This year, for the first time, students on the MA course in the History of the Book at London University were offered a voluntary additional module – a 200-hour work-placement with a London bookseller. Official sanction from the university authorities to make this a full part of the course was a little late in coming through, so by the time Professor Simon Eliot gave me the final go-ahead to start approaching booksellers we had to make haste. Five of the students wanted a placement: I had met none of them and only had a very brief statement of the kind of books they were interested in to work with. Colleagues in the trade were mostly kind. Some were unable to help this year or at such short notice, a few seemed disinclined to help at all, others hummed and hawed, but some (to whom I’m eternally grateful) simply said – “Yes, of course, delighted to take part”.
I was not at all sure that working quietly on my own from home, without shop, without staff, I could provide a student with any meaningful experience of the book trade, but plainly I couldn’t ask anyone to do anything I wasn’t prepared to do myself. We were also interested to see what kind of environment might work best for this kind of exercise – a large firm, a medium one, a smaller bookshop, or a bookseller working from home or office. Although, I imagine like everyone else involved, I was fearful of it taking up more time than I could afford, I resolved to take on whichever of the students could not be found a more obviously suitable placement elsewhere.
Prepared by no more than a very hastily put together couple of talks from me (collating and cataloguing, together with some of my more random thoughts on the ‘ways of the trade’) and a brief, if almost certainly more formal, introduction to bibliography from Professor Tony Edwards, the students went out to begin their placements. Fingers crossed. Briefing notes had been sent out to all parties. It was hopefully made clear to the students that they were not going to get 200 hours of personal tuition, but would simply have to pitch in and learn on the job. It was hopefully made clear to the booksellers that this was still meant to be a meaningful part of an academic course and that the students might need help and guidance in formulating a rare book trade topic to write a 5,000-word essay on.
As far as I can tell, from what feedback I have had, it has all gone rather better than anyone dared hope. Do let me know if you might be interested in taking part next year. Here’s what everyone has to say.
When I began my internship at Maggs, I thought I knew what the antiquarian book trade was all about: selling customers old books. That’s it. I’d worked in bookstores before – how different could selling someone an old book possibly be from selling someone a new book?
Turns out, quite different.
Yes, the antiquarian book trade is fundamentally about selling customers books. It’s about starting, adding to, and never quite completing collections. It’s about developing professional relationships with customers, many of whom regularly visit the shop just to browse and to chat. In these ways, the antiquarian and modern book trades do have things in common. They are businesses, aiming to make a profit.
However, Maggs taught me that the antiquarian book trade is about more than just making a profit. It’s about uncovering the unique narrative held by each book, autograph, and artefact in the shop. I was tasked, for just one example, with writing a long-form catalogue entry for an anonymous African-American World War II soldier’s scrapbook. This required close examination of everything included in the book, extensive research to determine the context in which the book was produced, and a heck of a lot of imagination to make connections that resulted in a cohesive narrative. Sure, narratives like these help sell products, but they also help us understand why these products are culturally valuable. This is the difference between the antiquarian and modern book trades: antiquarian booksellers see each item as having a completely unique story to tell. Turns out, antiquarian booksellers do more than just sell books. They research, they enrich.
Among other things, during my time at Maggs I wrote short- and long-form catalogue entries for both specific and general audiences; I tidied parts of the shop (here’s lookin’ at you, Counterculture); I helped host after-hours events, of various kinds; and I assisted colleagues and customers at the shop front. I also tagged along at the Olympia Book Fair and at the Young Booksellers drinks nights, where I found myself inspired by the number of young people thriving in the trade. There’s hope!
I am so grateful to have spent my summer at Maggs. Not only did I learn about the trade and what it takes to succeed in it – I also met so many intelligent, eccentric, and incredible people who constantly proved me wrong.
The best and the worst things about interns as good as Leah (for she is of the first water), is that they show us up by working harder and faster! “Slow down, for God’s sake, you’ll run out of work to do . . .” She got things quickly, dealt instinctively with the varied people both in the business and on the other side of things, and all in all became a valued team member very quickly. She’s a shining example of the reasons to be cheerful about the Worlde of Olde Bokes: the future of the past is safe in hands such as hers.
