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Reflections of a Bookseller

Although I only entered the antiquarian book trade in January 1973, three months after my twenty-eighth birthday, books have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, for when I was about four my parents acquired much of a library of books on history, mediaeval architecture and English literature which had been put together by an elderly bachelor relative. His books occupied our family’s successive homes in sombre black bookcases until I and my brothers grew up, and to small children they seemed infinitely numerous and a passport to an endless world of knowledge open to us when we were adults. As to their number, we were quite soon disabused, for my mother’s daily help had previously cleaned for a proper book collector and let it be known that our thousand hardback volumes in no way constituted “a real gentleman’s library”.

Nor I can now say that their commercial value or range of subject matter was in general anything to remark about, for although my relative had been sufficiently well-to-do to purchase most of the recognised books on English history and English mediaeval architecture published between 1880 and 1930, he seems not to have collected older books and his pet subjects – the English Civil War, his university (Oxford), college (Pembroke) and public school (Harrow), and his ancestry – were conventional for persons of his generation and social class, and ones on which, as booksellers know all too well, the post-1880 published literature is neither rare nor valuable. Only on the literature front were things a little different, for he had been up at Oxford at a dangerous point in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and after Shakespeare and the Elizabethan dramatists his favourite reading jumped first to Shelley and then to Swinburne, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, a choice of authors sufficiently explained by other volumes with pasted-in letters revealing an Oxford acquaintanceship with Lord Alfred Douglas.

Being brought up in a household full of books is not itself a passport to becoming an antiquarian bookseller, and it was not until after I had concluded that I would never write the thesis which I should have been writing as an Oxford postgraduate student that the prospect of entering the book trade swum into vision. As it happened, Ted Dring of Quaritch was a family friend prepared to use his influence on my behalf, and not long afterwards I found myself being interviewed for a job by Ben Weinreb in his “best book room” at 93 Great Russell Street. Of what was said I recall nothing, but the large physical dimensions and out-of-the-way subject matter of many of the books surrounding the walls were deeply impressive to some one who was then almost totally unfamiliar with rare books on architecture and the fine arts. When I turned up some weeks later to start work as a cataloguer, it was in the rather more mundane surroundings of Ben Weinreb’s upper floor, and my first cataloguing duties, as an anonymous junior helper on Ben’s catalogue no.26, involved nothing grander than writing occasional one-sentence notes on English books of the 1920s on urban planning.

What however I soon discovered was that I was the only one of Ben’s employees who read as a matter of routine the incoming catalogues from auction houses and other members of the book trade, and it so happened that a few weeks into my employment we received Phillips’ catalogue for their sale of 17 April 1973, listing as lot 134 what appeared to be the architect James Paine’s copy of Consul Smith’s mid-eighteenth century facsimile reprint of the first edition of Palladio. Ben was abroad at the time, but I drew the lot to the attention of my seniors in the office, and was instructed to go to the sale and buy it. Never having previously attended any auction sale at all, whether of books or of anything else, this was a somewhat frightening mission, but such missions are never quite as frightening as one anticipates in advance, and I was able to secure the book in question (which had actually belonged not to James Paine but to his son, James Paine junior) without undue difficulty. Any illusions I may have formed about my inherent bidding expertise were quickly dispelled a fortnight later, when at another sale I foolishly bought without instructions the six unsaleable volumes of Henri Havard’s La France Artistique et Monumentale, an achievement greeted with a glance across the sale room from Sam Joseph conveying all too clearly that I had everything to learn ; but it nonetheless gradually came to be accepted that in Ben’s absence I would do the firm’s routine viewing and bidding at London auction sales.

This was an essential part of my book trade education, for B. Weinreb Architectural Books Limited was a specialist business, and those who then worked for specialist firms had no reason in the normal course of their employment to have much contact with the generality of the antiquarian book trade. Additionally, Ben, although possessing an astonishingly wide range of bookseller friends at all levels of the trade, was not on universally easy terms with other booksellers, and it was only via the sale room that it was possible to get a feel for the strengths and failings of the major London firms. I still regard it as necessary for any junior antiquarian bookseller to sit through sales and to take note of what happens to lots within his or her own area of interest, even if the lots that he or she is in a position to buy are themselves few.

