The Book-Hunters of 1888 (2)

Sotheby's 1888

Returning to The Book-Hunters of 1888, following the Roberts enumeration round the room we come to:

george-snowden

George James Snowden

(1) Mr Snowden – The figure in the foreground at the desk, pondering a great deal of paperwork, is the auctioneer’s clerk, assiduously recording the proceedings.  His name is variously given as Snowdon or Snowden and his initials as G. or G. S., but as far as I can make out his name was actually George James Snowden (1853-1910).  Born In London, he was the son of a master tailor and originally trained as a printer and compositor before joining Sotheby’s, where he became the Senior Sales Clerk at the age of twenty in 1873.  It was a post he was to retain for the rest of his life, frequently bidding against the room on behalf of anonymous commission bidders.  It was he who had forced Bernard Quaritch up to an unprecedented bid of £3,700 on a Gutenberg Bible at the Syston Park Sale in 1884 (although the room was not yet done and the eventual hammer price was £3,900).  He lived in Deptford and later Brockley with his wife Rosa and died in the summer of 1910.  He was popular with the trade and Karslake speaks of his “unfailing courtesy, bred in the very atmosphere of the place”.

abbots-langley-booksellers

Abbots Langley

In a later volume of Book Auction Records, Karslake gives an account of a charity dramatic entertainment put on by Snowden and his West Kent Amateur Comedy Company at St. George’s Hall in 1905.  The evening was to raise funds for the Booksellers’ Provident Institution – a charity founded (according to Timperley) on 20th December 1836, “for the mutual assistance and support of decayed booksellers and booksellers’ assistants, being members of the trade, and of their widows.   For the support of this very laudable institution, all the principal booksellers, printers, and bookbinders of the metropolis became subscribers, either by donation or annual subscription”.  By 1845 the Institution had the funds to begin building a handsome retirement retreat with seven almshouses at Abbots Langley, near Watford.  It still survives (nowadays known as the Book Trade Benevolent Society or more simply as the Book Trade Charity) and still serves its original purpose.  The site at Abbots Langley now has an additional eighteen bungalows, four town-houses, four flats and a gatehouse as well as the original almshouses.  Given these kind of resources, I wonder now why the fledgling ABA (founded in 1906) felt that one of its first and most important tasks was to create its own separate Benevolent Fund, because it is plain that the rare book trade was actively supporting and fund-raising for the older charity (and presumably antiquarian booksellers were occasionally benefitting from its largesse) only a year earlier.

Snowden’s entertainment was an attractive double-bill of H. J. Byron’s long-popular The Upper Crust and the interesting early Pinero one-acter, Hester’s Mystery, plays twinned together since their first performances in 1880.  The hall was packed and most of the luminaries of the trade were there.  Snowden was given a warm ovation at the end but with “his natural modesty he declined the invitation to make a speech” (and it was nearly midnight).  The sum of £40 had been raised for the Institution and – as we were discussing ways of raising money for the ABA’s charities in Council only the other day – here is Karslake’s suggestion: “We want more of this kind of thing in bookselling.  Why should not the younger members of the trade form a Booksellers’ Dramatic Club and give two performances yearly for similar purposes?  I am much too busy to take any share in the work myself, but will gladly collect the names of any who like the idea, and will call a meeting of them. The feeling of comradeship evinced on the 14th [December 1905] was a very delightful feature, and the matter should not begin and end there”.  There we are.  Not too late to pick up on this 110 years on.  Over to you, young booksellers – you know who you are.  I await my invitation.

edward-daniell

Edward Daniell

(2) Mr E. Daniell – the elderly gentleman sat behind the auctioneer, “patriarchal” Karslake justly calls him, is the octogenarian bookseller, printseller and publisher Edward Daniell (1807-1892).  Born in London and the son of a Baptist cabinet-maker, Daniell originally had premises in Wigmore Street, but by the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Bowring in 1835 he was working from 53 Mortimer Street, Cavendish Square, which remained his business address until his death at his home in Islington in 1892.  An 1838 catalogue of some six thousand second-hand books survives in the British Library and 1851 saw the publication of Daniell’s Musical Olio; or, Catalogue of his Miscellaneous Collection of Second-Hand Music, but Daniell was principally known for his expertise in old prints, especially portraits. A Catalogue of a Highly Interesting Collection of Engraved Portraits appeared in 1850, followed by The British Gallery of Historical Portraits (1854). Later highlights were Daniell’s Portrait Catalogue (1871) and Portraits of the Parliamentary Officers of the Great Civil War : Being the Facsimiles of a Rare Series Published in 1647; with New Brief Biographical Notices (1873). He had a staff of three in 1871 and a separate print department at 32 Cranbourne Street, Leicester Square, in 1877. Various of his numerous sons and daughters assisted him in the business, some starting businesses of their own, most notably Frederick Bowring Daniell (1853?-1932), who took over the Cranbourne Street premises and became a leading authority on early prints, later undertaking the external cataloguing of this kind of material for Sotheby’s.  Edward Daniell’s youngest son, Walter Vernon Daniell (1858-1928), who himself advised Sotheby’s on manuscript material, took over at Mortimer Street and became president of the ABA in 1911.

alexander-railton

Alexander Balderston Railton

(3) Mr Railton – the bearded and bare-headed figure in the corner, looking almost as if he is just a passer-by who has wandered in to observe the proceedings for a minute or two, is the bookseller Alexander Balderston Railton (1844-1904).  Accounts of the book trade at this period tend to focus on Bernard Quaritch to the exclusion of his rivals and contemporaries, but a bookseller like Railton could boast a pretty impressive CV of his own.  Born in the Gorbals in 1844 and left fatherless when his father died only a few months later, his early life must have been limited in possibilities, but at seventeen he was working in a Glasgow bookshop.  At twenty-three he moved to London to work for Henry Sotheran, then at 136 Strand.  Working his way up in the rare book world, he eventually became the manager at Sotheran’s, which by now had premises at 37 Piccadilly and 140 Strand (as well as a branch in Manchester for a few years).

sotheran-1870

Sotheran’s 1870

In 1891 Railton discovered a First Folio in a coach-house at Canwick Hall in Lincolnshire.  Legend has it that an assistant handed it to him saying, “No good, sir, it is only old poetry” (we have all known assistants of this calibre).  It was the famous copy now known as the Vincent Folio – inscribed by its first owner, the herald and antiquary Augustine Vincent, with a note that he had received it from the Jaggard family, who of course had printed it.  Of all the multiple copies of the First Folio acquired by Henry Folger, this was his favourite and the first listed in his own enumeration.  He paid a then record of $48,700 for it and thought for some reason that it must have been the very first copy printed.  As far as he was concerned it was simply “the most precious book in the world”.

