Real Books, Real People

A week of book-fairs and nowadays a whole series of related events – visits, talks and tours – all under a festival heading of “Rare Books London 2017”.  No sparing of effort, much time generously given – applause and a heartfelt thank-you to all concerned.

Maggs ExteriorHighlight for me was seeing most of the great and good of the rare book trade in Bedford Square the other evening to celebrate the return of the full Maggs Brothers operation to central London.  When Maggs left their grand old premises in Berkeley Square, some eighteen months ago now, we were all left feeling a little bereft – a flotilla without a flagship.  A toehold was kept with the little shop in Curzon Street and the intention to return in full strength was always made explicit, but the months dragged by.

MaggsWindowThe new premises are on the south side of Bedford Square – at No. 48, you will need to know this.  I may be imagining it, but they seem even grander than the old ones.  The building was actually acquired about a year ago, but fitting out a listed building for a new purpose in life is not done without much time, expense and anxiety.  Consents are needed to do this, that, or the other, to a listed building – and Ed Maggs and his colleagues were concerned above all to get everything right – that’s always been the Maggs ethos. Where changes have been made they have been minimal, sympathetic, and all intended to restore the building to what it would originally have been, not what it had become with the hotchpotch alterations of the passing years.  There were issues over floorboards and railings, delays and setbacks from suppliers – and that’s not to mention the sheer logistics of moving perhaps 100,000 books out of London into storage and then back again.


Maggs SignFor all the anxiety and tension this must have entailed, it’s all worked – and worked supremely well.  There are finishing touches still to be put – the sign outside (permission needed) is a temporary one until the real thing in real slate can be manufactured – but inside it already looks as if Maggs have been bookselling there for the last 100 years.  The displays are perhaps a little more consciously “curated” than in the past, but that’s the modern way.

MaggsModernBook-fairs are all very well and certainly have their uses – I could barely carry home my purchases at Olympia yesterday and today’s bags from the PBFA fair were even heavier – but fairs can never be the bedrock on which a flourishing rare book trade is built.  They are the icing.  They don’t create collectors.  I was forcibly reminded of this only the other day when putting the finishing touches to an insurance valuation of the book collection of a good customer and friend of mine who died, some years ago now, but far too young.  He would never have started collecting as seriously as he eventually did unless he had got to know me gradually over the years by dropping into my old shop when he was passing.  I could never have helped him put together such a valuable collection through chance encounters at book fairs.  To do these things needs friendship, trust, collaboration and a fixed abode.

MaggsOldBooksOnly good bookshops can initiate and build these things – as Robert Harding noted the other night in his welcoming speech (Ed Maggs’ voice had apparently given way) – it’s all about real books and real people.  That’s the Maggs way and, in my time and in my view at least – Maggs has not only been a good bookshop, but the best – the very best.

They are back in town.  Welcome home.  Bloomsbury now, rather than Mayfair – we can hear the geographical axis of the trade shifting accordingly.

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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