A new verb for us to contemplate this week: to antiquate, describing whatever it is we think antiquarian booksellers actually do (or perhaps merely the process by which we become antiquated – if this is not in fact the same thing). Inspired by the Antiquates Ltd. trading name of young Tom Lintern-Mole, the latest recruit to membership of the ABA. I took it to be a noun of some sort, but he prefers to think of it as a verb.
It’s what he does: he antiquates – and he does it very, very, well. I was completely charmed by his offbeat, quirky and idiosyncratic selection of stock when I encountered him up at the PBFA York National Book Fair last weekend: books unusual, books interesting and books important. A definite bias towards early printing and the genuinely antiquarian, but with forays elsewhere.
“Look at this”, he said, producing what at first glance I took to be nondescript and rather twee Victorian children’s book. Nothing altogether exciting, until I realised that the monotone outer covering was in fact a miraculously intact dust-jacket from the 1880s. Had I ever seen an earlier example of a British pictorial dust-jacket? Well – no, I hadn’t – and nor, I suspected, had anyone else in this vast fair (a conclusion only slightly modified by subsequent research). Ownership swiftly transferred – and a book for a future blog-post. While I was looking at it, a little early nineteenth-century manuscript recipe book, full of recipes for puddings (generally involving heart-stopping quantities of rich cream) also caught my eye. A couple of recipes involving bullaces (a roundish wild plum) took my fancy, and who could resist the Paradise Pudding? Not me – so this book too may feature on these pages again. A thoroughly engaging young man, with a thoroughly engaging stock: his resolve to become a bookseller established in his teens, looking round the Olympia Book Fair with, as he says, “tremendous awe and not a little trepidation, and thinking how nice it would be to be able to exhibit one day”. That day will soon come.
A slight qualm at this point as I reviewed what I had bought and how much I had spent so far. Was I now only buying books to feed the blog, irrespective of any remote possibility of future re-sale or profit? I began to fear that this was so. Certainly sales over the summer would suggest it. What had I already accumulated? A cookery book published in Colombo by the wife of an English tea-planter, bought on the tenuous basis of someone having asked me to find a copy long ago: it was an impossible task, no copies at all on the internet, no copy at all in any UK library. But can I now even remember who was looking for it? Probably not – but it can always feature on the blog.
A decidedly uncommon (but also somewhat expensive) Rolf Boldrewood three-decker in a very pretty binding, with a handsome and traceable armorial bookplate. Do I have any customers for Boldrewood? No, none that I can think of – but it can always feature on the blog. An unrecorded early state of a James Wyld map of the roads of England and Wales, attractive enough in itself but particularly interesting in that it has been fitted up in a French slip-case for sale in Paris by a French mapseller. Do I have any customers who would find that remotely as interesting as I do? I doubt it very much – but it can always feature on the blog. A handsome copy of that haunting collection of short stories by Jean Rhys, “The Left Bank” (1927), complete with dust-jacket and an interesting expatriate provenance – probably the finest short stories to come out of that fevered Paris of the 1920s – bought from Philip Barraclough of York Modern Books, who tells me he bought it in turn from the legendary Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, which makes the provenance nigh on perfect to my mind. Do I have, have I ever had, customers for Jean Rhys? Not that I can recall – but it can always feature on the blog.
Clearly time for some serious reflection and re-evaluation. I wandered off to have a chat with Jonathan Kearns, who had been teaching at the inaugural York Antiquarian Book Seminar (YABS) earlier in the week. The whole venture a total and roaring success by all accounts. Not just in the view of the organisers, but in that of all of the first twenty-seven students. Palpable buzz, energy and enthusiasm detected from all ends of the bookselling spectrum: from Fuchsia Voremberg of Maggs Bros. – no better place on earth to be than at Maggs for any young bookseller, but you don’t quite see the whole of the book-trade in all its nooks and crannies from the windows of Berkeley Square. Eyes opened for her, while for Richard V. Wells, collector turned bookseller and no longer quite that young, the whole thing was just “fabulous”. So much learnt and in so little time.
Jonathan Kearns is to become a co-director with Anthony Smithson, and I have no doubt at all that we can look forward to the YABS boot-camp for booksellers becoming a permanent and very welcome feature of the British rare book trade. Well done to all concerned. Couldn’t be more pleased.
Jonathan, by the way, has decided not to follow his employer Adrian Harrington to Tunbridge Wells when the business relocates in the near future (although he writes as good a “Disgusted” letter as anyone I’ve ever met – read his Bibliodeviancy blog, it’s way funnier than this one). He’ll be starting up on his own in the new year, and we all wish him every success. Keep a look out for him – he’s a brilliant, witty and original bookseller – and far more technically astute than most of us. I met him again on Monday at a meeting of the ABA Website Committee, where he has been chief guide and mentor to the rare book trade’s engagement with cyberspace virtually from the outset.