In 1892 it was Railton who engineered the purchase of the great Althorp Library by Enriqueta Augustina Rylands to become the foundation of the magnificent  library she wished to assemble in memory of her husband – now of course known across the world simply as The Rylands in Manchester.  American buyers were also interested and after an inspection Railton wrote to Mrs Rylands that the Althorp Library “stands first in the private collections of the world and its loss to England would be nothing short of a national calamity” (see D. A. Farnie, ‘Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908), Founder of the John Rylands Library’  in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library  71:2, pp3-38, 1989).  The price soon agreed was probably £210,000, but may perhaps have been as high as £255,000: on the basis of average earnings, even the lower of these figures equates to some £85 million today.  It was and still is thought of in the rare book trade as the greatest sale ever made and there is a nice account of it by my colleague Beatie Wolfe on the ABA website under the title, The Greatest Book Sale of All Time?   It is said on good authority that Railton and Sotheran’s accepted a commission of just one per cent from Mrs Rylands, while Sotheby’s, acting for Earl Spencer, extracted nine per cent from him.  Plus ça change.

Railton became a partner in Sotheran’s on the retirement of the elder Henry Sotheran in 1893. If the Althorp Library had a weakness it was in the lack of really important manuscripts (as a perhaps slightly piqued Bernard Quaritch pointed out at the time).  Any perceived lack was spectacularly remedied in 1901 when Railton procured for Mrs Rylands Lord Crawford’s superb manuscript collection (some six thousand rolls, codices and tablets) for a price of £155,000. Sotheby’s were not involved on that occasion, but, in Frank Herrmann’s words, “It was, if anything, an even more astonishing purchase”.

64-ritherdon-road

64 Ritherdon Road

In private life, Railton married Marion (Minnie) Vallance Laird, a milliner and herself a fatherless Glaswegian, in 1872.  They lived with their two children (a boy and girl both bearing the same names as their respective parents) at addresses in Brixton and Balham, and in 1899 moved to a recently built semi-detached at 64 Ritherdon Road – I mention this merely because it is literally round the corner from where I sit.  I’ve just strolled down to take a snap.  It’s just a few doors from where my old cricketing companion Robert Frew used to live.  We played for a team somewhat prophetically called the President’s XI (or the President’s IX in the year of the dyslexic secretary).  Prophetic in that although it wasn’t a team of booksellers (more lawyers than booksellers, I seem to recall), three of the regulars eventually became presidents of the ABA – Robert (dashing bat, quondam wicket-keeper), myself (ponderous opener, right-arm swing) and Brian Lake (loopy spinner) – and I think a couple of other future ABA presidents also turned out for us at least once or twice, certainly Peter Miller and probably also Jonathan Potter.  

I digress, but I wonder now whether these Book-Hunters of 1888 also sometimes kept each other’s company in their social, leisure or recreational hours.  I suppose they must have done.  It’s what chaps do.  It’s how the world goes.

Railton and his family moved to Sutton in Surrey shortly before he died at the age of sixty in September 1904.  Probate was granted for the then handsome sum of £7,827.4s.11d.  A contemporary recalled the “delight and enthusiasm with which he would impart bibliographical information from his own vast stores”.  He was also apparently an earnest worker for Christian causes in his spare time, while an obituary notice in The Athenæum recorded that “his personality won the regard of all who came in contact with him”.  He was certainly one of the greatest booksellers of his or any other era.

More to come …

Roberts Key Plate

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Middle Temple Crimes

UNESCO World Book dayWhen I first wrote about a World Rare Book Day on the blog only last September (see the post of that title) it was an idea still in the making.  The charity tie-in with UNESCO was hoped for but not confirmed.  Most of the events not even thought of.  I am just absolutely thrilled that it has all come together so successfully.  Huge congratulations to all concerned, especially my good friends Norbert Donhofer, Sally Burdon and Barbara van Benthem – you can see the full extent of what they have achieved on the official blog at http://ilabpopupbookfairs.blogspot.co.uk/.

I very rarely exhibit at book-fairs – in fact I never thought I would again. The chronic low-level back-pain of a life spent too largely in lugging boxes of books around has exacted its toll.  But how can I not be part of this great day?  It’s St. George’s Day. It’s Shakespeare’s birthday.  It’s even the anniversary of the birth of James Tregaskis, president of the ABA in 1910 (not many people will know this).  I can surely get a single bag of books up to town and join in this worldwide salute to colleagues and collectors everywhere.

What a day it is going to be.  It is all turning out just as imagined, kicking off with a Shakespeare first folio on display in Sydney.  An antiquarian book plaza in Tokyo.  Events as far afield as Cape Town and Moscow – Zurich, Vienna, Budapest, Milan, Munich, Paris, Antwerp, Copenhagen and elsewhere – books on a barge in Amsterdam, books at Haarlem Central railway station, a pop-up of pop-ups in Sweden, a fair at the Middle Temple Library here in London, and then across the Atlantic to New York, Chicago, Washington, Delaware and Seattle – and ending up, as good booksellers everywhere always do, in the pub. This one in Portland, Oregon.

Although we shall only be a dozen or so dealers at the Middle Temple Library (full details at https://worldbookdaylondon.wordpress.com/), the range and diversity will be enormous – from mediaeval to modern and every successive stage of life and letters in between.  An instant showcase of everything the rare book trade in this country has to offer – and it’s a book trade in very good shape.  I’ll be particularly proud to be exhibiting alongside some of the very best of our really outstanding younger dealers. Traditions of the scholar-bookseller are in the best of hands – and we really do want to reach out to fresh audiences.

What to take along? I obviously can’t compete with the stunning Books of Hours from A Venue of Art, but will try to entertain. As you probably know, I deal mainly in first edition literature of roughly the last two hundred years, so I shall be bringing along some typical things from stock – a rare early Tennyson, an uncommon little Dickens which most people won’t know, probably some Trollope and Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde – a first edition of The Importance of Being Earnest, and moving on into the twentieth century, some Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, a first edition set of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, a first edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a first edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and a few other like things, perhaps some Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes if there is room in the bag. I’ll also be bringing along a map or two, almost certainly of London.

thief-in-the-nightBut as the fair is at the Middle Temple, I thought I might develop a suitably criminous theme. The Dickens is based on a real-life poisoning case, but – although it is by no means the most valuable book I shall be bringing along – my nominated highlight shall be this: A Thief in the Night – the first edition of a 1905 Raffles title from E. W. Hornung.  We all love a good mystery and what better than Raffles – that perfect English blend of crime, cricket and high society.  This is actually the American edition, which may seem odd – but it is a very, very, much more attractive book than the British equivalent, and of course it has all ten of the wonderful plates by Cyrus Cincinnati Cuneo (1879-1916), only one of which (for some unknown reason) appeared in the London edition.  Cuneo of course died in London appallingly young from blood poisoning in those days before antibiotics from a scratch acidentally inflicted at a party in Chelsea.  His dancing partner in trying to catch her hair-comb as it fell gave him an accidental scratch to the nostril.

