband, Alex Schneideman, is a photographer and printer and in 2008 we opened our bookshop and gallery in Portobello Road specialising in private press, illustrated books and prints as well as books on food and drink – just after Lehmans collapsed. It wasn’t perfect timing, but there comes a point when you can’t expect collectors to walk up the stairs past your children’s bedrooms to look at books in the attic. If you’re going to set up on your own with a name that no one knows, a shop gives people confidence in your business. The gallery occupies the front of the premises, and I have my office at the back – in the best tradition of the book business where the good things are rarely on view. In 2010 we had exhibitions of John Buckland Wright and Ron King’s work, and last year I curated a show of Gaylord Schanilec’s wood-engravings. Bookselling is also a form of curating if you think of a catalogue as a path, which you lay out for collectors to follow as they wish. The gallery and the book business complement each other, although visitors to our exhibitions tend to be focused on print collecting.

In my experience collectors of private press books are hugely knowledgeable about the people who created them and fascinated by the stories behind each press, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson and the fate of the Doves Press being perhaps the most extraordinary. For various reasons, including his refusal to have his type used for anything less than the greater cosmic being, Cobden-Sanderson threw all of it, along with the punches and matrices, into the Thames at Hammersmith. It took him a year to dispose of the type adding, by this act of madness, to the magical quality of the Doves Press whose books can never be reprinted. Like Ashendene books, the Doves Press tends to appeal to English collectors. It’s also cheaper – ridiculously so – compared with the Kelmscott Press which has a more international following.

Collectors of private press books often start with the Golden Cockerel Press, which is such a wonderful introduction to the field, with its range of affordable and fine wood-engraved illustrations. My customers tend to be men, typically in their fifties and often high achievers in the legal and financial world, but they buy books because they love them and not for investment purposes. At first I found the depth of their knowledge intimidating until I learnt to listen. Some of my collectors can tell you what William Morris had for breakfast on a given day. While it’s a great pleasure to sell a book to someone who is passionate about it, I find it slightly disturbing to think that this business depends on the fact that there will always be people desperate to own a Kelmscott Chaucer. Their wives often don’t understand this desire to possess something – but would they prefer it to be a book or a mistress?

Recently I sold a very heavy elephant folio to a collector who didn’t want his wife to see it. I was asked to deliver it by car to their wonderful Elizabethan manor house in the West Country, leave the boot open, and come in for tea with his wife, while he slipped out and smuggled the book into the house. I’m sure she knew exactly what was going on. The female approach to dealing is more empathetic and less assertive and a number of my customers have become good friends. I had always assumed that bookselling was a man’s world, but of course it’s irrelevant to a collector whether you’re a man or a woman; ultimately it’s the book they’re interested in.

Nowadays you can’t sit on your bottom and expect business to come to you. When I first started in the trade, customers would wander into Maggs after a boozy lunch and spend the afternoon looking at books. That lifestyle hardly exists today; my customers lead very busy lives. They expect books to be brought to them, and modern technology enables this to be done very effectively. I regard being good at communication as an essential part of the job. I try to reply promptly to e-mails and always check them when I’m on holiday. My iPhone is incredibly useful when, for example, I’m at a book fair and I see something very expensive that I know a customer would like. I ask the dealer’s permission to photograph it with my phone and, a couple of clicks later, I have the customer’s response.

The printed catalogue is still the dealer’s most important sales tool. I’m sure it’s significant that huge online businesses like Boden and the White Company don’t rely on e-catalogues. They still send out printed catalogues when, theoretically, they could do everything on their websites and save money. My catalogues are designed by Geoff Green, who is a book collector himself and has a tremendous feel for what I’m trying to convey. Geoff chooses what goes on the front cover, and a few years ago it resulted in my meeting two excellent customers. A copy of the catalogue, with a Gregynog special binding on the cover, was spotted on the desk of Philip Brown by a customer in Blackwell’s Rare Books. Phil very kindly gave it to him and he became a great customer, introducing a friend who is also a book collector. It’s hard to imagine how this could happen with an e-catalogue.

I aim to produce three or four catalogues a year and to attend all the major international book fairs. The Hong Kong fair is my favourite; it’s not the most profitable, but there’s a tremendous pioneering spirit amongst the exhibitors, and the visitors are very refreshing in their approach. In the English-speaking world, we’ve all experienced the man who collects bus tickets, or the man looking for books on swimming and resuscitation – and when you remember to bring your only book on the subject, it’s always the wrong type of swimming – or the collector who tells you that he has a better copy than yours, or that yours is too expensive, and all the other comments that can make it hard to keep smiling through a book fair. The Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese who visit the Hong Kong fair are genuinely interested to learn about books, and I’m very impressed by the breadth of their cultural vision. I can sell a lot of books under £1000 in Hong Kong, but I have no Chinese customers buying at the top level yet. Given the importance of status in Chinese society, it only takes one influential person to start collecting, and the market will take off. There’s a lot of fascination with the European tradition of wood-engraving, which is so different from the Far Eastern technique of wood cuts. I’m constantly amazed by what can be done with wood as the medium, and would like to know more about Japanese woodblock printing, but am nervous about venturing into a subject where I can’t read the language.

As your knowledge and experience increase, you want to buy better books, and inevitably you realise the importance of having some capital behind you. I can see that my stock has improved incrementally, but it’s a slow process and I do sometimes wonder why I waited so long to start my own business. John Windle told me that by the time many of his colleagues in the States reached his age, they had inherited a wad, which had given them the capital backing to buy expensive books. I have no expectations of that kind and will still be clinging to the cliff by my finger nails waiting for payments to arrive, aged 65. The book trade might have been considered genteel in the past, but it’s no longer a toy occupation. I’m very ordered about the financial side of the business and know exactly what I have to achieve each month to make things add up. However, the bottom line never changes for me – it’s about working with people I like and dealing in the books we love.

Interviewed for The Book Collector Spring 2012







Sophie Schneideman

A Poland & Steery Co-production