A couple of posts ago, I featured a picture of an Edinburgh binding from the website of Nick McConnell (McConnell Fine Books). It brought to mind that I hadn’t been down to Deal on the Kent coast to see him for far too long – and as my new intern lives down in Kent in any case, I thought I might save her the journey up to London, for one day at least, by heading in that direction for a day out book-hunting. We shall call her Lizzie (because that’s her name) and she is one of this year’s batch of students on the Masters course in the History of the Book at London University. One of her formal modules is a stint of 200 hours working in the rare book trade, so no doubt you will hear more of her (and quite possibly from her) in the coming weeks.
Although we visited a second-hand bookshop or two along the way, the sum total of our purchases before arriving at Nick’s was meagre: a very cheap book each (simply to read) and a possible minor bargain of a modern first by a not over-collected author for 50p.
McConnell Fine Books (see pictures) are located on Beach Street, right on the front at Deal, looking out to sea – just over the road from the Royal Hotel. It’s a seventeenth-century building, long known as “The Golden Hind” – and it’s been a bookshop as far back as I can remember. It’s still a shop, although nowadays it’s open only by appointment.
But well worth making that appointment. Nick has been a specialist in fine bindings for forty years or more and there is nothing in “The Golden Hind” that is less than beautiful – and much that is simply stunning. Not just the bindings themselves, but the exquisite condition they are preserved in. Interesting too, in talking to Nick, that one way in which he feels that book-collecting has changed over the years is that nowadays it is not always enough for his customers that a book should be a fine example of the bookbinder’s art, but that the book itself also needs to be both rare and interesting.
This seems to me to represent slightly muddled thinking, or at least to be symptomatic of both wanting to have your cake and eating it – but we go where our customers direct us. Nick pulled out for us a couple of things to demonstrate this kind of double attraction: a seemingly completely unrecorded book of chair-designs from a Covent Garden maker dating from the 1830s – and two bound volumes of some of Walter Crane’s earliest and most fragile work – beautifully preserved, the colours searing off the page and fresh as the day they were printed.
While Nick and Lizzie moved on to a discussion of the most effective ways of booksellers using social media – the upshot of which seems to be that she will be spending some of her 200 hours in the trade gingering up his presence on Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere (there was mention of video clips) – I combed the shelves in a more resolutely old-fashioned way. An uncommon Dickens item (with a genuine issue point for once) bound by Zaehnsdorf – the very same copy as that catalogued by a New York auctioneer in 1926 as “a magnificent copy of the first issue of the first edition” – was the first thing to beguile me. Soon followed by an oh-so-pretty three-decker from 1830 in a delightful contemporary binding and with another distinguished provenance. It was turning into a very good day all round.
I’ll be seeing Nick again later today at the ABA Rare Book Fair at its new summer location in Battersea. You can see him there too – and having seen some of the books he was packing to bring up to town – you will not be disappointed. And that’s to say nothing of all the many other incredibly good booksellers (180 of them) from all over the world who will also be exhibiting there for the next three days. We are talking about the crème de la crème. There can be no excuse for not finding your way there, even if it is south of the river.