Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Susanne Schulz-Falster

Susanne Schulz-Falster

I always knew that I wanted to do something in the world of books. While I was at university in Germany, I did some work for a publishing house. My job was to read contemporary English novels, and write reports as to whether they would be suitable for translation. To my embarrassment, I didn’t recommend Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. In my report I said that there might be too much Indian history for it to be a hit in Germany. In England, one could assume a general knowledge of the events in India post-independence, but one certainly couldn’t do so in the case of the average German reader.  

During the gap between my Master’s degree and applying for a scholarship to do a PhD in England, I decided to come to London in the hope that I would be staying on. I wrote to a number of booksellers, and was lucky that my letter to Sims, Reed and Fogg arrived just as their colleague Ann Creed was feeling very overworked. I was taken on without a formal interview at the beginning of January 1984. On my first day the informality of the business came as a bit of a culture shock. My three bosses, John, Max and Sam, were all happy to be addressed by their first names.  Such casual behaviour would have been almost unheard of in Germany at that time.

I was partly employed to type catalogues on an IBM golfball, which was a pretty advanced machine and quite exciting. Although I had always been buying secondhand – but not rare – books, it was a revelation to discover the quality of material that was still on the market. In my first few weeks, the firm bought an album of Julia Cameron’s photographs, and I couldn’t believe that such things were still available. After a few interesting and enjoyable months, I heard that I had won my scholarship. I decided to leave Sims, Reed and Fogg and spend the summer in Germany before starting at University College London.

The subject of my PhD was influenced by my experience with the German publisher. I wanted to study the difference in the reception of novels in their home country and in translation, and the factors that could potentially add to or detract from their success. Unfortunately, the professor, who had been responsible for my choosing UCL over Oxford, decamped to California, and the department didn’t quite know what to do with me – and I didn’t have much of an idea myself. My proudest moment was rowing in the UCL eight, having never done the sport before. I also tried to learn to play the flute, but that was as ill-fated as my dissertation.

After University College, I went to St. Louis, Missouri with my American husband, then boyfriend, who worked in the semiconductor industry.  I managed to win a scholarship to Washington University, but then I found a job with Anthony Garnett, an English bookseller who lives in a beautiful house in St. Louis. At the time Anthony specialised in English literature, but he now sells a lot of private press books as well.  It was the mid-1980s, and in those days American rare book libraries would buy pretty much anything that they didn’t have. It was the perfect part-time work. I cycled there in the morning, did some cataloguing, had a sandwich and gin-and-tonic for lunch, cycled home and thought this is the job for me!

We knew that Bob’s work would take us back to Europe at some point, but it happened very quickly. In less than a year, we were back in London. Thanks to Garnett’s friendship with Anthony Rota, I was offered a temporary position at Bertram Rota while I looked around for something more permanent.  Sotheran’s were advertising for someone to look after their new books and I got the job, despite the fact that they were really hoping for someone who knew about bird books. I had to deal with customers asking for birding guides to obscure parts of the world that I barely knew which continent they were on. Robert Kirkman was the manager at the time. It was a wonderfully eccentric shop, with lots of interesting characters. In some ways it was all very 84 Charing Cross Road. We corresponded with customers who had been posted abroad, and airmail letters would arrive from country clubs in Africa.

Although Sotheran’s was great fun, I didn’t want to stay there indefinitely and in 1988 I went to work for Pickering & Chatto. William Rees-Mogg had bought the firm in 1981, dividing the stock with Quaritch and keeping the eighteenth-century books. When Dawson’s wanted to sell their antiquarian business at 16-17 Pall Mall, Rees-Mogg bought it, and combined the two businesses. I was originally employed to help Christopher Edwards in Pickering’s English department. Shortly after I arrived, there was a vacancy in the Economics department and I offered myself for it.  I quickly read Schumpeter and other important texts to get an idea of the subject, and then ran the department for the next ten years. The combination of working in the book trade at this level together with an exposure to the, well, unique English world of Rees-Mogg was an eye-opening experience and education.

I found Economics an interesting subject to get my teeth into; it was also made very enjoyable by the fact that the Japanese were buying the subject like crazy.  I learned a lot from Roger Gaskell, who was very generous with his knowledge. During my first few years at Pickering’s, Roger and Christopher would do the trips to Japan. By the early 1990s they had both left to start their own businesses, and it fell to me (the Japan trips ended when I left) to represent the firm in Japan. In those days the only women that I met there were employed as secretaries; they were never the head of a department. Christopher warned that I might experience a certain amount of prejudice, but actually it worked very well. I found that different rules applied to foreigners.

Japan was incredibly exciting, but it could also be nerve-wracking. In those days, there were no Google maps, and you had to depend on very precise instructions to find a particular address. On one occasion I was diligently following the directions, and came to a building with endless front doors. I had no idea which was the right door until I noticed a huge sign in a window, ‘Welcome Miss Schulz-Falster’. In some cases my colleagues and I would visit university libraries with a Japanese dealer, through whom the selling would be done. Over the years we built up relations with the academics and were able to sell to them directly. To some extent it was a matter of prestige for them to have first editions of famous economists in their libraries. Schumpeter’s library is in Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, where he was a visiting professor in 1931.