Having frequented antiquarian bookshops for fifty years, leapt at possibility of seeing trade from other side. Started with Robert Frew mid-May; not sure was quite what he had anticipated. Shop stacked wall-to-wall with crates of other people’s books. Was expecting book shopping but dropped straight into book shipping – best not to start interning a week before two book fairs? Five days later was running Robert’s stand at PBFA, meeting people certain that, because was wearing ‘Robert Frew’ badge,* would know exactly who they were and handed over piles of books with requests to ‘start a box for me’. Miraculously nothing got lost. After further week of manic box sorting and map packing could finally see stock in shop.
Settled down to peaceful cataloguing, interspersed with hunt for books/periodicals containing earliest mentions of obscure animal species, requests for ‘map showing California as island’, side trips to back-doors of auction houses (old pink driving licence not proof of ID), hearing sharp intake of breath as customer discovered price of fine first edition AA Milne, and giving directions to V&A, Harrod’s, Science Museum, French Embassy and/or bus to Notting Hill (note: suggest Robert charges for this service). Wondered re sanity of woman who bought four books from outside trolley, then asked ‘Is this a bookshop?’
Handled huge variety of books, began to penetrate mysteries of describing condition, dug up interesting bits of provenance and back history/associations, saw what can be done to improve look of worn bindings, understood that pricing is art (not science) and enjoyed it enormously. Very grateful to Robert, Tibor and Mark who’ve put up with my ineptness and idiotic questions.
Internship is useful complement to other course modules – hope it continues. Now the essay: ‘My struggles with parcel tape’, or possibly ‘Quantitative evaluation of the properties of differently-sourced bubble-wrap’?
*But wearing ‘Robert Frew’ badge gets the discount – own collection benefitted considerably!
When Laurence asked if I would take on an intern I quipped, “OK, as long as she is twenty-five, blonde and prepared to do anything”. Well Margaret is no longer twenty-five or blonde – but willingly, with a smile, a keenness and a sharp intelligence, has been prepared to muck in and do anything asked of her. From cleaning jobs, to packing, to manning our stand at the PBFA, to research at the Natural History Museum, to collating books, to researching a large archive on skiing and even a collection of saucy seaside postcard art from the 1950s.
I assume she has learnt something of the mechanics of running a small antiquarian bookshop, the trials and tribulations of book shipping, and hopefully a little to expand her appreciation and understanding of the history of the book.
I suspect, I know, that she would have preferred the emphasis to have been more on the academic side, but unfortunately the reality of bookselling also requires many other more mundane skills.
She has been an absolute pleasure to have on our team and a genuine benefit to the business.
I wish her all the very best and look forward to repeating the experience should another intern turn up – although Margaret will be a tough act to follow.
When I started at Tindley & Everett, one of the most daunting aspects of the shop seemed to be a certain lack of technology (no computer). Even the credit card machine shares the phone-line ensuring nothing so vulgar as ‘multi-tasking’. Records are kept on library cards. Customers may be forgiven for thinking this would result in a fast-track to a ‘bargain’. They would be wrong. Between them James and Mark possess an impressive knowledge of twentieth-century books and it has been fascinating to absorb the interactions (invariably highly acerbic ones in the case of Tindley) with customers, sellers, auction houses, the Post Office, and the excellent folk that inhabit Cecil Court.
What have I learned? Apart from my attempts to catalogue, chase provenance, price and wrap, my experience has confirmed a simple truth: there are no shortcuts. The internet has made it easier for more people to buy and sell antiquarian books, but to endure you have to have the knowledge. Above all that’s what Tindley & Everett has taught me. You have to know what you’re doing. And sometimes, with luck and a high wind, you might even be able to pay yourself.
I feel very sad to be coming to the end my time at Tindley & Everett, I have had the most marvellous experience over the last few weeks. With profuse thanks to Laurence Worms, Simon Eliot, Cynthia Johnston and, of course, James Tindley and Mark Everett for allowing me access to their mad, brilliant world.
Delighted as James Tindley and I were to agree to Laurence’s suggestion that we might host one of the students over the summer, we did so with a certain amount of trepidation. How well would a student of the History of the Book fit into the daily life of a rare bookseller, not to mention deal with the occasional eccentricities of life in a shop in Cecil Court?
We need not have worried. Helen has taken very easily to life in the shop and dealt so well with customers that several of them have volunteered extremely positive feedback. No doubt her retail experience at Waterstone’s has helped her to deal so good-humouredly with the public.