This is the edition to have and it’s a wonderfully well-preserved copy – the delicate white enamelling of the full moon against which the hansom cab is silhouetted is usually badly chipped and flaked.  I’ve priced it at just £150, although every time I look at it I think it should be more – my great-grandfather used to drive a London hansom-cab after all.  I’d recommend buying it very soon before my pencil comes out.

Dr ThorndykeThat Edwardian period before the Great War was a particularly rich one for crime and detective fiction – it wasn’t all just Sherlock Holmes.  Here’s a 1909 Doctor Thorndyke mystery from Austin Freeman. Thorndyke was of course truly the first of the modern scientific detectives – Freeman consciously introduces the book as “a somewhat new departure in this class of literature”.  Four of the plates are what he calls ‘micro-photographs’ of the forensic evidence – some fluff from the crime scene blown up for analysis under full-on magnification, specimens of hair follicles, a sample of sand found on the murdered woman’s pillow, etc.  It’s one of the great classics of the genre and an attractive copy of the first edition.  Priced at £400.

I’ll have some other similar things and some much cheaper ones too. Agnes Miller’s The Colfax Book-Plate (1927) at just £25 – the only murder mystery I know in which the whole case hinges on a book-plate (the ex-libris label some owners put in their books).  And at £40, William le Queux’s The Broadcast Mystery (1924), which gives us a fascinating glimpse right inside the BBC in the very earliest days of its broadcasting history.

Bandit in PetticoatsI also occasionally dabble in what can only be called pulp fiction.  Here’s A Bandit in Petticoats,  a quirky pre-war example from about 1930. The evil Rudolph Blotton – the Blot of Park Lane and Throgmorton Street – is overheard scheming at a charity ball by that ‘slender ray of loveliness’, Phyllis Hemley.  Complete tosh, but the most enormous fun.  But the thing is, it’s also almost certainly the rarest of all the books I shall be bringing along.  As far as I can tell there is not a single copy of it in any of the major libraries of the world – and the only copy of it you will find on the internet is this one.  I’ve obviously offered it to the British Library – but they turned it down.  This may mean that they do have a copy somewhere after all, but that it’s hidden away among the colossal number of books which no-one knows they have (or can ask to see) because they have never been catalogued – either that, or they didn’t want to meet my price of £40, which for an otherwise unrecorded and possibly unique surviving copy of a book can hardly be excessive.  Turn up on Thursday and it could be yours.  Ten per cent of all my sales on the day will be going to UNESCO literacy projects – so don’t even think about haggling.

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The Book-Hunters of 1888 (1)

Sotheby's 1888

I spied a copy of this print in the ABA Office a few weeks ago.  The scene is in Wellington Street off the Strand and the date is 1888 – it was first published in “The Graphic” of 26th May of that year under the title A Book-Sale at Sotheby’s Auction-Room and what makes it particularly interesting is that letterpress captions in the margins identify (not always without ambiguity of placement) sixteen of those present – mainly of course the leading booksellers of the period.

It was engraved by “Williamson” – probably the Scottish engraver David Wallace Williamson (1838-1908), who was working in London at this time – from a wash drawing by “H.M.P.”, evidently Henry Marriott Paget (1856-1936), a regular contributor to “The Graphic”, “The Sphere”, and other leading periodicals of the day. The original drawing apparently came up for sale at Bonham’s a few years ago.  I thought at first that I’d not come across the engraving  before, but subsequently realised that this couldn’t be true.  Perhaps more accurate to say that I’d not seen it at its full double-page size before.  It is reproduced in Frank Herrmann’s “Sotheby’s : Portrait of An Auction House” (1980), which sits on my shelves  – reproduced both in the book and on the jacket.  And it was reproduced much earlier in William Roberts, “The Book-Hunter in London” (1895), which also sits on my shelves.  What is interesting about the Roberts version, re-titled A Field-Day at Sotheby’s, is that he provides an outline key (see below) taking the number of people identified to twenty-nine – the identifications not completely matching those originally given in “The Graphic”.

The scene was reproduced again in William Carew Hazlitt’s “The Book-Collector” (1904), this time in a fresh engraving from the original drawing (then in the possession of Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge), identifying the artist and with the Roberts key, but without further commentary.  Then the image appeared yet again in the second volume of “Book Auction Records” (1905), on this occasion with some editorial reminiscence from the bookseller Frank Karslake, essentially the man who founded the ABA in 1906.  Karslake was at that time both editor and publisher of “Book Auction Records” and politely notes that the Roberts key-plate “is not quite accurate”.  He has made “strict personal enquiries” and “the names now given are correct throughout”.  That said, he doesn’t name everyone and there are still a couple of matters left unresolved.

None of the commentators identify the particular sale taking place and it is possible that the view is a composite one, put together from sketches made on separate occasions.  I don’t think this is the case and actually suspect that the drawing was made from a posed photograph of some sort.  My reasons for thinking this are the comparative lack of figures in the foreground (either seated or standing), the way that most of those present seem to have been pushed round in an unbalanced way to the far wall (although the accompanying text in “The Graphic” gives another explanation for this), the odd positioning of a several significant figures behind the rostrum and out of sight of the auctioneer, and perhaps most telling of all, that beyond his hat, beard and catalogue, the features of one of the booksellers named by Roberts, “Mr J. Toovey”, probably the second most important bookseller in the entire room, are almost wholly hidden behind a corner of the rostrum.  I find it difficult to think of a reason for Paget depicting James Toovey in this way unless following a photograph.

Over the coming weeks I shall attempt to follow the Roberts enumeration round the room and to bring some of these Victorian booksellers back to life – my word, these men handled some fabulous books – but in the meantime, here is the full original account of what’s going on from “The Graphic”.

 A SALE AT SOTHEBY’S

The scene represented by our artist in the engraving will probably be unfamiliar to the majority of our readers.  It represents the interior of Messrs. Sotheby, Wilkinson, and Hodge’s Sale Room, at No. 13, Wellington Street, Strand, during one of their interesting sales of valuable books, and contains characteristic portraits of the principal London dealers and others who are in the habit of attending the sales held there.  

Although books, of course, take the prominent place at these sales, the rooms are not exclusively devoted to them; sales of rare prints, autograph letters, coins, and other articles of antiquarian interest being of frequent occurrence.  The order of procedure is generally after the following: –  Soon after one o’clock p.m., the auctioneer takes his place in the rostrum, and business commences. The first lot is placed upon the table and examined, and is immediately bid for by one of those present; should it happen to be of value a brisk competition for its possession at once arises, and the bids follow one another in quick succession till it is ultimately knocked down to the highest bidder.

