A guest post by Pauline Schol.
Having finished six courses as part of the MA in the History of the Book at the Institute of English Studies (London University), I and my fellow students were offered a chance to be launched into the real world of book-selling. Five of us were placed with five different booksellers across London and this is how I found myself travelling down to Tooting Bec on a Tuesday morning in May.
I had been placed with Laurence Worms who doesn’t have a shop any more and nowadays works from home. Although most booksellers work from home, I did not know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect that most of the clichés I had in my mind would turn out to be true. Walking through Laurence’s front door, I found myself in a house crammed full of books. Books everywhere! Books in every nook and cranny!
Dealing with the most important thing first, Laurence made sure I was holding a cup of tea within a few minutes. Standing in his ‘office’ – in fact a conservatory practically overflowing with books – holding my tea, I didn’t think the cliché could become any more of a cliché … until Nemo, the big black cat, walked in. As the weeks passed, Nemo and I would become the best of friends and he started turning up in the conservatory earlier each day. As I have come to know, all antiquarian bookshops have a cellar that should not be seen by the general public. Laurence, too, seems to have such a cellar. This mythical place, strictly off limits to the intern, is the storage place of the prints and quite possibly other mysterious items.
The first one and a half days I received a crash course in cataloguing. On the afternoon of the second day we went to the Olympia Book Fair, one of the biggest international book fairs. Not knowing that the Guv’nor used to be the president of the ABA, and is still a very active member of the ABA council, I was surprised to find him greeting and being greeted by virtually everyone present at the fair. Being thrown in at the deep end was both a little scary and very exciting. Walking from stand to stand Laurence would say: “So, tell me what to buy”. Looking at the prices in the books my jaw dropped. This being my first real introduction to the world of buying antiquarian books, I naturally assumed these prices were normal. This illusion was quickly done away with when we visited the more affordable PBFA fair. Clearly, normal people can also afford to buy antiquarian books. We ended the weekend with a short visit to the Bloomsbury Ephemera Fair where another new world opened up to me.
During the MA course we hadn’t dealt with prints or maps, let alone ephemera, in any depth, so the ephemera fair was an eye-opener. When thinking of ephemera, I would normally just have thought of posters and pamphlets. The stands at the fair, however, were filled with postcards, stamps, Victorian letterheads, notepaper, autograph letters and much, much, more. Although I expected the purchase of maps and prints, I did not expect we would be leaving the fair with a lovely old press photograph of Winston Churchill.
After the fairs it was time to start preparing the Ash Rare Books Summer 2015 catalogue. It was interesting to see some of the books going through their entire ‘process’. After having bought them, we catalogued them together, photographed them, edited the catalogue and sent it off to the printer. Most of the orders were packed and sent through the post, but a few were bought by regular customers and old friends and were delivered in person. We went to see one of the customers together, taking the books he had ordered off the catalogue.
The Guv’nor appears to have his own way of cataloguing – this can be interesting. It can also be quite tricky, but his guidelines are very clear (he’s working on writing them down for the York Antiquarian Book Seminar – YABS), and after practicing I think I’ve got the hang of it. One thing that has remained quite an obstacle is the measurements, which are given in very clear centimetres, but also in the quite, to my continental mind, incomprehensible inches.
His eccentric and old-fashioned way of doing things resonates in more than just his cataloguing rules. On his desk he has two, rather old, computers – one (the one held together with string and sticky tape) may conceivably have been made in the present century – at least it’s connected to the internet; the other one, in contrast, is in museum condition. That’s where it belongs – it has never in its life been connected to the outside world. This isolated computer contains the database programme through which we generate the catalogue descriptions. After finishing them, they have to be transported to the other computer which can send them out into the world via the Ash Rare Books website and elsewhere. As it dates from an era in which memory sticks did not yet exist, I have had the pleasure of reliving my childhood and using a floppy disk for this task. Naturally, I thought this was a little outdated, but he assures me that you can, indeed, still buy floppy disks – he produced a brand-new packet from somewhere. He appears to be entirely unaware that he’s probably the only person in the country still using them. Bless! Although making fun of his methods, the floppy disk does the task quite efficiently.
The authorship of one of the books we bought at Olympia turned out to be quite a mystery. After extensive research online we made our way to the British Library to take a look at some other copies of Recollections of a Police Officer. You may well already have read the resulting ‘Mysterious Waters’ feature here on the blog about the journalist called Russell who was behind the ‘Waters’ pseudonym.
He’s told me I can write the blog this week – Why not? – I now seem to be doing everything else around here. He’s got his feet up watching the cricket, a position he gives every indication of remaining in for the rest of the summer. He’s tried explaining cricket to me (at interminable length) – but it’s all complete Double-Dutch as far as I’m concerned – and I’m Dutch.
Although Laurence is one of the many booksellers who work from home, I couldn’t have been placed with anyone better. I have not only gained some real knowledge of cataloguing, researching books, etc., but also on ‘who is who’ in the book world, what events are taking place and, not least, the breathtaking amount of work involved in building and launching the new ABA website, which I’ve been helping him with.
By far the most important thing I have come to know is that book-selling is very much about networking, about knowing the right people: the guy behind the counter at the post-office, who knows exactly what brand of cigarettes he smokes, or the man at the Greek restaurant who greets us exuberantly after the Tuesday book-collecting seminars that are organised by Laurence and Prof. Simon Eliot at Senate House. This must be the reason why people in the book trade love to get together after book-fairs, lectures, shop openings or any other kind of book-related event. I have yet to come across a bookish event that is not accompanied with food and wine (and more wine).
The MA was supposed to prepare me for an academic life, but this practical work experience course has persuaded me to try to pursue a career in book-selling. Being with Laurence for the past two months has been such a pleasure. In these two months in the book trade I have been able to handle and have come across so many more books than in all of the MA courses combined. Since the focus of the MA is really on books in codex-form, I didn’t know much about prints or maps, both of which are among Laurence’s specialities. He has taught me all about illustrative techniques, etchings, engravings, lithographs, etc. In the last few weeks I have been given my own projects in assembling illustrated books and cataloguing them. Using the HTML-code Laurence has written for his website, I have been able to create new web-pages for each illustrator.
Thinking back to the introductory seminar to the internship, Laurence opened his lecture to us by saying that the very first piece of advice he was ever given about working in the rare book trade was to “cultivate your eccentricity”. He claims always to have ignored this – you can make up your own minds about that! During my eight weeks in the book trade I have met a fair number of eccentric people, but all of them are kind and passionate about their work and it has made me really want to become a part of this world.
If I can prise him away from the cricket, we shall see you all at the new Bristol Book Fair this weekend – really looking forward to that! My name’s Pauline Schol, by the way. Cheers!