Although I was already becoming a regular at Hodgson’s frequent book-auctions in Chancery Lane, only walking distance from the shop, the wider world of bookselling was still an unexplored mystery. A customer had been singing the praises of George Bayntun in Bath — “marvellous bookshop, you simply must go there”. And so it was that I turned up in Manvers Street, one crisp autumnal morning in 1972.
The owlish proprietor, Hylton Bayntun-Coward (1932-2000), was courteous to a fault, although I had the distinct impression that he didn’t quite see me — half-hippy, half-bookseller — as officer material. Hylton was old-school. I nowadays see myself as old-school, but he was old-school, old-school, if you catch my drift. But then fate intervened, as it does. Another young and hirsute customer came in and asked if Bayntun’s had any Denton Welch in stock.
Hylton looked puzzled. I mean this with no disrespect, but Denton Welch was really not a Hylton kind of author. He did what we book-people do when we have no idea at all what the customer is talking about: we repeat the question back slowly and at a slightly elevated pitch — both to give ourselves time to think and in the hope that someone else in the vicinity might latch on and help out. In later times, I routinely taught the technique to brand-new employees. No-one wants to feel ignorant in their own bookshop. We called it the “distress signal”.
“DO — WE — HAVE — ANYTHING — BY — DENTON — WELCH?”
Truth to tell, a few months earlier I would not have known who Denton Welch was either, but I had been tracking his books down for a customer of my own, so was able casually to reel off some titles and publishers. No help to the customer, but the ice was broken.
Hylton was impressed. He gave me the full guided tour, bringing out from a safe some unbound sheets of the genuine first issue of Alice in Wonderland, which had been sent to Bayntun’s for binding. Jones and Nash (whom Hylton knew slightly) had told me of this legendary rarity and how the newsreel cameras had turned up in force the last time a copy had come up for auction some twenty years earlier. Still the only copy I have ever seen.
Hylton could not have been more kind or more encouraging to a young bookseller starting out — and it was to be the beginning of an enduring relationship. Bayntun’s became a regular port of call, and Hylton took to calling in at my own shop once or twice a year when up in town on Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA) business. A dozen years on, he came into my new shop at the Royal Exchange — still small, but no longer a large cupboard — and said, “You know, it is something of an embarrassment to us in the ABA, that someone of your stature in the book trade hasn’t become a member”. Well — flattery will get you everywhere. Despite the earlier caveats of Jones and Nash never to have anything to do with the ABA, I cast around for the four members needed to sponsor me and was duly elected.
But Hylton was not done with me yet. A few more years on, he arrived with another suggestion. Leo Bernard of Chelsea Rare Books, another bookseller I greatly liked and admired, was stepping down from the ABA Committee. Hylton and his ABA colleagues liked to keep the Committee balanced, both geographically and in terms of size of business: would I care to replace Leo to represent the smaller London shops? You have come a long way, he pointed out. You have this lovely shop just opposite the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange. You are employing half a dozen people. The book trade has treated you well. Time to put something back.
That was the key thing about Hylton. His sense of duty. His sense of service. His loyalty to the trade and to his community. He was already serving an unwonted second term as President of the ABA himself (as well as being High Sheriff of Avon). Impossible to refuse. His prediction that there would be no contested election and that I would simply be co-opted turned out to be wrong. If memory serves, I pipped Adrian Harrington for the final place on the Committee by just one vote — not that it mattered, Adrian was soon on the Committee himself, President a few years later, and President of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) not long after that.
When I eventually became ABA President myself, in 2011 (another unexpectedly contested election), the result of the vote was read out at an AGM held upstairs at Bayntun’s — the perfect venue and I can only regret that Hylton did not live to see it.
The shards of memory — so clear over some things, so fragile over others. I can’t now recall the other bookshops I visited on that first expedition, the books I bought, or the other booksellers I met — apart from one. Heading south from Bath — a vague recollection of a stop in Wells — I found myself in Dorchester — then still very recognisably the setting of Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, my favourite Hardy, rich in that cinematic quality he has at his best.
There I sought out the New Street bookshop of old Mr Day — H. V. Day — Harvey Vernon Day (1890-1984). I must have known of him from his advertisements in The Clique. A specialist in Hardy of course. Much as I coveted his Hardy first editions, I couldn’t buy them from a specialist at a profit — but I did buy a number of other books, including a couple of early George Moore titles in cloth. I had a keen Moore collector who was absolutely thrilled with them. Not so much interest in Moore these days, interesting and influential as he was, but those early titles still take some finding.
We fell to talking and it slowly dawned on me that Mr Day was talking of Hardy as if he had known him personally — but then indeed he had. Had known him as a customer some fifty years earlier. I shook the hand of a man who had shaken the hand of the great man himself. Had there been any previous doubts, there were none now. This was a trade to which I belonged.