The auctioneer depicted in the engraving as officiating on the present occasion is Mr. E. G. Hodge, of the above-mentioned well-known firm of literary auctioneers, who, attended by his clerk, Mr. Snowdon, is offering a quarto volume, which at the moment is being critically scrutinised by Mr. Reeves overlooked by Mr. Stibbs, two veteran booksellers; the lot is evidently of interest to Mr. Walford, seated upon the left of Mr. Stibbs, and who is keeping a sharp eye upon the auctioneer to see that his bidding is not overlooked. Mr. Quaritch, the Goliath of the trade, may be noticed in his usual well-chosen seat just beneath the auctioneer’s desk, but upon this occasion he is not wearing his wide-awake hat (or “buying hat”, as it is jocularly termed).  It is here that the books are usually placed upon the table by the porter who takes them from the shelves at the side, where they are replaced as soon as sold.  It is for this reason that most of the buyers collect at this spot, or are seated upon that side of the auction room.

Mr. Hodge is a brisk and cheerful salesman, and keeps the attention of all the buyers well engaged from first to last (which is an essential point in a successful auctioneer), and consequently invariably obtains good prices for the goods he sells. The lots being put up and knocked down extremely rapidly it is very dangerous for any buyer to have his attention for an instant taken off the sale, as a slight inattention is frequently rewarded by the loss of a desirable book; instances of this kind often occur.

It is in this room that so many famous and historical libraries have been dispersed within the last few years. Among the principal may be enumerated the unrivalled Beckford and Hamilton Collections, which together realised upwards of £85,000; the Syston Park library, famous for its rare editions of the classics, its Gutenberg Bible, and Codex Psalter of 1459, the latter volume being remarkable as having realised the highest price of any single book that has ever been sold by auction, viz., £4,950; the Osterley Park Library, famous for its Caxtons, and many others too numerous for us to notice here.

Roberts Key Plate

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Hours of Work

bayntuns A very pleasant afternoon out in Bath last week – an outing with a group of rare book librarians for a special behind-the-scenes tour of the famous Bayntun-Riviere bindery at George Bayntun’s on Manvers Street.  The tour was arranged as part of an ongoing let’s-get-to-know-each-other-better series of exchange visits between the booksellers of the ABA and the librarians of the Rare Books and Special Collections Group of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).

Ed Bayntun-CowardThe group of librarians was headed up by Tanya Kirk, Lead Curator of Printed Literary Sources at the British Library – but group seems rather an insipid word in the context.  Surely there must be a better collective noun for a posse of librarians. The rather obvious hush, shush, whisper or rustle of librarians have all been mooted, as have a stack of librarians, a shelf of librarians, a press of librarians, a catalogue or an index of librarians, a special collection of librarians, a collation of librarians, or even a google of librarians – but I like rather more a dewey of librarians, or a susurrus of librarians, and perhaps best of all, for this group at least – a sammelband of librarians.

Bayntuns1

Whatever we call them, there were around fifteen on the visit and before too long they were being handsomely entertained by Ed Bayntun-Coward with an inimitable fund of entertaining bookshop anecdote, some mild indiscretions concerning past customers (generally in the ‘persons of note’ category), and some glimpses into the long, rich and still evolving history of the Bayntun firm.  rubaiyatThe firm of course still incorporates large elements and living traditions of the businesses of both the great nineteenth-century bookbinder Robert Riviere (1808-1882) and the great Bath bookseller George Gregory (for whom see the post on George Gregory of Bath elsewhere on the blog).  And Ed comes up with some interesting thoughts too on the changing nature of the book-trade and the gradual transition of Bayntun’s from a fulcrum for selling to nowadays a fulcrum for buying.

ToolsThe bindery is a remarkable place – in a remarkable building (originally designed as a sorting office for the western mail).  The binding work is still all done by hand. The finishing executed with the aid of an unrivalled collection of tools (at least 15,000), some dating back to the eighteenth century and many still used on occasion.  rollsI can recall with delight the firm once repairing a nineteenth-century Riviere binding for me using Riviere’s own tools – exactly the same tools with which the binding had been first decorated a hundred years or more earlier.

LeathersThreadsWe are introduced in turn to all the many separate forwarding and finishing tasks of the bindery, all the pressing and sewing, all the different materials, all the technicality and precision, and all the unexpected complexities of organising the work-flow.  If Bayntun bindings seem expensive at first glance, they start to look like an absolute bargain when you factor in all the time, skill, craft and incredible care with which they are fashioned.

Some for MorrisDelights abound.  In one corner some boxes of tools specially made for William Morris long ago. How satisfying is that?

FinishingAnd here on a bench is a work in progress destined to appear in a well-known (a very well-known) television series at some point – sworn to secrecy on that.  And then in another corner, bathed in natural light, Tony Evans, the senior finisher, brings out a tour-de-force of the finisher’s art.  How long did that take him? – many, many hours, but Ed assures us that there is no better, more accurate or speedier craftsman in the country.

The afternoon breaks up, the librarians depart to revisit their collections with fresh and better eyes, and I manage to find a couple of books to buy to round off a delightful day – including an early Tennyson published by my very great hero of the nineteenth-century book-trade, Effingham Wilson (1785-1868).  Effingham WilsonA vocal champion of a free press – “It is like the air we breathe: if we have it not, we die”, a prime mover in the cause of popular education, contending that every child should “have that given to it which nobody can take away”, Wilson was a precursor of mine at the Royal Exchange.  I used to walk past his old shop every day.  When I wrote his life over twenty years ago for the Missing Persons volume of the Dictionary of National Biography it took hours, days, weeks and months of visits to distant archives to tease out the barest bones and basic outlines of his life.  Too many headache-inducing hours of microfilm and microfiche.  Too many hours of figuring out the arcane indexing of the old National Record Office and the labyrinthine byways of Somerset House. Too many hours in a draughty hangar of an archive somewhere rural in the north of England.  Nowadays you can find out all I found out then (and probably a great deal more) in under an hour on the internet – that pamphlet I never could find – now digitised and online – that photograph I knew of but never saw – digitised and online.  Here it is.  Research has changed forever, as has so much else – but bookbinding the Bayntun-Riviere way has not.  It’s very much alive and thriving in Bath.

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Poppings Up

Popping InI first met Anthony Smith a good few years ago when he was a student on the long since disappeared Postgraduate Diploma in Antiquarian Bookselling course we used to run in conjunction with the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies (SLAIS) at London University.  A course long since disappeared, although we hope to reintroduce something similar before too long in a collaboration between the London Rare Books School, the ABA, and those involved in the History of the Book masters course run at the Institute of English Studies (watch this space).

Anthony Smith

Anthony Smith

Prior to that, his grounding in the book-trade had begun with a holiday job at Hall’s Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells (now of course owned by Adrian Harrington – see Deck the Halls below).  A work placement at Heywood Hill in Curzon Street, long one of the most stylish and fashionable bookshops in the world, led directly to his being offered a full-time position.  After a long, successful and happy stint there, lasting some fifteen years, he moved on to look after the bookselling side of Slightly Foxed in South Kensington, another stylish and fashionable shop, its business underpinned by the thousands of subscribers to the elegant literary quarterly of the same name.

