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Out of Print and into Profit

23 April 2014

This well-marshalled volume of essays on the history of the antiquarian book trade in Britain since the beginning of the twentieth century deserves a generous welcome, for it represents a courageous attempt to offer an overall view of what has until now been essentially uninvestigated terrain.

It may seem surprising to use the word uninvestigated in this context, but the British antiquarian book trade has not yet found an academic historian, and, as is all too apparent from Marc Vaulbert de Chantilly’s entertaining essay in the present volume (pp 281-308), “Booksellers’ Memoirs ; the truth about the trade ?”, what has so far been written about the trade by booksellers themselves has been, to say the least, subjective.

Indeed, a glance at what has previously been written on the subject, set out here in a helpful checklist (pp 351-366), reveals just one previous publication written to an acceptable standard of frankness and scholarship, and that, the monograph by Arthur Freeman and Janet Ing Freeman on the Ruxley Lodge sale in 1919, deals with a single event which took place so long ago that it had passed out of the book trade’s collective memory.

What these essays now provide is not in any sense a definitive account either of the rare book trade as a whole or of any one area of it. The intention has been rather to describe the primary activities of the trade in the century that has just passed, and to chronicle the most important of the changes in the trade’s working practices over the same period. Thus, there are essays by Frank Herrmann on “The Role of the Auction Houses” (pp 3-34), by Richard Ford on “Private Buying” (pp 35-52), by H.R. Woudhuysen on “Catalogues” (pp 123-156), by Chris Kohler on “Making Collections” (pp 165-176), and a really excellent essay by Michael Harris on “The London Street Trade” (pp 75-89), which records for posterity the operating methods of the Jeffery family’s book barrow business in the Faringdon Road, presided over between 1957 and 1993 by the late George Jeffery III, deservedly popular both with his customers and with fellow members of the trade.

Essays by Philippa Bernard on “The Bookshops of London” (pp 90-96), by Elizabeth Strong on “Town and Country Bookshops in Scotland and Northern Ireland” (pp 97-114), and by Paul Minet on “West Country Bookshops in the 1960s : a Memoir” (pp 115-122), deal with what might be described as the historical topography of the trade, up to the moment around 1980 when rents and staff costs began to make it necessary for booksellers to abandon a street level presence. Two other essays, by Anthony Hobson on “The Phillipps sales” (pp 157-164), and by Robert S.Pirie on “Reminiscences of a Book Buyer” (pp 192-200), provide affectionate anecdotal vignettes of the upper echelons of the book trade from the 1950s onwards.

Other contributions are enlightening in their different ways on the ever-higher standards of accuracy, scholarship and honourable dealing with which members of the rare book trade have had to wrestle either as part of their individual business operations or as committee members and officers of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. This is suitably addressed from a head prefect’s point of view - the “head prefect” phrase is coined by Vaulbert de Chantilly (p.295) - by Anthony Rota, “Defending and Regulating the Trade : a Hundred Years of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association” (pp 309-323), while Angus O’Neill, in his essay on “Patterns of Collecting and Trading in ‘Modern’ Literature” (pp 221-237), vividly demonstrates how working booksellers have adapted to the demands of a market in which condition and accuracy in description are paramount requirements. David Pearson, “Patterns of Collecting and Trading in Antiquarian Books” (pp 201-214), and A.S.G.Edwards, “The Antiquarian Book Trade and the World of Scholarship” (pp 269-280), are generous in their recognition of booksellers’ increasing bibliographical expertise and of the specific contributions to bibliographical scholarship made by booksellers themselves. A further essay by Arnold Hunt, “Foreign Dealers in the English Trade” (pp 245-267), discusses the individual achievements of three very disparate booksellers – Wilfrid Michael Voynich, Maurice Ettinghausen and E.P.Goldschmidt – who brought a European dimension to what has generally been a very Anglocentric trade. 

Sketchcartoon by ‘Kyd’ from the 1920s Members of the trade itself who may read these essays will undoubtedly notice the occasional passage which does not in their judgment do full justice to an individual or to the true facts of an event in book trade history of which they have personal or inherited knowledge. That is however an inevitable consequence of the fact that the history of the rare book trade in Britain has until now been essentially anecdotal, and the true achievement of the contributors to the present volume is that their essays do provide a solid platform of information and analysis on which future historians can build.

That said, it is important to note that booksellers of an egotistic or self-publicising character unavoidably play a larger role in the pages of this volume than booksellers of comparable distinction who have been content to operate with less ostentation. Equally, as most of the contributors to the volume come to the subject with a primary interest in literary texts, the history and workings of the trade in illustrated books, travel books, scientific books, books on art and architecture, and so on, still remain more or less unexplored. It is a particular matter for regret in this context that the personal bookselling achievement of Jacques Vellekoop is described in just one sentence (p.266), which fails to mention that under his management the E.P.Goldschmidt firm took on a virtually new identity as a very successful specialist business dealing in early illustrated European books on science and the arts. Similarly, Micky Brand of Marlborough Rare Books, a bookseller of real taste and judgement who had through his hands over a fifty year period a steady stream of the finest seventeenth and eighteenth century books on art and architecture, is mentioned only as that firm’s previous proprietor (p.91) ; while the late Dick Lyon, again a bookseller of taste and judgement, and a constant attendant at major book sales over a similar length of time, features only in a brief passage of Robert Pirie’s reminiscences (pp 196-7).

Such omissions are by no means outweighed by the relatively more prominent role played in the pages of this volume by one other specialist in the same general field, this reviewer’s former employer, the late Ben Weinreb (referred to in thirteen separate places), for although Ben Weinreb’s achievements as a bookseller were considerable, only the most obvious statements made about him and his firm here are strictly accurate, and he would have been amused by such remarks as those made by Herrmann (p.29 and footnote), Minet (p.67), Pearson (p.205), and Edwards (p.278).

Finally, as one of that small band of employees of ABA member firms who remained behind in Sotheby’s sale room on that day in May or June 1975 when the dignitaries of the trade walked out in protest at the imposition of the buyers’ premium (as described by Rota, p.316), it is only right to record that we were much amused at the time, and were confirmed in the view that we were acting properly in remaining, by the fact that although the then senior representatives of the Quaritch firm and the Maggs firm had ostentatiously walked out in the protest, both firms (if I remember correctly) had left junior representatives behind in the sale room, on the specious pretext that commission bids left with their firms had to be executed.

 


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