Back to antiquating my way around this extraordinary fair. Well over 200 exhibitors and the largest event of its kind in Europe – and so, so, much to see. First a trip up to the third floor to pay my respects to dear old Gerry Mosdell (The Junction Book Shop), the first founder of the PBFA (Provincial Booksellers’ Fairs Association). It’s the association’s fortieth anniversary this year – and how far it has come in that time. I picked up a copy of the anniversary booklet to which Gerry has contributed an introduction on the origins and early days. The first York Fair at the White Swan (just twenty-five exhibitors) was held in October 1974. Legend has it that there were so many visitors that the queue had to wait for a person to leave before another could be allowed in. It’s been growing ever since. A new way of local pop-up bookselling had proved itself and a fortnight later the PBFA formally came into being. Almost all my generation of booksellers grew up with and within the PBFA: this was how we met each other, forged lifelong friendships, travelled the country and bought and sold to each other. I can’t now remember quite when I first joined, but it can’t have been all that long after its inception. I’m fairly sure I was one of the first London booksellers to gatecrash what had been a specifically provincial organisation. I have never in truth been a great enthusiast for exhibiting at fairs (too much lugging and lifting for my taste), but I can certainly recall experimental trips in the long ago to Bath, Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Harrogate, Tunbridge Wells and elsewhere.
Gerry (whose memory appears to be rather better than mine) recalled the hilarity which ensued when I volunteered my services to the PBFA cricket team for the (first?) annual match against the ABA. I couldn’t claim any particular prowess, I explained, not having played at all since schooldays, but I was the possessor of my own cricket bat. It was enough to get me selected (as it would be in any of the coarser grades of cricket). Appointed to bat in the middle order, a clatter of early wickets brought me to the crease rather sooner than anyone can have expected. Surviving some early scares, a catch that may or may not have carried, and aided by some stentorian coaching and some very firm, not to say imperious, calling from Mike Garbett at the other end, I prodded, poked, pushed, propped and paddled my way to one of the most inelegant fifties ever seen on a cricket field. Having reached that score with a swipe or two into the adjacent cow-field off a very small boy who had been brought on to bowl (I think this may well have been Ed Bayntun-Coward, we were certainly down in Dunkerton: that he can only have been about five years old at the time puts these shots into proper context), the opposing captain decided we had all endured enough. Raymond Kilgarriff was summoned back into the attack and I only lasted another couple of balls – but there we were, a century partnership, the innings salvaged and a reputation made. This unfortunately led to a thirty-year long delusion that I could actually bat – a delusion suffered chiefly by me, but also somewhat bizarrely by many members of the book trade. Of course I couldn’t, but I kept getting selected anyway. Ah, well – I made a few runs once in a while, took a few wickets slightly more often, and thoroughly enjoyed it all – the chance to play at a famous old ground like Fenner’s (and a famous new one like Wormsley), or the village green at Frant of fond memory – all in the very best and friendliest of company.
In talking to Gerry I had of course spotted two more books to buy. Two detective novels from the 1920s: one called “The Colfax Book-Plate” and allegedly the only book in that whole vast corpus of crime fiction in which the murder (in a bookshop) hinges on a bookplate. What self-respecting bookseller is going to turn that down? Not me – certainly. Do I have a customer for it? Obviously not – one for the blog, perhaps. The other book was by the prolific and extraordinary William Le Queux, a man whose paranoid fantasies in such works as “The Invasion of 1910” (1906) and “Spies of the Kaiser” (1909) probably brought about the creation of both MI5 and MI6. What appealed to me was his “The Broadcast Mystery” (1924): the BBC only started broadcasting in 1922 and didn’t go national until 1925, but here we have a murder mystery which opens in the BBC’s “artistic studio” in York . The first radio murder mystery? – I don’t know. Do I have a customer? – probably not – another one for the blog.
Looking for some perhaps more potentially saleable purchases I sought out Miles Bartley (Howes Bookshop) – the most attractive stand at the entire fair to my eye, the books all interesting, attractive and in what we used to call ‘choice’ condition (what do we call it now?) Three more purchases – a Dickens story published by that rogue publisher John Camden Hotten – rotten, forgotten, Hotten, as we like to think of him. Pretty binding, armorial bookplate, front wrapper and advertisements retained – but oh, no, no, this is just another one for the blog. And so were the other two (obviously). It could have been worse, I suppose: there might have been a fourth. Miles leaned over to ask me at one point whether I’d ever seen a book-binder’s label quite like this one – a long thin leather label stretching right across the width of the leaf and advertising Proudfoot of Euston Square. Not that I could recall – here’s yet another one for the blog I thought, but no! – Miles was actually just on the point of selling it to someone else. I turned round to see what sort of strange person other than myself might buy a book on the strength of an unusual binder’s label and perhaps to remonstrate that the book should rightfully be mine – except that the other customer turned out to be none other than the great Bernard Middleton MBE, FSA, doyen of English binders, our honorary member, and someone to whom we must all give place. No better home for it.
All in all yet again an excellent time in York – old friends and new at every turn; interesting books and interesting people wherever you looked; an absolute credit to all involved. I suppose the PBFA was primarily set up all those years ago to bring books from the provinces to London. This fair is now such a powerful and irresistible magnet that in brings London dealers and London collectors (in large numbers) to the provinces. No greater tribute than that. Long may it prosper.