John MurrayAstonishing in a way, when the world believes that all such things have moved online, that shops like these (and a printed literary quarterly) can thrive and prosper, but so it is. And it’s important that they do. It is after all bookshops that create book-collectors – there’s nothing remotely like a tangible encounter with the real thing to provide the spark.

Anthony has now decided to draw on all that accumulated knowledge and experience to start up on his own – Anthony Smith Books.  He’ll work from home and online, issuing catalogues, but he’s always been a bookshop bookseller and he’s started his new venture with the vogueish experiment of a pop-up bookshop.  I found him this morning in rather august surroundings – the front room of 50 Albermarle Street – the home of course of the publishing house of John Murray since about 1812.  The very house in which Byron’s unpublishable memoirs were burnt in the fireplace upstairs, the very house of the publishers of Jane Austen, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, David Livingstone, Charles Darwin and so many more besides.

BannerDifficult to think of a more suitable location – and it all seemed to be working well when I wandered in.  Visitors, much interest, admiration, purchases, offers of books, and goodwill all round – and I suppose nothing sharpens the mind to a purchase quite so much as the knowledge that the ‘shop’ won’t be there the next day.  It’s a nicely chosen stock – mainly, although not exclusively, twentieth-century literature – including both some important books and some very notable scarcities.  I certainly found a few things to buy – books I haven’t had (or even seen) in quite a long while.  Anthony’s planning to repeat the exercise – perhaps a two-day pop-up every couple of months rather than a single day each month – but he needs (as we all do) to find his rhythm and a workable timetable of fresh acquisition, quotidian cataloguing, and putting the books into a shop-window (either online, in print, or in a temporary display like this one).

AlbemarleStreet1It’s an intriguing experiment, but one that looks as if it has every possibility of working.  Let us hope it does – it deserves to – it’s a splendid way of reaching out to new customers and perhaps too the sort of customers who don’t habitually haunt second-hand bookshops.  Anthony’s website with an online shop goes live next Monday (23rd March 2015) – http://anthony-smith-books.com/ – so you can all vie in being the very first to buy something from it.  You won’t of course be able to buy the books I’ve already bought: as I have said before, the best books rarely make it to life online (cultivate a bookseller who will give you first refusal).  I wish him every success – he deserves it.

Middle-Temple-Fair-posterIt’s the same kind of innovative thinking that lies behind the rolling worldwide pop-up bookfair planned by the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (see World Rare Book Day below).  Here in London we shall be taking part with a pop-up bookfair in the rarified surroundings of the Middle Temple Library.  Quite literally a pop-up, rare books available to buy in just a two-hour window at lunchtime (Middle Temple Library Central Concourse, 12-2pm, Wednesday 23rd April 2015).  And as well as trying to reach out to the wider world and proffer strangers the chance of their first encounter with a rare and collectable book they can actually buy and own, we shall be raising charity funds for UNESCO literacy projects too.  It will be fascinating to see how it all works out.  Put it in your diary, I shall see you there.

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Did She Die in Vain?

Cruikshank Detail

Detail of Castlereagh from George Cruikshank (see below).

Did she die in vain?  The answer to Tony Hancock’s question as to the fate of Magna Carta, the brave Hungarian peasant girl (which I’m pleased to see he is still posing in the British Library’s  new exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy), is not one easily answered.  When we reflect that only two (three or four at most – a couple are debatable) of the original sixty-three clauses agreed between King John and the barons at Runnymede in 1215 still have legal force and have never been repealed, when we look at ongoing attempts to ignore even those – two telling caricatures here bearing an identical message from a couple of centuries apart – then we may have leave to doubt.

It is not as if the original document ever had much legal force in any case. Within weeks, the Pope had issued a bull declaring it “null and void of all validity for ever” – so much for papal infallibility (and, yes, if you ask, I do very much consider it a matter both of faith and morals).

mini-carta-tony-blair

Peter Brookes, Magna Carta, Mini Carta. 2005. © The Times / News Syndication. British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent.

King John having accepted the Pope’s feudal overlordship, that should perhaps have been an end of it.  This, I suppose, gives rise to the related question of why it would take another 300 years for the final breach with Rome to come about.  (Things emanating from Rome always seem to end badly on these shores – from Julius Caesar to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which admittedly hasn’t ended badly quite just yet – but mark my words).

The version of Magna Carta which was eventually to become enshrined in English law was in fact the shorter 1525 version of Henry III – the one not accepted under duress – so perhaps we are all jumping the gun a little in celebrating an 800th anniversary, but the key point is that Clauses 39 and 40 of the 1215 version (the ones still having legal force) survive almost verbatim, combined together in the later document’s Clause 29.  I’ll give it here in a nineteenth-century translation from the Latin which has a bit more vigour than some of the insipid modern translations:

No free-man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or dispossessed, of his free tenement, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed; nor will we condemn him, nor will we commit him to prison, excepting by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the laws of the land. To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.

matthew-paris-map

Matthew Paris, [Map of Britain]. 13th century. © British Library.

Commentators over many years have made us certain that what we take from these words now would not have been what they meant or were intended to mean at the time: this was a far-off world, as much and as little recognisable today as this contemporary map of England, Scotland and Wales by Matthew Paris – although Paris himself took a robust and fairly modern view of the death of King John – “Foul as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John”.

To its original audience, the now ringing phrases of Magna Carta were probably just part of a list of specific remedies for specific grievances, all mixed in with perhaps more immediately pressing concerns over disseisin, mort d’ancestre, wainage, kydells, socage, burgage and scutage.  But words once written can come to have a spell of their own.  Although they certainly didn’t at the time promise trial by jury (it didn’t yet exist) or place any absolute ban on arbitrary detention, this is what over the centuries – by interpretation disguised as translation, by loud and frequent invocation, by precedent, and by common consent – they have come to mean.  Important to say too, that there is no guarantee of democracy here, King John was dealing with barons after all – it is at most a guarantee of the rule of law, but as Richard Godden of Linklater’s (who are sponsoring the exhibition) sagely says:  “It is common to encounter people confusing democracy with the Rule of Law. But history teaches us that, given the unpalatable choice, it would be better to choose the Rule of Law without democracy than democracy without the Rule of Law”.

george-cruikshank-liberty-suspended-

George Cruikshank, Liberty Suspended! With the Bulwark of the Constitution! 1817. © Trustees of the British Museum.

The excellent exhibition at the British Library, admirably curated by Dr Claire Breay and Julian Harrison, tells the full story of how by accident of history this text surviving in a handful of copies of crabbed Latin manuscript on vellum has become both our birthright and the founding document of modern liberty.  It explores the precursor documents, including the unique copy of the Articles of the Barons, listing the original demands, and most of the subsequent variations and incorporations.  Astonishing to see Thomas Jefferson’s own manuscript of the Declaration of Independence (1776), with a passage later excised which would have abolished slavery in the United States from the outset had but Congress allowed it.  Alongside it, one of the dozen surviving copies of the American Bill of Rights (1789), also on loan from the United States. Elsewhere the English Bill of Rights (1689), I suppose the nearest thing we have to a written constitution.  Later on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) – and beyond these formal documents drawing on the Magna Carta legacy there is evidence all round of the movements which have drawn their inspiration from those founding principles – Chartists, Suffragettes, freedom campaigners everywhere across time and place.

