Late August 1971 — and I have blundered into book-land — somehow the proprietor of a bookshop (rare and second-hand) in Cullum Street, hard by Leadenhall Market. Had I known that this was to be my career, I might have prepared myself rather better for it, by working for others for a few years and learning the trade at their expense. Too late for that now.
Something else I had not remotely prepared for was becoming an employer. The shop was genuinely too busy, certainly at lunchtime, to run single-handed. A friend and flatmate helped out for a few weeks, but I needed someone permanent. In hindsight, it would have made sense to find someone with a bit of experience — but I did not even know where to look. I simply put an advertisement in the Evening Standard and hoped for the best.
The telephone did not stop ringing for a couple of days. No end of people in the world who like the idea of working in a bookshop — most of them under the impression that it requires no more than the ability to look elegant while sitting about and reading, leaving the books, maps and prints to organise and sell themselves. Having weeded out the more obviously hopeless on the telephone, I lined up a series of quickfire interviews. I had plenty of personal experience of being on the wrong side of an interview desk — although the desk in this case was nominal — there wasn’t remotely enough room in the tiny shop for a desk at which two people could sit at simultaneously. Standing-room only interviews for several days.
A lot of nice people — half a dozen of whom would probably have been fine — but no-one stood out. I was just about to pick up the telephone to offer the job to a personable young man when it started ringing. A very belated applicant — but a pleasant voice, an engaging manner, and a quiet insistence —all useful (and not especially common) qualities in bookshop life. She could be there in half an hour for an interview — and she was. A little out of breath, a mane of red hair, but buzzing with good questions, full of ideas of what we could do with the shop, and the instant rapport of two complete opposites — it soon wasn’t at all clear who was interviewing whom, but we both knew she had the job.
My first assistant. The mercurial Pamela Winterton. She had perhaps the most offbeat and original mind I’ve ever encountered. She saw the world through a different prism. In a much less flattering way, she came to feel the same about me: “I know it’s your job to live in the past, but with your mindset and attitudes you could wake up in the eighteenth century and not even notice”, she once idly remarked.
Unsparing, she was in equal parts exciting, exhilarating, exasperating and utterly exhausting. The first of many of my many assistants over the years — rather too many, I fear — I never really got the hang of employing people. Expected too much. Always wanted more. Hopeless at delegation. One only lasted a single morning, although others made it beyond the first week. Some stayed even longer, all of them interesting and, to the best of my knowledge, only one of them later became an accountant, and only one ended up in jail (not sure which I am the more embarrassed by). Some stayed in the trade, others at least in the world of words — but more on them on a future occasion.
It fell to Pamela to help set the future style and tone of the business. She was my colleague and companion through the pangs of its infancy. Odd fragments linger in the memory: she was with me the first time I ever went to a Sotheby’s auction — incredulous looks from the regulars — but we brazened it out and bought some Byron. And having watched Jones and Nash work their double act, it was easy to fall into her notion of the public area of the shop being a kind of performance space. We were mismatched in multiple ways, but we each had strengths the other did not. She had the imagination. I had the stolidity and perseverance. She had the charm. I had the reliability. She had the beauty and I had the — well, no, actually, she had most of the brains as well. Sales soared from the very first day she started.
Teamwork — although we rarely agreed on anything very much. It was the time of Germaine Greer and The Female Eunuch (one of the books featured on The 1971 Catalogue) — we had both read it — and thinking to please my new and avowedly feminist assistant, I suggested that we create a separate section of shelves to feature women authors. She was incensed. She was furious. She was incandescent. She stamped her foot. “Women can write just as well as men — your own favourite author is that old fraud Virginia Woolf, for f—k’s sake — we don’t need a patronising pat on our pretty little heads and our own perfumed little parade-ground to pose in for you. How f—–g dare you? Equality means e-q-u-a-l-i-t-y! It means treating people the same, not treating them differently” (or words that effect). She was of course unassailably right — I’m surprised that so many people still fail to see it. Lesson learnt.
Her notion of “someone permanent” was challenging. She could disappear for months on end. A prolonged sojourn in Morocco — not a word in ages. Her estranged husband, now openly gay, came bursting into the shop one day insisting that we fly out to Casablanca to find her. We were just about to make the arrangements when she turned up. Then later a stint with his experimental theatre troupe — the Crystal Theatre of the Saint.
