From Chelsea to the Interweb

Chelsea Book Fair 2013

The always splendid Chelsea Book Fair set to open, but a miserable morning – miserable weather.  And feeling a bit down myself.   As some of you may know, a few of my more eye-catching books are always on display at Pinda Bryars’ excellent new shop in Cecil Court.  The arrangement usually runs like clockwork, but on this particular morning it so happened that I’d received an order overnight through my website for one of these very books.  And of course, as ill-chance would have it, the morning had not advanced very far before I learnt that Pinda had only just sold it to one of her own customers.

Aargh!  Profuse apologies and money back to the man who had ordered it through the website, but always depressing to disappoint a customer.  The quest at Chelsea was now to find something comparable to offer him instead – an alternative copy of the same book for preference.  Perhaps a bit optimistic:  this was the first edition of a two-volume novel published in 1861-1862, over 150 years ago – but not altogether an impossible mission, a popular book by a popular author, and by no means the scarcest of his books.

No luck at Chelsea – no copies of the book, and only a couple of books by the same hand – neither tempting.  But, as always, and always, year after year, plenty of other things to buy, plenty of old friends to have a chat to, plenty of wonderful books I both could and couldn’t afford, and plenty of very happy browsers and customers.  It really is the friendliest of fairs.  Congratulations to Graham York on his first year in charge of the fair committee – perhaps a few less visitors through the door (although more on the Saturday), but takings all round comfortably up on last year.  Good and happy booksellers.

The Friendliest Fair

The Friendliest Fair – The ABA Team

The sales figures were given a boost by Angus O’Neill (Omega Bookshop) bringing along a quite remarkable cache of important inscribed and association copies of Bloomsbury Group authors – the condition admittedly in what we might charitably call the ‘much-loved’ category, but the provenance absolutely immaculate.  I actually gasped at some of them – that electric shock of recognition at knowing beyond all doubt whose gifted hands first handled these books, wrote in them, read the inscriptions in them, read them, cried over them perhaps, laughed over them and loved them.  They weren’t all sold – some of the very best of them are still available, and here’s a tip-off – you will find them over the next few weeks in Pinda Bryars’ shop (7 Cecil Court).

I was going to say that you won’t find these on the internet – almost true, you won’t find them listed anywhere, but there are now some pictures on Pinda’s blog.  By and large, of course, you won’t find the very best books on the internet: good wine needs no bush, the best books are very often sold by private word without anyone ever needing to offer them publicly – cultivate a good bookseller if you want first dibs.  But the internet still has its occasional uses – and I’m still looking for an alternative copy of my Victorian novel.

What can we find?  Iolo Williams wrote back in 1927 that “the most primitive form of book description with which the collector is likely to have to deal is that which is to be found in the catalogues of most of the smaller second-hand booksellers” – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say.  Actually, I think it’s got worse – far worse.  The internet, instead of sparking a rise in standards of cataloguing, as we might have hoped (or even expected), seems to have sparked a race to the bottom.   There were to be sure at the upper end of the price range several copies perfectly properly described, although it’s a potentially bibliographically complex book and the standard bibliography makes unusually hard work (not to say a complete hash) of it.  The basic work needs to be done again, there are too many things we don’t know.  It’s one of those books which has become a prey to those who think every little vagary and inconsistency of nineteenth-century publication in monthly parts and subsequent appearance in book form gives rise to an ‘issue’ point.  It doesn’t – and we could do without a lot of the incomprehensible gobbledygook it gives rise to – but that’s not the point I want to make.  My ‘issue’ is with booksellers who fail at even the basic task of adequately describing the book in hand.

There was one copy of the book of which the only thing we are told about the binding is that it is “embossed with gilt lettering”; for a start it is probably not ‘embossed’, but is this the original cloth of the book edition, a contemporary binding-up of the parts, a later rebinding in cloth, a recent binding in full morocco – or any other material which might plausibly be lettered in gilt?  We don’t know. We are not told. Then there were two copies described simply as “‘used” – and that really is the only thing we are told, and they weren’t cheap.