William Rees-Mogg was very keen for his staff to attend continental book fairs, and I became a member of the German antiquarian booksellers’ association so that we were able to exhibit at German fairs. We would time our buying trips to France, Germany and Italy to coincide with major fairs and auctions. I also made many trips to the States, visiting selected librarians, either with descriptions of books they were looking for, or with the books themselves. When we moved to Milan for my husband’s job in 1990, I thought I would have to leave Pickering’s. When Rees-Mogg suggested that I should continue to work as a consultant, it was the ideal solution. I developed Italian connections, bought books, and every so often I would come back to London. After a couple of years, Rees-Mogg sold Pickering’s antiquarian business to William Lese, a retired American businessman and book collector. Bill Lese obviously had his own ideas for the development of the business. When my colleague Becky Hardie and I presented Lese with our thoughts for the future, I had already decided that I would leave if our proposal was not accepted. It wasn’t accepted, and provided the perfect exit for me.

I announced that I was leaving Pickering’s in late 1997. My husband and I were back in London, and I was looking forward to starting my own business. The experience of Milan had taught me how to make my own decisions, and the discipline of working from home.  I had a bit of money, but not a single book for my opening stock. I immediately decided to set out on my travels, and to concentrate on buying mainly eighteenth-century continental books, and then sell them into the English-speaking market. I already had the contacts and, in any case, the book trade is a very supportive group of people.

Pickering’s had used Tony Kitzinger to design their catalogues, and so I approached him. (The logo had been designed by David Esslemont, then at Gregynog Press). Tony designed and produced all my printed catalogues, which are not quite A5 in size and resemble the books published by the Insel-Verlag. He also came up with the lay-out of my oblong e-list, which I produce myself. When I was at Sotheran’s I did some evening classes at the London College of Printing for my own interest. I have a little press of my own, but I only print things like my Christmas cards and compliment slips. Typography is a subject that I particularly enjoy, and I like to buy type-specimens and engraving manuals. After a book has been published, the next step is distribution, and so I also like to buy early booksellers’ catalogues. 

I used to collect phrase books, but relatively early on in my business I put them into a catalogue. They sold well, and I still deal in books on language to a certain extent. The money from the phrase books had to be spent on books for stock, and that was the end of personal collecting. I like having books for a while ‘to play with’, but then I’m just as happy to sell them. Occasionally I have the feeling that I’ve sold them too quickly, but I don’t have any lasting regrets. I’m more of a dealer than a collector.

 I still buy quite a lot of Italian books, as I have the contacts and I find them very appealing as physical objects. I like my books to have something more to them than the text – some aspect about which I can tell a good story. It might be the binding, the provenance, the illustrations or movable parts – it’s the best argument in defence of the physical object in the age of digitisation.

The internet has huge advantages for research, but I use it very little for buying – partly because I need to have the material in my hands in order to see all the ways in which I could re-market it. Nowadays everything can be looked up. If a book seems halfway interesting, you know that the dealer will have done their homework and checked it on ABE and so on. You might find a copy that’s a bit cheaper, but not enough to make it worthwhile. Ideally I like to buy books that nobody else has; if there are three – or even two – copies available, then forget it. The sense of urgency is gone for the customer. If you don’t buy it now, you can probably buy it in a year’s time.

Fairs are not a good place for me to buy books. Some exhibitors are able to dump their bags on the stand, and then run around the fair buying from people while they’re still unpacking. When I exhibit at a fair, I take too long to set up and make the stand look pretty. I also have the vague feeling that I should be selling first before buying. I often share a stand with Deborah Coltham and Amanda Hall. We have all worked at Pickering’s and are good friends. During lockdown, we put together a joint catalogue. If you work on your own, it’s fun to collaborate on a project from time to time. In an ideal world, Deborah, Amanda and I would live close enough to share an office. I would enjoy sharing the excitement of recent purchases. 

In recent years, doing business has become more complex, and I’m not just referring to Brexit and increased shipping costs. Many institutions require an unbroken record of provenance before they can make a purchase.  It might be possible to provide in the case of certain cultural objects, but is much more difficult for books. The whole point of printing a book is to circulate it as widely as possible. Are we to assume that an Italian book in England must have been illegally exported? And how likely is it that each successive owner of an ordinary eighteenth-century book would have left their ownership mark in it? I don’t deal in stolen books, and I hope I’ve never sold one, but the due-diligence pendulum has swung too far.

I sometimes feel that my stock is completely eclectic, and that there’s nothing to connect one book with another. And yet when I put them together in a catalogue, I’m always relieved to find that groupings emerge, and the selection makes sense.   Years ago Allard Schierenberg of Antiquariaat Junk advised me that I should have some expensive books, as it was the only way to make money.  Actually I greatly believe in having a mix of books, and my catalogues always contain items that I have bought just for the fun of them.

Interviewed in September 2023






















Susanne Schulz-Falster

A Poland & Steery Co-production