The highs and lows of antiquarian bookselling
Collecting antiquarian and second-hand books might be a folly, but it is one of the most engaging and stylish follies that there is. It is a business, and a business undoubtedly it is, predicated upon an eccentricity, namely that well-heeled and literate collectors will happily pay hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds in order to possess a rare and valuable book in as close to a condition as it would have been upon its original publication. In some cases, if the author has inscribed the book to a famous friend or if some piece of unusual trivia is attached to its appearance, the price can be many times higher. the most spectacular instances, such as the few extant copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio or the suppressed first issue of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the books are probably worth enough money to make their vendors millionaires overnight.
Today, bookselling is a highly lucrative occupation for the leading bookdealers, both in Britain and beyond. The recently concluded 2020 New York antiquarian book fair saw items of spectacular scarcity for sale, at suitably eye-popping prices. Peter Harrington, the Chelsea and Mayfair-based bookseller, had a Third Folio of Shakespeare for £500,000 and a dust-wrappered first edition of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock for £87,500, and Jonkers Books of Henley-on-Thames offered a first edition copy of Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, inscribed to Noel Coward as ‘this slice of Swiss life’, for £32,500. These items, alas, are unlikely to appear in any publicly accessible collections, but will be kept in air-conditioned libraries, under lock and key, and zealously guarded by their millionaire owners.
A documentary, The Booksellers, has been produced to coincide with the fair, and it looks into the great New York bookshops – The Argosy and the Strand, where potential booksellers have to pass a searching test dealing in both literary and commercial knowledge – and how they have survived in the 21st century. In the Fifties, Manhattan boasted 368 antiquarian bookshops; now it is down to 79, and that number is declining all the time. The story in London is a similar one, and my own home city of Oxford has lost many over the years to high rents. Yet those shops that remain are both passionate about the art of selling books to clients, and savvy about market realities. If the current vogue for collecting is for mint condition Marvel comics, or original Black Power or Women’s Liberation pamphlets, then you can be certain that a bookshop will make sure that such items are stocked alongside impossibly rare leather-bound volumes.
These items, alas, are unlikely to appear in any publicly accessible collections, but will be kept in air-conditioned libraries, under lock and key, and zealously guarded by their millionaire owners.
This is a considerable evolution from how antiquarian bookselling – or its rather shabbier and more disreputable cousin, ‘secondhand bookselling’ – used to be regarded. Before the advent of the internet, there was a multitude of shops in every town and city in this country where the owner, often a shabby, middle-aged and well-read man who had failed to make a mark in professions such as the law, teaching or journalism, would set up his wares in humble premises. Here, his rarities rubbed spines with old Penguin paperbacks costing a pound or two. Sometimes, these shops were wonderful places to lose oneself in for hours of browsing, and on other occasions the proprietor would be so misanthropic and the stock so unwieldy that one would flee in panic without any purchase being made.
Nevertheless, there were often bargains to be had. The only way of knowing whether a book was valuable or not, save gut instinct and experience, was to consult endless first edition guides, auction records or the once-invaluable Bible of the trade, the Book and Magazine Collector. Thus, while one knew that a first edition of Casino Royale or Lord of the Flies was going to make serious money, more esoteric items could often be overlooked and sold for a few pounds. It was not uncommon for first editions of relatively recent titles to be available for less money than the paperback copy, and sometimes, especially if a successful film had been made of the book, they could be worth a vast amount more. And of course, a proprietor who knew little could be relied upon to sell his stock far too cheaply, meaning that his shop could be descended upon by vulture-like collectors and dealers alike until the bones were picked clean. I hope that many of these poor characters remained unaware of the money that they had lost out on; it would be enough to send many quite mad.
Of course, I had my own dabblings in this world. When I was a schoolboy, I used to make a bit of extra pocket money by trudging round various Hampshire charity shops, picking up inexpensive copies of first editions and illustrated books and jumble sales, and then selling them to some of these booksellers, whose faint incredulity at having to deal with a child was outweighed by their willingness to acquire decent stock. (Not cheap, though: I had learnt the importance of haggling from an early age.) I later pursued this path with a great deal more vigour, firstly on my gap year in Suffolk, where my father and I would trawl auction houses and flea markets in search of bargains, and then while at university, where I haunted the local Oxfam bookshop and various fetes in the expectation that some good and saleable stuff would appear. It invariably did.
