A safari to the remote corners of my own house this week – and from there to the attics of my mind. In fact just having a clear-out to make way for all the fresh purchases (really must do a catalogue). Then I came across a printed guide for the Antiquarian Book Fair to be held at the Europa Hotel, Grosvenor Square, on the 13th-15th June 1972 – “under the auspices” of the ABA.
“More than eighty exhibitors from the United States, Europe and Australia will display books and manuscripts, all of which will be for sale” is precisely as punchy as the copy gets – a little reticent, a little old-fashioned, perhaps – but a stylish little booklet, neatly designed and printed, gently understated, and a perfect fit for the pocket. And it has a witty and not wholly respectful introduction by none other than Philip Larkin – “I should never call myself a book-lover, any more than a people-lover …” (it’s Bloomfield B11 if there are any Larkin completists out there – even memories have a price). And there’s a modest statement at the back announcing that a certain Tom Stoppard will open the fair at 11.15 am on the first day – whatever happened to him I wonder? (And yes that’s right, it wasn’t for shirkers – the fair was open from 11am until 8pm on all three days).
There were eighty-nine exhibitors by my count (fourteen of them from overseas, twelve from Europe and in fact only one each from the USA and Australia). And I remember the fair so very, very, well – it was the first bookfair I ever visited, probably the first I ever heard of (this was pre-PBFA remember). I had been a second-hand bookseller for less than year, but already starting to buy the odd thing “in the rooms”, as we used to say – Hodgson’s, then of course, just a walk from my shop in the City, and at least a single visit to observe the ancient ritual and rigid hierarchy of the horseshoe table and the intimidating stares of the hardened veterans at Sotheby’s.
I’d just returned from my first trip across the country looking for books – the precursor of so many since. I remember the inordinate courtesy to a complete (and somewhat hirsute) stranger of Hylton Bayntun-Coward in Bath, allowing me a peek at a genuine first edition of Alice in Wonderland which had turned up somewhere in sheets and been sent to Bayntun’s for binding or boxing. He offered me lunch too. I suppose it helped that he had known my predecessors, Hugh Jones and Cyril Nash, and I had just helped him out with an enquiry in the shop about Denton Welch (not really I suppose a Hylton sort of author), but I can’t think that many of us have ever shown such grace, consideration and friendliness to a young tyro.
I remember too old Mr Day in Dorchester (if that indeed was his name – it was the name of the dark and ancient shop) showing me some wonderful Thomas Hardy firsts in cloth – and going on to say that actually he’d known Hardy, who was well-known in the shop back in Mr Day’s boyhood. What is that they say about handshakes away? – but this is complete digression – the bookfair at the Europa.
Well, I knew a little bit and was learning fast, but that bookfair just blew me away – the variety and quality, the sheer spectacle and magnificence of what was on offer, the thrillingness of some of the books. I was already in love with the second-hand book trade – but now I wanted more, much more. My eyes had been fully opened. And, at our best, we can still do this. I met up with a contemporary at the Olympia fair last year – well-read, educated, thoughtful, intelligent, an artist and keen observer – but this, for some reason, was his first visit to a big bookfair. He’s still talking about it, still bubbling with it, months later. Let’s remember those days of innocence and marvel and keep that candle alight for our successors.
It was my first real experience of the vast majority of the exhibitors back then – daunting, impressive and forbidding figures who had somehow brought to the surface such magic things to display. I imagine I spoke to some of them, but mainly I just gawped, hoping not to give my ignorance away. Anthony Rota was president back then – or he may just have made way for Martin Hamlyn – but I imagine (complete guesswork, I don’t know), that it was Anthony who organised the appealing and impressive Larkin/Stoppard combo [in fact Raymond Kilgarriff now informs me that it was he who urged Tom Stoppard on a somewhat uncertain committee – and that Stoppard wore a covetable green corduroy suit]. It was to be another twenty years before I knew Anthony well enough to think of him as a friend and colleague , but I do remember him telephoning me out of the blue to congratulate me on my first Modern Firsts catalogue (1975) – another gesture of grace and consideration to a novice which I am horribly afraid I have never quite matched.
What strikes immediately about the list of exhibitors back in 1972 is how few of them are still around – only twenty of the UK exhibitors are still ABA members. Of course death and retirement will take their necessary toll over a period of forty years: we have indeed lost three of them in recent months (Roger Baynton-Williams, Bill Duck and Paul Minet). Some firms on the list certainly survive in the hands of younger generations or fresh owners – but it is rather sad that so very few of our enterprises are able continue down the years in this way. It is surely too high a rate of attrition – too high a rate of lost knowledge, knowledge not passed on – for any trade to be comfortable with.
Another striking feature is how many landmark shops have been lost, certainly in terms of ABA membership – Bain of Horsham, Beach of Salisbury, Brimmell of Hastings, The Castle Bookshop of Colchester, Chelsea Rare Books, the two Crowes – Stanley of Bloomsbury and Thomas of Norwich, Deighton Bell of Cambridge, Peter Eaton of Holland Park, David Ferrow of Great Yarmouth, Fisher & Sperr of Highgate, Galloway and Porter again of Cambridge, John Grant of Edinburgh, Heffer of Cambridge, Frank Hollings in Cloth Fair, Kegan Paul in Bloomsbury, Lloyd’s of Wimbledon, Rosenthal of Oxford, Harold Storey in Cecil Court, Traylen of Guildford, Trevers of Reigate, Ben Weinreb – the list goes on.
I believe the ABA had in all 376 members at that time. It’s down to 237 now – a fall of 37% over the period. Not something we can look at with complacency. And the consequences, both cause and effect in a steady downward spiral, are clear: the annual subscription was then, I believe, £8.50, which equates to £87.50 now (Retail Price Index) or perhaps a better measure would be £148 now (Average Earnings). Admittedly the ABA had no office and only one employee at that time, but the subscription only rose to £15 when an office and a part-time assistant secretary were acquired shortly afterwards. That’s the equivalent of £141 (RPI) or £229 (AE) at today’s prices – while the actual ABA subscription now stands at £400. Again, not something to be viewed with complacency. These are sobering figures – and will and must demand radical answers before too long. Perhaps, as a start, we should all try to be as kind to young people trying to make their way in the trade (however weird they look) as Hylton and Anthony were all those years ago.