Helen has looked after the shop on more than one occasion and accompanied us to auctions, so hopefully will have learnt something of the skills involved in rare bookselling. We would also like to think that she has also gained some insight into why some books sell and others do not, though it is probably at least a lifetime’s work to master that one.
Helen would have to say how useful the experience has been for her in the context of her course. It has certainly been useful for us and we would happily participate in the scheme again next year.
Mark Everett (Tindley & Everett)
While doing my MA in the History of the Book, I was still not sure what I wanted to do once I’d finished. When Professor Eliot gave us the option of taking part in a practical course, I eagerly put my name down.
On hearing I would be placed with Laurence Worms (Ash Rare Books), I was not at all sure what to expect. Selling books without a bookshop was a slightly unfamiliar concept, but all the clichés seemed to be in place – mad cat, mad house full of books, and a bookseller who has clearly been ‘cultivating his eccentricity’ for a considerable time. It’s proved to be not just a lot of fun, but hugely instructive as well. Having learned from one of the best, he now says I am well on the way to being a master at cataloguing and that’s not just his ‘wonderfully large ego’ talking! [see previous post]. Wandering round book fairs I have also had the pleasure of meeting so many other interesting and friendly people.
Working for Laurence, I have learned so much about books, authors, buying books, cataloguing them, producing catalogues, online selling, printing techniques, illustration, provenance research, and so many more things. Most importantly it has absolutely made me want to join the world of antiquarian bookselling. It has been a really rewarding experience.
Any initial fears soon evaporated. Right from the outset, Pauline made herself useful. She is one of those rare people to whom something needs to be explained only once. Within days she had taken over all the paperwork and computer-related routine. We put together the summer catalogue in a few days – researching, editing, photographing – it all came easily to her. She soaks up information like a sponge. I was soon starting to wonder what I would do without her (I still am). In July she even took over the blog on a couple of occasions, gaining record numbers of visitors. Those of you who have read her posts will know what a delight she is. She has now decided to pursue a full-time career in the trade: I would love to keep her on, but don’t sell enough to pay her a proper living wage. If anyone has a full-time job for her – you would not regret it.
What I thought might have been a bit of a chore had turned into a rewarding and thoroughly enjoyable experience. As to how well the internships have worked in different situations, I am aware that I have not given Pauline any experience of working in a shop (although she did have a couple of days at Jarndyce), or of exhibiting at book-fairs, or attending auctions, etc., but equally, we have been able to do much more intensive work on researching and cataloguing than may have been possible elsewhere. A matter of swings and roundabouts.
I first became interested in the antiquarian book trade while studying for my MLIS at the University of Toronto. After perusing a number of booksellers’ catalogues during an acquisition seminar at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, I was inspired to start hunting around Toronto for interesting and unique books to enhance my own collection, and soon decided that the book trade was a field I wanted to know more about.
I spent my 200 hours interning at Jarndyce and, like Leah, learned that there is much more to the antiquarian book trade than I originally expected. Beginning the internship towards the end of May meant that my first days were spent preparing for the Olympia and PBFA fairs – quite an exciting and immersive introduction to the antiquarian book world! I had a wonderful time exploring the fairs with Pauline and Laurence, observing the Jarndyce stand with Brian, Josh, and Ed, and meeting many passionate booksellers and collectors. Following the book fair madness my more typical days at Jarndyce were spent cataloguing, organizing, packing parcels (for which I earned a rare Brian Lake gold star), and working in the shop.
It is impossible to contain in this space how much I learned during my time at Jarndyce, but perhaps the most striking thing is the continuity between book history and bookselling. As Leah points out, booksellers, like book scholars, research and enrich; book historians study the past lives and legacies of books, and antiquarian booksellers ensure that the lives and legacies of those books continue. I am so grateful to Jarndyce – Brian, Janet, Carol, Ed, Josh, Helen and Paul – for making every day I spent there both interesting and entertaining. I look forward to continuing my bookselling education at the York Antiquarian Bookselling Seminar this September.
It is the second time we have had an ‘intern’ at Jarndyce – the first was a Danish student on the old UCL/ABA bookselling course a few years back who came for two weeks. Then, I found myself effectively tutoring for the whole period. This time, Jessica came 2-3 days a week until completing her 200 hours and fitted in her work experience around whatever tasks needed doing.
We certainly enjoyed having her here and it certainly felt as though she found it useful and fun. If it works out, Jessica will continue here in part-time employment this autumn.