I remember some entirely unexpected highlights, such as acquiring a fine first edition of AA Milne’s Now We Are Six in its original dustwrapper for five pounds and getting hold of CS Lewis’s pre-Narnia sci-fi novel Perelandra for even less. A glance at the trade’s major website, Abe Books, reveals that the first book would now sell for around £500, and the second about £300. The chances of finding either today at the prices I paid are extremely low. And occasionally, one could find an item of extraordinary rarity almost by accident. I picked up what I thought was a nice reading copy of AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad for £1.50 in a charity shop, only to realise later that it was the near-legendary first edition, of which a mere 500 had been printed at Housman’s expense. A trip to Peter Harrington followed the next day, and the subsequent proceeds paid for a holiday to New York. If I had kept the modest and unprepossessing little volume, it would probably be worth the price of a family car today.
Of course, such examples of lucrative success were rare. More often than not, I remember long afternoons either of listing books on eBay and hoping for a five or ten pound profit, or dragging heavy bags round largely uninterested booksellers. My student digs were full of creaky old titles with missing pages and half-torn dustwrappers that I clung onto in the vain expectation that, one day, I would be able to sell them. I never was able to, and so they duly ended up in the local charity shop. In some cases, they had originally been purchased from these shops in a misguided moment of optimism.
I still dabble in bookdealing and collecting today, although the demands of family and writing life mean that I only have a few snatched moments here and there to pop into the local bookshop or to leaf through the local auction house’s catalogue. And the market has changed, too. My status as a ‘runner’ – a peripatetic freelance bookseller, who buys cheap and aims to resell quickly at a profit to a dealer – has been eroded by a greater amount of specialist knowledge, thanks to the ability to look up a book’s value in moments on the internet, and because there are far fewer places to sell to. While the desirable items are happily snapped up by the sort of booksellers who exhibit at the New York book fair, the good, honest ‘shop stock’ is much harder to shift, because there are very few shops of that kind left. Charity bookshops, for all their undoubted worth, have killed off their commercial rivals, who cannot compete with the unlimited provision of free stock and volunteer staff, to say nothing of the generous tax advantages that they enjoy.
When Hector, the schoolmaster protagonist of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, says ‘I’ve got this idea of buying a van, filling it with books, and taking it round country markets’, he encapsulates a vision that drove many into bookselling with high expectations and honest hopes. The shocks that have caused many to abandon their dreams have mainly been economic, but there was also the spectacular horror of the murder of the book dealer Adrian Greenwood in 2016, who was killed for a rare first edition copy of The Wind in the Willows by the desperate drifter Michael Danaher. I wrote a piece for The Telegraph at the time in which I speculated that the world of books contained some dishonest and criminal figures on its peripheries, and was promptly and angrily upbraided by many of its practitioners, including none other than the actor-cum-bookseller Neil Pearson, a noted expert on the literature of the Parisian Jazz Age when he isn’t appearing in the likes of Bridget Jones’s Diary.
They were, on reflection, right to be upset. Few who go into antiquarian and second-hand bookselling do so with predominantly dishonest or greedy intent. There are considerably easier and less back-breaking ways to make money. Those in the criminal fraternity who steal books, and use violence so to do, would undoubtedly have done something else dishonest if they had had the opportunity. Yet books are fundamentally small and portable items, easy to slip under a coat or into a bag, and so it is little wonder that there is a regularly updated database of stolen items. Recent titles that have gone missing include a first edition of Sense and Sensibility, a signed copy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and a 1617 King James Bible. One hopes that they will be recovered, and that their scarcity will make it harder for thieves to part with them.
Yet if I sound gloomy about the prospects for the industry, there is also a great deal of excitement about as well. There are a growing number of bibliophile societies aimed at young collectors, such as the excellent University of London Society of Bibliophiles, which organises regular social get-togethers, lectures and visits to collections and libraries of note. Some universities offer book-collecting prizes for students who have amassed interesting and worthwhile collections of their own, often for very modest outlays. The popular Second Shelf bookshop in Soho specialises exclusively in selling antiquarian and secondhand books written by women, addressing a gender inequality that has existed both within the publishing and bookdealing professions for decades. And Shaun Blythell, the proprietor of ‘The Bookshop’ in Scotland’s ‘book town’ of Wigtown has published two bestselling memoirs of his life as the town’s grumpiest bookseller, which alternate between amusing pen portraits of the eccentrics he sells to and buys from, and fascinating insights into the economic realities of what it is like to run an independent bookshop in the 21st century.
All of these people, from those who will spend millions at a book fair to those who will find a few pounds to acquire a nice copy of a favourite story, are deeply in thrall to the world of literature. As someone who has long since abandoned trying to escape from its clutches, and whose shelves are expanding on far too regular a basis for either financial or aesthetic comfort, I salute my peers, whatever their social or economic status. All of us, whatever our bank balances, are ultimately united by the same hope: that the industry, and its offshoots, flourish, despite all of the inevitable challenges. The love of books is a splendid thing, and long may it continue.
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