A very interesting day last week as I sat in (as a guest) on a meeting of the National Executive Committee of the British rare and secondhand book trade’s other association – the PBFA (Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association). A decided contrast in styles – the PBFA meeting decidedly less abrasive than some we have known recently in the ABA (although someone later dropped a probably indiscreet hint that my presence had meant best behaviour all round – let’s hope and see if the same is true when I invite my PBFA counterpart, George Newlands (McLaren Books) to sit on in the ABA’s March Council meeting). George is of course also a member of the ABA – just as I am a member of the PBFA – in the slightly muddled world of book trade organisation we have somehow managed to bring about.
Other contrasts too – the Committee members are decidedly regional representatives in a way that the ABA likes its elected Council to turn out, but does not always quite succeed in so doing. And the PBFA, although a much larger organisation, putting on vastly more fairs, seems to manage with a slightly smaller Council. It also seems to manage without the ABA’s plethora of sub-committees, most of the work being devolved to its permanent staff (and of course the local fair managers on the ground).
But there the differences more or less end – the discussion round the table was remarkably similar in most respects and any number of common themes and identical problems emerged. Both associations rely heavily on the goodwill of members giving up their time to organise and get things done – and the pool of volunteers both competent and willing is always smaller than one might wish. And both associations are proving ill-adept at recruiting the younger booksellers who work more or less exclusively via the internet and see no need to exhibit at book fairs or to belong to a trade association. I hate it when people talk about becoming more “relevant” – a screechy blackboard word if ever there was one – but I don’t know quite how else to put it.
It was actually a complete coincidence dictated by train timetables and expense that I started my Scottish tour with a visit to the self-same George Newlands in his lair at McLaren Books
in Helensburgh, where the Clyde broadens out into the Firth. Stunning views across to Greenock and Port Glasgow as I strolled along the front in late afternoon the very next day – ducks and swans on the foreshore. All about the sea hereabouts, and George is of course a specialist in books naval and maritime – ships, yachts, boats and everything about them. A dense stock of books in his chosen area, a man happy in his work – and a man who gives a great deal back to the trade.
We fall to discussing how we started off in the book trade – and realise with a start that at one point in our now distant youth we must both have applied for the very same job with a small chain of new bookshops in and around the City of London. George got it – I didn’t (let’s leave it there). From that, George migrated north to work for the celebrated Smith’s of Glasgow – first in new books, then in their antiquarian department – and later on to an independent career.
We adjourn to have a cup of tea and a cake in George’s new house on the seafront at occasionally stormswept Craigendoran – views clear across to Dunoon from here – and cellarage large enough to absorb all his stock when the shop finally closes. A very pleasant afternoon – and I jump on a train to my next stop, Glasgow.