Despite it all, by now with help from other more orthodox hands, the shop was ticking along nicely. In those pre-internet days, the routine way to find books that customers were asking for was to submit a weekly list of “Books Wanted” to The Clique, a trade journal for precisely that purpose. To cut down on postage, offers were prepared on little slips of paper and all sent back to The Clique office to be distributed to the advertising booksellers with the following week’s issue. It was all rather effective and efficient. We worked assiduously at it and found a lot of books that way — and soon a wholly unexpected bonus.
A customer was looking for a particular eighteenth-century book on coins — had been looking for quite some time. We duly listed it in The Clique — a single response came in — from an elderly bookseller in Wimbledon, someone we had bought from before — his Clique slips usually arriving a week after those from everyone else (his books still priced in shillings and pence), but they were always good value. Yes — he had a copy of the book, but it was a bit outside his usual range and he had no idea what to ask for it. Would we care to make an offer? We consulted with our customer, checked the book auction records, and duly made an offer. He was delighted, so was our customer, and so were we.
What we did not know, was that on the strength of that single transaction, the elderly bookseller instructed his son, himself a man in his sixties, that when he died, we should be given first refusal on his entire stock. We could obviously be relied on to make a fair offer. (For those of you who wonder what might constitute a “fair offer”, let me give you the late Anthony Rota’s definition: a figure which you would not be embarrassed by if it leaked out to your colleagues in the trade — a figure neither too low, nor, just as importantly, too high).
The opportunity to make that offer was not that long in coming. I turned up one Saturday morning in Wimbledon to take measure. You may think you have seen a house full of books, but never one like this. Even the stairs were shelved. There were shelves across all the windows. Every room had an island of books in the middle, with a narrow aisle around it. An island made up either of books piled on the floor to head height, or a phalanx of those lovely old Globe-Wernicke stacking bookcases, back-to-back. The kitchen cupboards and the larder were full of books (on cookery). The stout garden-shed was full of books (on gardening). The only items of regular furniture anywhere were a bed and a single wardrobe — and even the wardrobe was full of books.
I already had twice as many books as the shop could actually hold — the whole notion was impossible — but there was a way. The venerable bookseller had kept all his best books in the smaller of the back bedrooms — if I could see my way to make a decent offer for those, the rest didn’t matter so much. I scoured the smaller back-bedroom — the books were wonderful — and came up with an offer (hoping and praying that the bank-manager would stand for it). The son was absolutely delighted, but, he said, if you are talking about that kind of money then why not just buy the house and I’ll throw the books in for free. Of course, that is what I should have done — the money involved was almost the same — but I didn’t need a house, I had just bought a new flat (itself already full of surplus stock), and I don’t think anyone at all then realised just how far house-prices were to explode over the coming years.
Offer accepted, but could I help dispose of the rest of the books — on commission? I leafed through the pages of the trade directory and summoned some specialists — someone for the gardening books, someone for the cookery books, someone for the popular fiction in the living room, someone for the art and illustrated books in the other back bedroom, and so on. My only task was to ensure that the offers were broadly fair — the commission racked up and made a considerable dent in the purchase price of my own books. I took Pamela with me to see the bank-manager (she was once more back in the fold). All was fine there — “I so admire you young people” — and I ended up buying all the Globe-Wernickes as well (I still have three of them) — because the obvious thing to do at this point was to open a second shop.
It had recently been announced that a large plot of land had been acquired near King’s Cross on which to begin building a new British Library. So, our second shop — Pamela to run it — handsomely decked out with the Globe-Wernickes — opened in Chalton Street, just round the corner from the appointed site. We weren’t of course to know that it would take well over twenty years for the Library actually to be built. But at the age of twenty-six, still not really having a clue what I was doing, I had two bookshops.
The Chalton Street venture only lasted a year or two. Sales were meagre, and on some days non-existent. It taught a needed lesson about the importance of footfall and location — a lesson applied in years to come. I should have kept it on as a hub for a cataloguing side of the business — the rent was cheap enough — but I had only just started to issue catalogues. I lacked the expertise, the resources and the staff. And then Pamela disappeared again, this time for good. She left me with an uncannily prescient and accurate narrative of how the rest of my life would pan out — I was always the predictable one.
They were enchanted years, but in her own phrase — she coined aphorisms for fun — “Yesterday was self-locking”: you can to some extent recapture the past, but you can’t ever change it. For better or worse, those years were what they were and can’t now be altered.
To be continued …