Pynson Magna Carta

Folio Primo. Magna Carta. Edwardus Dei Gratia Rex, etc. 1508. © British Library.

The document’s iconic status did not come about all at once: noticeable that it doesn’t appear to be mentioned at all in Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John – and how much would we like to have Shakespeare’s take on Runnymede?  But even so, Magna Carta was already proving capable of dramatic surprises of its own.  It was first put into print (in Latin and Law French) by Richard Pynson in 1508 and then in an English translation (by George Ferrers) published by Robert Redman in 1534. The following year, Thomas More invoked it at his trial, apparently temporarily wrong-footing Thomas Cromwell.

boke-magna-carta

The Boke of Magna Carta, with Diuers other Statutes. 1534. © British Library.

The exhibition has Cromwell’s memorandum to himself to “Remembre the Auncyent Cronycle of Magna Carta and how libera sit Cam into the Statute”.  Numerous subsequent instances of appeal to its protection abound and are fully reflected throughout the exhibition – notably in the case of the irrepressible John Wilkes, whose image on teapots brought Magna Carta into many a home.

The most chilling item in the exhibition is not the executioner’s axe, nor even King John’s teeth, but a letter circulated in the higher echelons of government in 1947 by one Kenneth William Blaxter,  Assistant Secretary in the Colonial Office.  Responding to a proposal to make June 15th a public holiday throughout the empire (and in the USA as well) – a Magna Carta Day to celebrate Western liberty –

Blaxter

© National Archives. FO 371/61073

he cautioned that the holiday “might be used for purposes very different from those which we desire.  In some Colonies where ill-disposed politicians are ever on the lookout for opportunities to misrepresent our good intentions, its celebration might well cause embarrassment and in general there is a danger that the Colonial peoples might be led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document which they had not read but which they presumed to contain guarantees of every so-called ‘right’ they might be interested at that moment in claiming”.  It’s the inverted commas around ‘right’ as much as the condescension that appals: I think we know which side he would have been lining up on at Runnymede – but he evidently got his way.

The exhibition ends with a passage through a dark corridor to the dimly lit shrine of the final exhibit – the vellum document itself (actually two copies of it, one illegible).  All rather hammy – as hammy as the old silent film of Beerbohm Tree hamming up King John for the first movie cameras ever to record a bit of Shakespeare (1899) – but at the same time genuinely and undeniably quite moving.

It’s not a matter of choice whether you go to this exhibition: it’s more or less mandatory.  You simply have to.  A pilgrimage you must make if you have any care at all for the important things in life and the potency of abstract principles.  We could probably have done without some of the props and gimmicks – the axe, the teeth, the bishop’s buskins or whatever they are – but other than that, it’s brilliant – as exposition, as exegesis, as exhibition. They are expecting record numbers, I’m pretty sure they will get them.

magna-carta-london

Magna Carta, London copy, 1215. Photography © British Library.

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Remington Voyages

Remington Books 2Charming, invigorating, welcome and often indispensible as her company is on visits to other booksellers, particularly those working from home, there is just one tiny drawback in having my dear wife alongside me on such occasions.  That is the unfortunate opportunities this sometimes opens up for what we might call points of invidious comparison.

We found ourselves in the Sussex market town of Midhurst the other day – very pleasant, even in the rain – partly as an episode in the ongoing quest for perfect seasoned logs to keep the home fires burning (the ones available locally are apparently just lumps of wood – but that’s another story).  So obviously also an opportunity not to be missed to call on Philip Remington  (of Reg & Philip Remington), who is nowadays quartered in these parts.

PyratesNow, while the name Remington might merely suggest rifles or razors to some people, to those of us in the real world it means only one thing: the finest of fine books in the spheres of exploration, voyages and travel.  The firm can trace its origins back to that day in 1951 when Reg Remington was taken on by the Francis Edwards firm as a trainee, rising through the ranks to become in turn assistant to Herbert Edwards, then Edwards’ successor as head of the voyages and travel department, and then a director of the firm.  Meanwhile, his son Philip was undergoing his own vigorous training at the so fondly remembered Hodgson’s Auction Rooms on Chancery Lane.  In 1979 they joined forces to begin trading independently, taking on a shop in London’s Cecil Court in 1980, where they remained as one of its great adornments until 2002.

No.37AnsonThe ever jovial Reg, now in his eighties and living in St. Alban’s, is no longer quite so actively involved, but is still in daily contact with Philip. (Time for some memoirs from Reg? – he must have a story or two to tell).  Their website claims the combined experience and expertise of over eighty years between them, but by my reckoning this must now easily add up to over a  hundred.  It shows above all in the stock – quite, quite, superb. The great and the rare in their chosen field of early voyages, travel and the classics of exploration. My eyes pop at a lovely sixteenth-century Hakluyt – an Anson here – Cook’s voyages there – and just go on popping. A stock rooted in real experience, real expertise, real knowledge and the kind of taste refined and perfected over a lifetime.

Remington BooksIt would be evident, even at first glance from a wholly untutored eye, that, on the whole, these books are more rare, more beautiful, more important, in better condition and more valuable than anything I might currently have in stock (first point of invidious comparison).  It is also obvious that Philip’s book-room is considerably tidier than mine (second point of invidious comparison).  He modestly claims that it has been specially tidied up for the occasion under instruction from his own wife after having read my comments on this treacherous topic in earlier posts on the blog.  I rather doubt this: he might have eased a book or two backwards or forwards on the shelf, but I remember the shop – that was always immaculate.  This is proper old-time bookselling where sloppiness simply isn’t allowed.

Philip Remington

Philip Remington

Philip in fact rather misses having the shop: he liked the discipline of heading to work each morning, arriving in a new day, being busy all that day, talking to customers, but then closing the door and leaving work behind until the morrow.  His laptop is a constant and invasive companion now (and he has a sleek and stylish laptop – third point of invidious comparison).  I advise him to get up in the morning, leave the house, walk round the block, arrive at work, and then repeat the process in reverse to arrive home in the evening (not that I would ever dream of doing this myself of course, but it seemed like a sound and kindly thought when someone offered it to me when I made my own transition from having a shop to working at home).

