1971 — Becoming a Bookseller (2)

Having shaken hands with Hugh Jones and Cyril Nash late in June, I went to work for them (unpaid) on the following Monday.  I needed to absorb all I could while all the legalities of transferring the lease, etc., wound along their solicitor-strewn course.

There was no particular plan.  I naturally explored the stock and asked questions, but for the most part the partners simply talked about books the customers bought or asked for — but that was Lesson One, to listen carefully to your customers.  No-one else is going to tell you what books they want or why they want them.  

Cyril Nash was very knowledgeable on early twentieth-century literature, especially keen on Chesterton and Belloc, as well as some of the lesser-known names.  For years afterwards, my catalogues invariably commenced with a book or two by Lascelles Abercrombie from his carefully accumulated stock.  Even fifty years ago, Abercrombie was a decidedly old-fashioned taste, despite having been genuinely admired in his time by Rupert Brooke and others, but I cut my bibliographical teeth on such questions as the priority of the variant bindings on Abercrombie’s Emblems of Love (1912).

Hugh Jones had long been the outside man in the partnership, travelling the country to visit auctions and fellow booksellers.  His knowledge of all manner of books, especially plate-books and illustrated books, was exceptional.  The customers were not particularly familiar with him and the partners had developed a neat little double-act.  While Cyril spoke to them, Hugh would gently drift past with all the lofty detachment of a passing philosopher and murmur, “Rare book, that”, as if the shop and its doings were of purely academic interest.  Born in the days of Queen Victoria, he would sometimes surprise me with an outmoded expression from the days of his youth: “All Sir Garnet”, he would say when things were going well — a reference to the auspicious career of Sir Garnet Wolseley, a man who had died in 1913.     

The partners were very strong on early books on London.  One of my first tasks was to go to some remote spot up in North London and bring back a hefty two-volume eighteenth-century edition of Stow’s Survey from another dealer.  Lugging them uphill to a distant underground station on a very hot day was my first insight into how physically arduous bookselling can be — and probably the beginnings of the chronic back-pain to which most booksellers are prone.  They sold the set over the telephone within minutes of my arriving back, at what seemed to me to be a truly fabulous profit.  “All Sir Garnet”, indeed.

Just as Lascelles Abercrombie and his contemporaries were my route into modern first editions, so early books on London became my passage into genuinely antiquarian material.  But I learnt something else in my first week which has always stayed with me.  Rooting about in the back of the shop on only my second or third day I came across a nineteenth-century edition of Thomas Hardy — a cheap yellowback edition for railway reading.  I can’t now recall which Hardy it was — not this Desperate Remedies, something even more sentimental — but I looked at it almost in shock.  I had studied Hardy at school and at university, believed I knew his work, and greatly admired it.  But I had only ever read him in the austere and academic paperback texts of the 1950s and 60s.  But here he was got up in a soppy yellowback cover just as if he were some sort of romance writer for Mills & Boon.  I was appalled.  I was outraged.  How could you do this to a “serious” writer on a university syllabus?  But I think what hurt most was that deep down I recognised that there is actually something a bit Mills & Boonish about Hardy’s novels — and, more than that, this was probably why I liked them.  A chastening experience — the gulf between “serious” literature and what we might call “light reading” is not always as profound as we like to pretend.

But the real lesson here was on the essential rationale of book-collecting.  Fully to comprehend a writer, we need those early editions.  First editions for the primacy of the published text, of course, but also the earliest cheap editions, the early paperback editions, to understand in a physical way what the author was to his or her contemporaries, to their earliest readers.  What the book actually is, located in its own time and place.  What it really signifies.  A valuable and enduring lesson.

Jones and Nash were very good at introducing me to their best and most regular customers.  Some were clearly appalled that a complete ignoramus was about to take over the shop and were never seen again — I can’t say I blame them — but others recognised that youth, energy, and enthusiasm were assets as useful in their way as a store of recondite knowledge.  I’m still in touch with three or four of the customers I met in those first few weeks — long-standing friends now as much as customers — people like David Chambers, whose fabulous collection of private press material was begun in Cullum Street under the tutelage of Jones and Nash, and Alan Cole of the Museum of Writing. 