Failing to assign any kind of date or period to the binding is a particular blackboard-screeching irritant – but even some otherwise competent booksellers do this.  There was a copy in three-quarter green morocco; another in blue; one set with “leather spines”; an odd volume in green half leather – and not one of these so-called booksellers gave any kind of clue as to whether these bindings were executed  in 1862, 1912, 1962, or last week – let alone any kind of notion as to what was inside them – the monthly parts or the book edition (and yes I know that this is not always clear cut).  There was even a copy which contrived at the same time to be both “newly rebound” and in “contemporary quarter leather”.  There was also a volunteer effort at giving the name of the binder – a half morocco, “With binder’s ticket: Murrell [sic], London”.  Now if only that had been an early binding by William Turner Morrell  (1840-1880) … well, actually maybe it was – how are we to know?

We are told that nowadays a lot of cataloguing is “picture-led” and that I really shouldn’t be too snippy, snobbish and old-fashioned about it all.  Every picture tells a story – but all too often it tells a different story.  There were “picture-led” descriptions of a set described as “clean, sharp and very pretty” – but it wasn’t.  Another picture gave us as “very good and attractive set” – but it wasn’t.  Another was simply “fine” – but not in my book.  Another gave us “a good to very good set in original purple cloth” – and it was none of those things – not good, not very good, not original cloth, and not even noticeably purple (unless that’s my browser).

I’ll stick to snippy, thank you – but I’ll pass over for now the several copies with irregular and/or faulty numbers of plates or pages – some of them the same copies as those already mentioned.  I’ll also pass over the bookseller who claims that this is a book “seldom seen in presentable condition” – that’s a palpable falsehood.  But I will give you this gem, a “rare edition” of 1866 – evidently the two-volumes-in-one  remainder issue of the 1862 publication – verbatim:

“bibliographical note [sic]:  the first edition of this title was originally published by Chapman & Hall in 1877 [sic] in three volumes [sic], so this is probably the first one volume edition [sic] and followed very closely on the heals [sic] of the first edition – the adverts in this copy are even dated 1977 [sic]”.

And on top of all that, there were the usual raft and long tail of copies that were not the first edition at all.  Both volumes are dated 1862, but the first appeared late in 1861 – so the 1950 Knopf edition is not the first edition, nor is the OUP edition of 1963, and nor is the copy that “handles and presents well … [Attributes: First Edition; Hard Cover]”.

This really will not do.  Many of these are books are priced at many hundreds of pounds and much of this cataloguing is simply a disgrace – these people are not professional booksellers in anything but name.  Bad and miserable booksellers.  They bring the trade into disrepute. They deter both book-collectors and book-collecting itself.   They make life immeasurably and painfully more difficult for the people who do actually know something of what they are doing.  You will perhaps see why I generally prefer to buy books by going to see proper booksellers – it’s often less taxing and time-consuming than ploughing through screen-reams of this rubbish.  And as to the Victorian novel, well I did eventually find my alternative copy – but that’s another rant for another day.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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1 Response to From Chelsea to the Interweb

  1. I couldn’t agree more. The current state of the online offerings from the three A’s websites is quite appalling, and they take the lions share of searches. Poor cataloguing by sellers merely adds to the misery, but the muddle of Print on Demand, ebooks, even PDF files all mixed in and not easily filtered out, despite claims to the contrary, makes “browsing” a serious chore and safe buying jolly hard work. As a moderately experienced dealer with about 35 years under my belt I kid myself that I can cope, but this year alone I’ve had book club editions sent to me, ex-public library described as fine or near new, odd volumes as sets, and worse. But what is to be done ? Outside of London there is little real option but to use the websites, and whilst I try to restrict my buying to known dealers sometimes there is little alternative or the lure of a bargain can prove to be a siren call. The solutions do exist to improve standards, but the big websites have no real short term incentives to help, and the longer term fixes are no part of their business plans. I suspect we are doomed to be an ever more obscure group of grumpy old people railing against a world that neither understands us as booksellers nor sees a need for us. We know they’ll miss us when we are gone, but there may be no-one left to care.


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