It’s also apparent that the books here are confined to the book-room and haven’t seeped, leaked and crept out into very corner of the house (fourth point of invidious comparison).  Philip and I fall into chat about old days and new ways, the way booksellers do: respective memories of Hodgson’s in the seventies; the importance of really listening to customers – learning more from them than they will ever learn from you; selling books then and selling books now.  The importance and apparently overwhelming need of customers to have a photograph of everything now, as if the expert words and advice of an experienced cataloguer are somehow no longer enough.  If Philip were to tell me that something was a beautiful copy in a contemporary binding, why would I need a whole suite of photographs to prove it? – that’s what it will be.  And there are great practical difficulties  in actually photographing books, or at least in photographing them well – this is not easy even for professional photographers.  Philip’s camera is of course much better than my little point-and-click contraption (fifth point of invidious comparison)– the sort of camera that looks as if you might need a Ph.D. in photography just to turn it on.  And he appears to know all about Photoshop (or at least his daughters do) – sixth point of – well, you know, I’ve stopped counting by now – this is becoming chastening.

In the meantime, although our specialisations don’t overlap to any great extent, I’ve managed to find a few things to buy – a glorious little children’s atlas (the last copy of which I had was forty years ago), a book with a most unusual binder’s stamp, a book with some early commercial attempts at colour printing, and a couple of folding maps.

We turn for home (via the log-shop) – promises renewed to tackle some of the invidious issues raised in the course of a very happy and decidedly instructive hour.  The stock here at Tooting Towers  will be tamed (and photographed) – all in good time – but for now the name Remington stands for serious and genuinely antiquarian bookselling done with skill, taste, style (and tidiness).  If your thoughts turn to the epics of travel and the rare books of exploration, then here is your starting point – www.remingtonbooks.com.

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John Pollack (1918-1985)

pollack signatureJ. Pollack – it’s a distinctive signature frequently seen on British pulp fiction paperbacks of the mid twentieth century (at least if you can find them) – a stylish, clever, sought-after and readily recognisable commercial artist – although I’ve never come across any kind of account of Pollack himself. Another case of having to delve into the archives.

Just Like a DamePollack’s work would of course scarcely pass muster these days: at first glance these designs seem to represent the very worst of what we have come to know and understand as the objectification of women – although that may be a slightly facile view.  Look again, click to enlarge, and these Pollack women are invariably self-possessed, self-assured, knowing and strong – we somehow know from the outset that it is the stiff-lipped, chiselled and puzzled tough-guy men, even more tightly corseted into stereotypical characteristics and behavioural expectations, who are probably going to end up as victims.  You've Got It ComingThe 1940s and 1950s are nowadays a far-off world – a world where men were men, etc. – cruder perhaps, certainly rather less sensitive, but also far more innocent, happily more reticent, and by no means without subtlety.  Always wrong to judge out of context.

You Find HimBut who was J. Pollack?   A local man as it turns out – John Pollack, born within walking distance of here in South London, on 27th May 1918 – the second son of Montague John Pollack (1882-1959) and his wife Elsie McCulloch (1886?-1952), who had married in 1912.  His father, apparently known as Monty in the family, had been a musician before the war – something of a youthful prodigy on the cello in the 1890s – and more recently a rifleman in the 3rd Rifle Brigade, awarded the British War and Victory Medals.  His own father, Oscar Pollack, was a Prussian-born professor of music and language who had settledMake Mine a Virgin in Birmingham with his Austrian wife, Melanie Thekla Amalia Johanna Huschell, the couple having married at the British Embassy in Vienna in 1880. Melanie Pollack was a fine singer and to judge from the local newspaper coverage the Pollacks’ annual concerts were quite a feature in the Birmingham life of the period.

Champagne and ChoppersJohn Pollack’s mother, Elsie McCulloch, was the daughter of Allen McCulloch, a Scottish doctor who had settled with his Chester-born wife Jane Griffith at Tarporley, where Elsie was born and raised.

Records are scant, but the family were living at 188 Elmhurst Mansions, Edgeley Road, Clapham,  close to Clapham High Street station, both before and after the Second World War.  The FixI’ve not uncovered anything of John Pollack’s schooling or training but by 1947, still living with his parents, he was advertising himself as a commercial artist in the London telephone directory.  In 1948 he married the nineteen-year-old Betty Leggatt, daughter of George John Leggatt – a barrister’s clerk at the time of his marriage to Sarah Ann Wheeley in 1914.

1950 Telephone Directory

Harley Street HypnotistThe
married couple lived with John’s parents at Elmhurst Mansions at least until Elsie Pollack’s death in 1952, later moving to 4C Elms Road, opposite Clapham Common, and then – by 1965 – slightly southwards again to 19 Lycias Road, a quiet street of bay-fronted terraced houses south of the Common.

Look Out For LouellaJohn Pollack’s working style clearly developed over the years, as is evident from the 1960 cover for “Harley Street Hypnotist”, but I’ve not come across many of these later examples. He died aged sixty-six in February 1985, his widow surviving him for twenty years or more.  That is about as much as I have been able to uncover – but I believe there were a couple of children, certainly some nephews – any further information gratefully received and acknowledged.

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Oranges & Lemons

Mirabile dictu!  Another new shop!  – the second post on the blog in a row to celebrate one, although once again the use of the word ‘new’ perhaps needs more than a grain of qualification.

1887

Manchester Courier – 31st January 1887

I suppose Pickering & Chatto can actually trace its history back to that day in 1810 when William Pickering (1796-1854) was apprenticed to the book trade at the age of fourteen – certainly to 1820 when he first set up in business for himself.  Andrew Chatto (1840-1913) came later – he acquired the Pickering business on the death of Pickering’s son, Basil Montagu Pickering, in 1878.

Michael Brand

Sussex Express – 8th May 1953

What is nowadays Pickering’s sister firm, Marlborough Rare Books, is a mere stripling in comparison, founded as recently as 1947 – but that’s still stretching ‘new’ a little far.  What is genuinely ‘new’ is that the two firms have recently descended from their eyrie high above Bond Street – an office accessible by the smallest lift I’ve ever encountered – a 12mo of an elevator – to emerge blinking into the sunlight of premises at ground floor level.  A shop (well more or less a shop, see below) – but not in the West End, as we might expect, but across in the old heart of London – those ancient streets within the city walls, that single square mile of the City of London itself.

St Clement EastcheapA delight to seek them out – this is very much my own terrain – those streets with mediaeval names, some dating back even to Roman times, those narrow passages, lanes and hidden courtyards, where I have spent most of my working life.  The twin firms of Pickering and Marlborough have re-located to St. Clement’s Court, just a couple of hundred yards or so from where my old shop used to be (now standing empty, I note).  What joy, what pleasure,  that the antiquarian book trade is now represented in the City once more – and by businesses of such real distinction.

SignThey are to be found tucked away behind the old church of St. Clement Eastcheap, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire (which started nearby) and completed in 1687.  And yes, it is the St. Clement’s of “Oranges and Lemons,  Say the Bells of St. Clement’s” – despite what the parishioners of St. Clement Dane may have to say – we City folk know it in our bones – and the reference to St. Martin in the next line more or less proves it (St. Martin Orgar used to stand just across the way, close enough for the parishes to be united after the Great Fire).