Apart from what I absorbed from the partners, I started to read up on what I was supposed to know.  For the prints and maps — an increasing part of the business as Jones and Nash had grown older and less able to hump books around — a little handbook gave me a good grounding in the ways in which they were produced: copper engraving, steel engraving, wood engraving, aquatint, lithograph, etc.  My reasoning was that even if I knew nothing of the content or context of the print or map, I could at least explain how it was made. 

This paid off unexpectedly within my first few weeks.  Alongside the old prints, the shop also stocked the handsome reproductions of the Thomas Shotter Boys lithographs of London published by the bookseller Charles W. Traylen of Guildford.  Someone came in one day with a Shotter Boys which her boss wanted reframed.  “It’s a bit faded”, said Cyril Nash, “we’ll throw it away and frame up a new one for you”.  It was only later that I looked at it more closely.  My eyesight was still good in those days and I was convinced that the faded example was not a Traylen reproduction, but an original hand-coloured Boys lithograph — definitely not to be thrown away.  Hesitantly, I ventured my opinion.  The partners were more than sceptical.  Was the tyro really trying to teach them their business? — but the production of a magnifying glass soon settled the matter.  They looked at me warily, seeming to think that they may have spawned a monster — perhaps they had — but I had won their respect, not just for being right, but for not backing down.  Our relationship had subtly shifted.  I was someone worth teaching.        

Strange to think that only three or four years later I found myself bidding against Charles Traylen himself at a suburban auction for a complete copy of Boys’ Original Views of London as It Is (1842) — one of the few major London books I’ve never had.  I may as well not have bothered.  He was not called the “Napoleon of the Sale-Room” for nothing.  It was a stray book in an antiques auction, missed by the auction-house and given a paltry pre-sale estimate.  You could hear a pin drop as the bidding nudged upwards, achingly slowly, pound by pound.  I finally dropped out when we reached somewhere between 400 or 500 times the original estimate, but one tenacious bidder clung on.  At that point Charlie Traylen imperiously instructed the bemused auctioneer to pause the bidding and invited his remaining opponent to step outside.  They soon came back in and the book was summarily knocked down to Traylen without further demur. 

It was a rather different London book which the partners advised me always to buy, almost at any price.  No-one, they claimed, had ever realised quite how rare and valuable it actually is.  And you may never see another one.  I’ve managed to buy several over the years, but the last was twenty years ago now.  But — no, absolutely no, no, no — I’m not going to tell you what it is — another one may yet turn up.

Other early reading obviously included John Carter’s still indispensable ABC for Book-Collectors — I think in the original 1952 edition — as well as Percy Muir’s Book-Collecting as a Hobby (1944) and its sequel — founts of robust common sense.  His later books on English Children’s Books (1954) and Victorian Illustrated Books (1971) were soon also part of my growing collection.  Then there was Eric Quayle’s just-published The Collector’s Book of Books (1971) — a decent and informative enough overview.  Something else I must have come across really quite early was Guinevere Griest’s brilliant Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel (1970) — impossible to understand late nineteenth-century publishing without it.  But whatever we might learn from books, the real education of a bookseller is simply in handling large numbers of books themselves — and the shop was full of them. 

It is easy to forget in old age how rapidly we can soak up and retain information when young, especially when your entire income literally depends on it.  By late August the shop had become mine, but part of the agreement with Jones and Nash was that they would continue to come in one day a week each for a year or two.  Admittedly this was for one of their “two-hour” days, but I still had regular access to their help and guidance.

They were generous and I learnt much from them — not just about books but about the book-trade in general.   One piece of advice they gave me was never, under any circumstances, to have anything to do with the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association — the ABA.  This was sound and sensible.  I should have listened — it might have saved me thirty years or so of sitting on various ABA committees, for the most part simply banging my head against the wall — but too late to regret that now, and I can’t say I haven’t thoroughly relished and enjoyed those occasional moments when the banging briefly stopped.

A second piece of advice was utter nonsense.  “You’re a nice enough young chap”, they said, “but you really need to work on your eccentricity — to cultivate it — people expect it in a bookshop”.  Complete nonsense, and — as you know — I have always scrupulously guarded against any oddity or irregularity of behaviour.   I can only wish that some of my colleagues in the trade had been quite as self-disciplined in that regard.

To be continued …

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