New member Profiles on joining the ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION in APRIL 2005:
After Eton College and then graduating with an MA in History from Edinburgh University in 1983, angst about my prospects led me to apply to one of those advertisements in the newspapers which said: “Want to Earn ££££££’s???”.
This resulted in my first job, of two years duration, selling advertising space in a careers directory for graduates. I certainly did “earn £££’s” but it was so stressful that I spent them all in the American Bar at the Savoy, and other watering holes in the Covent Garden area of London, near where I worked, and in the end had nothing material to show for it all.
Like a lot of booksellers (vide Sheila Markham’s penetrating book), I had no plans relating to books, just a tendency to find myself in jobs involving them, including starting up a full time Book Department at Bonhams, where I worked between 1985-1989. Quitting Bonhams in 1989, I set off as an independent trader through the choppy waters of the recession, moved to Devon, married, and then emigrated (although it only turned out to be for a year) to Bavaria in 1993.
I thought at the time that I had waved books goodbye. Needless to say, it did not take me long to find the antiquarian bookshops even in rural Bavaria, and, with my labourer’s wages for one week, I bought a large bundle of Penguin Books in excellent condition that carried the official rubber stamps of some long lost POW camp. It was the stamps that interested me, and what sort of books had passed the German censors.
I do like a book, even a relatively ordinary one, that has some quality to it that lifts it into the category of historical artefact, whether it be the binding, the provenance, exceptional condition, or whatever, and these are also the books I most like to offer or be offered. On returning to England in 1994, married and with 4 stepchildren, I applied for all manner of jobs including, I recall, the position of sales-trainer for the Post Office, I finally secured employment in the Bond Street, London, eyrie of Marlborough Rare Books.
On a very sharp learning curve from the word go, I had to hone my bookish instincts in double-quick time. The owner, Jonathan Gestetner, kind enough to give me the job in the first place, was very patient, particularly since I dare say I was far from a model employee (tendency to be late in the morning, outbursts of emotion, contrariness and irrationality). As I “developed,” he began to give me a free hand, financially and intellectually, to experiment and find out what areas I was good in, and went so far as to make me a Director of the firm, as well as openly sharing his knowledge of books. Also there was Mickie Brand. Craftily, I thought it would be a good idea to accompany Mickie to auction views in an attempt to find out what his secrets were, since he had a legendary eye for a good book but was extremely modest in his responses when I pestered him with questions.
For a long time I thought I was none the wiser, but actually the clues were osmotically passed on, by watching what he chose to look at, how he handled the book, how he subsequently put the book back on the shelf again, how he calculated his bid, how long the book lingered on or near his desk once he’d bought it, etc. Serving this sort of apprenticeship, and surrounded by great books, was marvellous. Other dealers have always been unfailingly decent with me, for which I am truly grateful. Amongst them my predecessors at Marlborough Rare Books, the Alex Fotheringham and the late John Manners, who made all kinds of encouraging noises and offered perspectives on the upper echelons of the book trade, which, hitherto, were a complete mystery to me.
In 2005, a combination of factors occurred: the last stepchild had flown the nest; we were finally in a position to place a trembling foot on the housing ladder (albeit not in the South East); and it felt like time for a change. Moreover, some sort of amalgamation between Marlborough Rare Books and Pickering & Chatto looked likely, so I declared my hand and handed in my notice. Subsequent election into the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, about which I am genuinely delighted, is the foundation stone upon which I hope to build.
Plenty of booksellers have a photographic memory, or extraordinary erudition, or phenomenal ability to be in the right place at the right time (and in one or two cases, seemingly in all places at all times). Many are specialists. I cannot pretend any of these things, but I sincerely hope you will visit Anne and myself in Liskeard, Cornwall, where we are open by arrangement, and come away surprised and pleased with your purchases (in whatever field). Cornwall is really not as far as you think (where we are is 20 minutes West from Plymouth, along the A38; also, Liskeard Railway Station – Paddington is approx. 3 ½ hours). This last year we have been attempting to live and earn in the midst of a perpetually morphing building site in the middle of the town of Liskeard (a town which John Betjeman loved, Wilkie Collins hated; where George Borrow was feted, and Edward Gibbon was once the MP).
I will happily send catalogues to anyone who asks.
23 Pound Street, Liskeard PL14 3JR
Tel: 01579 345 310