OvermantelThe two book businesses now occupy the old vestry of the church, itself seventeenth-century, and with a beautiful contemporary carved wooden overmantel, very school of Grinling Gibbons, to prove it.  The arched windows look out on the tiny old graveyard.  I say tucked away – hidden might be more accurate.  It can be approached only down a narrow passage-way to the north of the church.  A white signboard as you emerge from the passage is your only clue.  You are then faced by a blank door and have to ring for admittance.  Whether this quite counts as a shop is a moot point – but they keep regular hours and seem very happy to greet a visitor.  Dickensian we might call it and tend to think of it, but these streets and buildings were old before Dickens was young.

Jolyon Hudson & Jonathan Gestetner

Jolyon Hudson & Jonathan Gestetner

It is a place that will go straight to the top of any list of London’s secret treasures – secret it is, and full of treasure.  There I found Jonathan Gestetner, Jolyon Hudson and Ed Smith busily engaged in what they always do, what the two firms have always done.  Cataloguing away. Dealing in rare and important books.  Yesterday they were gathering together some prize material to ship out to the California Book Fair.  Woman MPPickering & Chatto strong in philosophy, social science, medicine, politics, the stock currently enlivened with some spectacular suffragette and women’s studies material (examples from a couple of recent catalogues).  Books not just rare but endlessly interesting, books which tell us things we didn’t know, books we have never seen before, books not just rare but also unusual (the two are by no means the same).

SoundPark DriveThe complementary Marlborough stock is just as fascinating – architecture, illustration and the decorative arts, some fabulous old games and peepshows, some really rare topography – and especially books on London.  Jonathan has been collecting books on London for a lifetime (see A Lost Balloon View of London elsewhere on the blog) and dealing in them for the last twenty-five years or so.  AnthemWe have been talking and trading London books with each other for longer than I can remember – and yet he always, always, manages to come up with something I’ve never seen before.  There were several yesterday – one I had to buy, the others I was content to covet.

Ed Smith

Ed Smith

A thoroughly enjoyable hour, a few books bought – a forgotten novel by a woman member of the Dobell family – but Dobell the poet or Dobell the bookseller? (work to do on that one), the forgotten memoir of a highly articulate nurse in the Great War – books I simply didn’t know and couldn’t have guessed at.

This is a bookselling of a very high level.  Books acquired with taste, skill and real flair – a real sense of what matters, a sense of what counts.  Books beyond the obvious.  Go and seek them out.

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Deck the Halls

Halls ExteriorAlways a matter of rejoicing to hear of a new bookshop opening, rather than yet another one closing.  Not that Hall’s Bookshop on Chapel Place in Royal Tunbridge Wells is strictly speaking a new bookshop.  Reuben Hall first opened his doors for business in something like 1898 and Hall’s has been a much-loved institution ever since – one of the proper old-fashioned country bookshops.

When Lloyd’s Bank threatened to redevelop the site in 1988 they were eventually forced to back down in the face of public outcry – and you know how difficult it is to get a bank to see sense. The shop has passed through various hands in the course of its history – from Reuben Hall to his friend Charles Avery in 1922, then to his assistant Harry Pratley (ABA President in 1959-1960), who started work in shop at the age of fourteen, at some point in the ’thirties. The shop made the short move from No. 18 Chapel Place to No. 20-22 Chapel Place in 1938 and since then, successively under Elizabeth Bateman, who went to work for Harry in 1955 and took over in 1967, and then Sabrina Izzard, who joined the firm in 1981 and took over in 1983, it has probably always looked much the same.

I last passed by some six or seven years ago – the old shop much as it had always been. Creaking and cluttered, a little gloomy I seem to recall, but crammed with stock at reasonable prices and the very image of a film-set old bookshop.  Sabrina decided to retire about a year ago and the future of the shop must at that point have looked uncertain, but the news soon leaked out that an in some ways surprising new owner had been found.

Adrian Harrington, formerly of Chelsea and Kensington, president of the ABA in 2001-2003, president of ILAB in 2008-2009, and long one of the most influential figures in the trade, had taken the decision to close down his London shop and relocate – lock, stock and barrel – to Tunbridge.  But not just to move his own very successful rare book business, Adrian was determined from the outset to keep Hall’s alive as the traditional second-hand bookshop and focal point of the town it had always been.

Harrington SignThis needed some careful planning and the premises needed much work.  A new roof for starters.  Slowly over the last year, Hall’s has been reborn. The floor has been raised a couple of feet to increase the height of the basement sufficiently to open that up as a gallery for posters, prints, maps, and engravings. The upper floor is being made over to house Adrian Harrington Rare Books and the ground floor completely refurbished to become – well, what it always was – Hall’s Bookshop of Royal Tunbridge Wells – a twenty-first century version, perhaps, but still proudly boasting the old 10p Bargain Box outside.

Adrian and Jon

Adrian Harrington and Jon Gilbert

Finding ourselves in that part of the world last week we obviously called in to see how things were going.  Adrian’s son-in-law, Jon Gilbert (author of the prize-winning Ian Fleming bibliography) was at the helm, his charming, coffee-bearing and pastel-haired daughter home for the university holidays and helping out.  The Harrington team had finally managed to get the shop re-open a couple of weeks before Christmas.  Still work being done – Adrian turned up before too long with yet more shelving for upstairs. It will still be a week or two before all the books are ferried over from Kensington and the top floor opens. They’re still waiting for a proper broadband connection and more than a bit hampered by that.  And the basement  gallery wasn’t quite ready – but it will be very soon.

Halls GroundIn the meantime, there were still plenty of books to look at – for the most part the best of the old Hall’s stock, but all now reshelved and reorganised.  I was soon building up a very nice little pile.  Even on a dismal Tuesday in that never-never land between Christmas and New Year, there were plenty of local passers-by popping in as well.  One after the other they chorused their delight that this was still going to be a bookshop.  Some had feared that the extensive refurbishment work  was all looking so smart that the intention could only be to turn the place into yet another coffee-shop.  Others loved how light and airy the place now was, how accessible the books were, how much fun it was  – and all rather warmer than it used to be too.  There are boxfuls of books going out and coming in every day.

BargainBox

The Bargain Box Restored

To be sure there will be the occasional dissenting voice, it’s not hard to love the way the place used to look. Many of us were nourished on creak and clutter, it’s in our bones – but loving the look and buying the book are perhaps two different things. Those feasts of clutter just don’t work any more, that’s why they have virtually all disappeared. Proof and pudding.

A cheque for two full Hall’s carrier-bags of books (a pretty decent haul these days) was my modest contribution to all that the refurbishment must be costing. This is a bold move.  This is a brave move – and one much to be applauded. It deserves all our support – the sort of country bookshop that has created generations of book-collectors has become all but extinct. Let us hope that this is the turning of the tide and its day is about to return.

Hall's makeover

The Makeover

Posted in ABA, ABA Past Presidents, Book Collecting, Booksellers, Bookshops | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment