Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Tim Bryars

Tim Bryars

My first paid work in the antiquarian book trade was unpacking boxes in the basement of the Staffs Bookshop in my school holidays. Years later I discovered that the boxes had been packed by Ken Fuller, now my friend and neighbour in Cecil Court. My mother had worked as a cataloguer for Frank Hammond in the mid-1960s, and was responsible for many of his Voyage and Exploration catalogues. She also worked for Jim Fenning, whose business is still active. I grew up knowing the difference between sheep and calf, and how to collate a book. When my sister and I came along, my mother stopped working. We lived in Walsall, where I went to the local grammar school. In due course, my mother returned to work, and found a job with Peter Stockham in the Staffs Bookshop in Lichfield, which is about ten miles from Walsall.

It was everything that one imagines a country bookshop to be – a huge stock crammed into several rooms and the cellar, in two fifteenth-century buildings behind an eighteenth-century façade, with sloping floors and bulging ceilings. Peter Stockham had moved there in 1988, after a dozen years in Cecil Court, where he had traded as Images. The shop had been a bookshop since Peter was at school in Lichfield and had first been attracted to its warren of books. My mother was responsible for writing the series of four catalogues, which Peter issued between 1996 and 1998, entitled For the Amusement and Instruction of Youth. They were very highly regarded, not least for my mother’s detailed notes on almost 3,500 books from Peter’s astonishingly eclectic stock.

After school I read Modern History at Oxford, where the modern period is taken to begin with the division of the Roman Empire into East and West. There were still a number of rare bookshops in the centre of the city, and I was a frequent visitor to the Classics Bookshop, Titles, Waterfield’s and Blackwell’s, although I could not possibly afford to buy anything. I was also very interested in drama, and was a member of OUDS. After graduating I performed in the Edinburgh Festival – I played Machiavelli’s father-in-law in a production on Princes Street. I also won a travelling scholarship from the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and Cambridge Commonwealth Trust to visit India to pursue my interest in the European commercial community after Independence.

In 1995 I entered the antiquarian trade, finding a job by advertising myself in the Situations Wanted column in the Bookdealer. It was read by Charlie Unsworth just as he was thinking of expanding his antiquarian department, specialising in early printing and the classical world, which had been and remain interests of mine since university. Charlie took me on to build up the department, giving me a pretty free rein to do it. I worked with him for four and a half years, during which time his firm became a member of the ABA. The experience gave me an excellent grounding in bookselling, and the opportunity to work with new, secondhand, remainder and antiquarian material. Charlie was experimenting with different ways of selling books, and we would cover a huge amount of ground travelling to fairs and academic conferences, trying to find out what worked best for the stock.

Meanwhile I had become friendly with Panagiotis Chantziaras and Louise Bryan of Paralos Ltd, and had been buying books from his office near Oxford Circus and his shop in Athens. Panagiotis is primarily a bookman, although he is also very knowledgeable about the golden age of cartography. We share a particular interest in early editions of the Classics – his stock of Greek material is unrivalled, which is one of the factors that brought us together.

I began to wonder if there was any possibility of working for him. It turned out that, although he was not looking for an employee, he wanted me to become a co- owner of the business. When I explained that I could not afford to buy shares in Paralos, Panagiotis lent me the money to do so. I repaid him from my dividends, and it is entirely thanks to his extraordinary generosity that I now have my own shop.

Panagiotis was living with his wife and family on Corfu, and Louise and I were based in his London office. We would meet on our frequent travels around Europe. Panagiotis hated flying, and so we would go almost everywhere by car, loaded with maps and prints relating to our destination, and then return with all kinds of material for the London trade. For example, we would track down a little gallery tucked away in northern Germany, where nobody had rifled the stock for thirty years, and find wonderful material. We worked on turnover; certain material would sell at a certain price the moment you got it back to London. On the return journey, we would telephone ahead, and dealers would be vying to help us unload the car. Although the internet was already around, it had not yet taken a firm grip on the trade. It was a very exciting time, and a style of working which probably would not be feasible today.

In 2004 we dissolved the business, though we are still great friends and work very closely together. Panagiotis and Louise now work from a magnificent gallery, also called Paralos, in Athens. In the summer of that year I opened my antiquarian and map shop at 8 Cecil Court, specialising in early printed books, classics and translations, history, literature, travel, and a range of original antique maps, topographical and natural history prints. The term ‘classics’ is used variously these days to cover anything from Homer to Dickens – I use the term to cover all aspects of ancient writing, including most of the arts and sciences that we know today. The distinction between disciplines was a little more blurred in the ancient world.

I do not believe that the map trade should be hived off from the rest of the book trade. A number of the most outstanding figures in the golden age of cartography would not have considered themselves purely mapmakers or publishers. John Speed is now best remembered for his county maps, but he would have regarded himself as an historian and antiquary. Similarly, Abraham Ortelius was an antiquary first and foremost, who devoted himself to gathering geographical knowledge from the corners of the known world. Both men would have been surprised to be remembered as mapmakers – because of the narrow definition.

In certain areas of the antiquarian trade, the paths are too well trodden to offer much chance of discovery. This is not the case with maps, due to the sheer range and often ephemeral nature of the material. The British Library has four and a half million maps and atlases, but there is still so much which is unknown. As a dealer, you have a very good chance of coming across something which may not be particularly rewarding financially, but will offer the potential for interesting research. Recently I sold the British Library a board game in the form of a map of India, contemporary with the Indian Mutiny. The inventor of the game had taken rooms on the Strand and was offering a guinea to anyone who could beat him at two games in a row. Given the particularly bloody nature of the Indian Mutiny, it struck me as quite extraordinary that it had inspired a board game at the time. It may be the only copy of this game still in existence; it is certainly the only one recorded. I like to make sure that this type of material ends up in institutions where it is available for public use.

