Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Wilfrid de Freitas

[After the Gold Rush]

Wilfrid de Freitas and Susan Ravdin

Wilfrid de Freitas and Susan Ravdin

My grandfather was Portuguese and a doctor with the colonial service in British Guiana, where I was born in 1944. My childhood was spent in Trinidad and in 1955 I was sent to school in England. In 1962 I emigrated to Montreal. Hitchhiking was the thing to do in those days and, in 1969, I went to travel around Europe for six months, which turned into five years' travelling around the world.

Back in Montreal I found a job in the precious metals business. it was a very interesting time to be in bullion, as it coincided with the time when Americans were finally allowed to own gold. From 1974 to 1980 the price of gold went from US$90 to US$800 an ounce. Montreal is very close to the US border, and Americans came to us to buy gold as we were one of the few reputable outlets.

I used to spend my lunch times in the local used bookstores and by chance came across the now defunct AB Bookman's Weekly. After running my eye over it, I saw in one of the shops a book for which someone was advertising. I sent off a quote, saying 'subject unsold', and back came the cheque. I raced into the shop and the book was still there. I repeated this trick a few more times, not being aware of the niceties of professional bookselling. Then the rot set in and I began buying books for stock.

Meanwhile I had started working in the golf travel business, and spent the eighties arranging tours to the various golfing meccas of the world. The travelling enabled me to visit bookshops worldwide and eventually I started exhibiting at book fairs. Since they usually take place at the weekend, it was very convenient to fit them in with my work. In due course, I was doing book fairs twice a month. The road system in North America is excellent and you can drive from Montreal to, say, New York and know exactly how long it will take.

My plan was to take up bookselling full-time when I retired. But what if I died before reaching retirement age? To die not having been a bookseller would be a double misfortune. So I decided not to wait and to leave the lucrative golf business for the uncertainties of bookselling. My part-time experience made the transition rather seamless, and I was now free to do book fairs much further afield.

On one occasion I was doing a book fair in a small resort town in Maine. On the stand next to me I became aware of a rather attractive woman. Susan Ravdin was selling books on behalf of Bowdoin College where she was a librarian. We maintained a long-distance relationship for several years, meeting at weekends and doing book fairs together.

We both live and breathe Gilbert and Sullivan, and I belong to the oldest Canadian Gilbert and Sullivan society, which was founded by a chorus master from the D'Oyly Carte. Although we are general booksellers, Gilbert and Sullivan is one of our specialities. It has a great following around the world, and we have customers in the strangest places. 
When we decided to get married in 1998, it was difficult to find a Saturday when the church was free and we didn't have a book fair on. Susan moved from Maine to Montreal and we continue to do lots of book fairs.

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In Canada there are only half a dozen book fairs a year, compared to around 300 in the States. Each year we drive from Montreal to California to exhibit at the book fairs in February. The journey takes a week each way and, because of the time of year, we head south as quickly as possible, through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, down to Texas and then across. We stop at book shops along the way, but the pickings are very slim. Only once have I bought a book en route and sold it at a fair well enough to cover all the costs. It's worth driving to every fair because we want to carry our better stock. Whether it's a small regional fair or a large city fair, we give it our best shot.

When I decided to go into bookselling full-time, one of the doyens of the Montreal antiquarian book trade, Grant Woolmer (now deceased) said, 'You'd better get in a lot of groceries ahead of time'. His point was that Montreal wasn't a great place to sell books. He had experienced the good times in the '40s and '50s when there were collectors who bought Canadiana avidly. But young people today want to buy things they can relate to. They might be interested in buying the books that they enjoyed as children, which probably accounts for the extraordinary prices that people pay for the Dandy and the Beano. It seems heretical to me that places like Sotheby's and Christie's sell such things.

The main book fair in Canada takes place in Ottawa in October or November. It's not sponsored by ABAC so anybody can exhibit. This makes for a nice mixture of professional and part-time dealers. Ottawa is a very nice town and we tend to use the fair as the focal point for the annual meeting of ABAC. The Canadian association is relatively small, with its members spread over 3,500 miles so it can be difficult to get people all together in one place.

I joined ABAC as soon as I became a full-time bookseller in 1990, and it gave me an entreé to the ILAB fairs. I also found it helpful to join the ABA as an overseas member - dealers have a certain relaxed way of doing business amongst colleagues. As booksellers tend to be very individualistic, it's important to be governed by the same rules.

We come to the UK twice a year to buy books. There is no question that the books are here, but the prices are very high. But what do you want? In Canada, we have low prices but very few books. My mother lives just outside London, so we can afford to come for an extended stay. In the UK it seems to be pretty well established as a courtesy between dealers to extend a 10% discount. In North America most people offer and expect 20%. It all seems rather futile, as you know that dealers have marked up their prices accordingly. This may put their books out of the reach of private buyers - just the people I like to sell to.

Susan had an experience at a book fair in the States when someone took a book and tossed it in front of her, saying, 'So what's your real price?' In life, it's not what you say, but how you say it. With that attitude, I'm not even interested in negotiating.

* * *

I first became aware of bookselling on the Internet through Susan's prodding, and a friend of ours who built our website. Susan's college library had automated very early on and she had learnt how to manipulate databases and was quite comfortable with the technology. At first I stumbled around knowing little more than which buttons to push. But thanks to Susan's expertise our computer activity has increased a hundredfold. In business generally, half the secret is knowing what not to do, and we've been wary of many of the pitfalls of e-commerce.
It's rare for us to buy books on the Internet; we only sell. We certainly don't have the time to spend in chat rooms, subscribing to mailing lists, reading hundreds of e-mails and so on. I know people who do this for hours a day, but we're fully occupied keeping our website up-to-date and running off to book fairs. Some say that the Internet will damp the ardour for book fairs, but I have a feeling that this won't be the case.

On the Internet you need to describe your books in terms that will be understandable to a wider audience - suddenly our market is global and there are millions of people out there who don't know what 'quarto' means. In the old days, booksellers could use Latin terms because they were mainly describing books for one another. Today if you continue in this bibliographical tradition, you will inevitably lose time explaining your description to a potential customer.
There will be much more use of illustration in the future development of book selling on the Internet. We find that the items we have illustrated always sell. Scanning can be a very useful tool for describing condition. When someone inquires about the condition of a dust-jacket, we scan it and blow the image up so the customer can see the smallest imperfections. I have always preferred to be over-critical in describing condition. When I order a book, I want the dealer to tell me the bad points. 'Be brutal', I say, and often I'm pleasantly surprised when it arrives.

We fit into the lower end of the market, and it's where we want to be. We don't have any aspirations to go out and make a splash. I don't want to be the biggest bookseller, just a good one, by which I mean someone who supplies books that people want. If I'm able to sell them to the private market, that would be my ideal.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in August 2000

Wilfrid de Freitas and Susan Ravdin

Wilfrid de Freitas and Susan Ravdin

A Poland & Steery Co-production