People often ask the most extraordinary questions when they come into my shop. I am frequently asked if I have inherited it, or if it is a hobby, or a museum. It does not seem to occur to them that this is how I earn my living. My shop was occupied by Robert Chris for many years. His daughter-in-law came to see me soon after I moved in, and told me some stories about the old days. Bob Chris was a colourful character. He dodged military service in the First World War and went to America where he became a card sharp. He was imprisoned on his return to the UK for avoiding conscription, and later worked in this shop until a fortnight or so before his death. I gather that he was a bit of a womaniser and, to this day, women of a certain age pop in and tell me their memories of Bob Chris in his prime. I am trying to build up a collection of anecdotes about Cecil Court and am grateful for their stories.

I am Secretary of the Cecil Court Association and I want to do everything in my power to promote Cecil Court and make it the most famous street of bookshops in the world. I have heard people say, as they walk up and down, that it must be owned by a wealthy philanthropist. Actually we pay commercial rents, but the landlords are not trying to squeeze every last penny out of us. However, the government is set on clawing as much money as possible from small businesses. Last year we were hit badly by the scrapping of transitional rate relief, and an increase of 5 per cent, which amounted to our rates almost doubling. There is a possibility that rates could go up by another third again. I got in touch with our local MP and he organised a debate in Parliament in October 2009, which attracted considerable press coverage. The Guardian, the Evening Standard and the Sunday Telegraph all took up the cause of the little street of booksellers’ attempt to challenge the policy of central Government. I have written at length elsewhere about the problems of Charing Cross Road, where there are only three rare and secondhand books left – Quinto, Any Amount of Books and Henry Pordes. It is hard to remember that it used to be called Booksellers’ Row.

I believe that shops are vital to the survival of the book trade. They should not be seen as a throw-back to another age or a dinosaur business model. A few more dealers need to get the bit between their teeth and get back down to the ground floor. Of course it is very expensive to do this, especially in central London, but there is no easy way to survive in this business in 2010.We need shops to create and feed collectors. Having experienced life in an office, I know that generally speaking it is no place to make new collectors. By the time they come upstairs to your office, they already have an established interest. Similarly, by the time someone ‘googles’ a book online, they already know what they want.

Shops are different. They allow for browsing and face-to-face discussion, even though this can sometimes be disheartening. There are days when I despair of questions such as,‘how do you know this is old?’, but there are also opportunities to foster an interest by explaining some of the surprising possibilities that exist. Few people are aware that it is still possible to buy an original 400 hundred-year-old map for under £50. I am always very welcoming to students who come into my shop and are interested in material, which they cannot afford to buy. I remember my own student days and how much I enjoyed the opportunity to browse in bookshops – it is one reason why I am on the ground floor today.

I have a number of collectors whom I have encouraged over the years. I am not foolish enough to think that they are just buying from me. But I know that they were introduced to collecting by being able to walk into a shop and ask questions and handle material. Collectors tell me time and again that high-resolution scans are no substitute for the real thing. We are still coming to terms with the limitations of the internet, as well as its possibilities. The availability of information is obviously useful, but only if it is correctly interpreted. Auction records are a good example. We have all had the experience of being offered a very inferior copy of a book or a map for the same price that an excellent example fetched at auction. People come into the shop quoting auction prices, without any understanding of such factors as condition and provenance, or that a high price was simply achieved because two people were determined to fight it out in the saleroom.

I am involved with Rainer Voigt and Massimo De Martini in organising the London Map Fair. It is the largest of its kind in Europe and a wonderful opportunity for collectors to see and handle a vast variety of material. We recently moved the fair to the Royal Geographical Society, an ideal location, and their staff have been most supportive, putting on special displays and offering guided tours of the historic building. It all helps in our efforts to get people involved and attract new collectors, without whom ours is a dying trade.

Over the last three years I have been an active member of the ABA Council. My term of office is drawing to a close and I have decided not to stand again for now – as you can see I am not short of things to do – but I remain as committed as ever to the concept of a strong trade association supporting its members’ interests throughout the year. I have been particularly involved with press, education and security. I think we have gone some way to raise the profile of the Association; the launch of a separate Educational Trust is imminent and the new ILAB stolen books database should become both a valuable resource (available also to non ILAB members) and a serious deterrent. But of course, there is always more that could be done, and I hope any ABA members reading this will consider standing.

At the age of thirty-six, I am aware of being one of the youngest members of the ABA – only one member is under thirty. We should be concerned about the lack of young people coming into the trade. With the disappearance of so many large firms, it has become very difficult to get a toe-hold. One-man bands like me are typical of the trade today and probably an indication of the future. To be a successful bookseller requires an unusual combination of skills. Some dealers are good on the academic side. They can do the research and write excellent catalogues, but are perhaps not as strong on such aspects as evaluating the effect of condition on the price, and actually selling the item. Other people are good at ‘front of house’, but have less of a grip on the stock. The ideal combination is to know and love the material, and to handle it with a decent business sense. People have joked to me that anyone capable of making a living selling old books would be able to make a very good living doing a proper job.

The codex has been around for fifteen hundred years and, although it has not necessarily reached its final form, I do not anticipate its demise any time soon. The digitisation of books will undoubtedly have an enormous impact on the new and secondhand book trade. But I do not believe that the rare book, in which so much of the interest derives from the object itself, is under threat. There is still much to be said and appreciated about seeing the book as it was intended for its original readership.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in April 2010


Tim Bryars

A Poland & Steery Co-production