As to the Weinreb business itself, Ben was always a voracious purchaser of books, and although his employees sometimes muttered about visits to country bookshops which resulted in the unloading from his car on a Monday morning nothing more remarkable than odd volumes of periodicals and multiple copies of interwar publications by R.Randal Phillips, we had no reservations about his skill at spotting everything worth buying at the annual ABA London Book Fair or indeed about his knack in discerning the potential of a lot underrated by our sale room rivals. It is sometimes suggested by those who were then his competitors that Ben’s willingness to purchase what others thought were dull books of the nineteenth century reflected a lack of taste, but the truth is that he had discovered a niche of his own in the market and was able to handle over the years the most extraordinary range of undervalued books of the mid-nineteenth century or later. Nor was he at all at a loss on those occasions when great architectural books arrived in quantity at auction: the Kenny sales, at which he was an extensive and intelligent buyer, were before my time, but I have marked copies of the 1975 William Beckford – Earl of Rosebery sale at Sothebys, and of the 1983 “Property of a Nobleman” sale at Christies, and the firm’s purchases at both sales seemed both at the time and in retrospect to have been admirably well-judged. The downside of any bookseller’s well-judged book buying is that one’s customers tend not to be as discerning and as flush with funds as ought to be the case in any ideal universe, and it has to be said that there were times when it looked likely that Ben Weinreb would end up, like the original Bernard Quaritch, with the largest stock of antiquarian books in the world but without a penny to his name. Happily, he was able to dispose of the business for a decent sum at the end of 1986 to a family company of Sir Evelyn de Rothschild’s, and on the proceeds of my own modest minority shareholding in the Weinreb firm I was soon afterwards able to found Hugh Pagan Limited, specialist dealers in books on architecture and the allied arts, with my wife (a barrister specialising in international taxation) as a fellow director and company secretary. Our first catalogue arrived from the printers in October 1987, on the day before the great storm which wreaked devastation throughout the south-east of England, and to the usual administrative troubles that affect fledgling businesses was added the need to discover whether the trees that had fallen across our local roads would be cleared in time for a post office van to collect our sacks of catalogues. But all was well, and after a few sooner-than-expected telephone enquiries at the weekend enough of the books sold without difficulty in the following week to show that the business was on its way, and it has ticked over ever since.

We have now issued sixty-eight catalogues, all in the illustrated double-column format on which we originally decided. In the nature of things, some have sold well or even very well, and others not so well, but they have been decidedly profitable to us over the period as a whole and we have been sufficiently proud of them to have a few copies printed of an index to the first twenty-five and to follow this up with a further index to volumes twentysix to fifty. The great age of selling antiquarian books by printed catalogue may now have passed, but in our experience the arrival of a catalogue on customers’ desks or doormats still reminds them more effectively than any other means of communication that there are books that they want and that they have money in the bank or budgets that need spending. That is not to say that we have overlooked the possibilities opened up by the internet for booksellers such as ourselves who neither have shop premises nor regularly exhibit at UK book fairs, and we now have our own web site – – on which we are able to put up not just the texts of our catalogues proper, but also the text of shorter “supplementary lists” (of which we have issued seventy-nine since 1995), and a selection of books from our current stock. We have also placed on our website notes and news that we think may be of interest to those who visit the site.

Since 2007 we have been based in the lovely New Forest National Park in the Hampshire village of Brockenhurst.  A move from London which would not have been possible without the new facilities for business offered by the internet.

The day-to-day routine of every antiquarian bookseller’s life still rotates around such fixed points as the arrival of the post (now email as well as snail mail), the costing-in, collating and cataloguing of the latest acquisitions, the despatch of parcels to customers, and the need to combine as efficiently as possible appointments with customers and visits to one’s bank, to reference libraries and to whatever sales currently need viewing or attending. If some of these are simply chores, the rest have an endless capacity to surprise and please, and as I have often said to my non-bookseller friends, it is the sheer variety of what a bookseller has to juggle with that makes the trade so engrossing (imagine the boredom by comparison of sitting in a show room in St.James’s with just sixteen Old Master paintings, wonderful though they may be).

What is more, there are still remarkable finds to be made by those with eyes to see. In our firm’s catalogue no.3, issued in June 1988, we offered for sale a small mid-eighteenth century French octavo volume into which an early owner, the architect Robert Mylne, had pasted three original drawings by Sir Christopher Wren. The volume derived from lot 121 of a Christie’s South Kensington sale on 18 March that year, of which the catalogue description read : “Almanacs – The Ladies’ Diary … for the year 1784 … contemporary crimson morocco, gilt, extremities rubbed, upper cover slightly affected by damp ; and 19 others, mostly 18th century publications”. Ours was one of the “19 others” and this was the only occasion in forty-one years of sale room experience on which I have stood watching in the auction room until the last second of the time allotted for viewing had elapsed, just in case some reprobate slipped the book across into another equally undescribed multiple lot ! How Christie’s came to miss the book when cataloguing beggars belief, for a contemporary inscription at the foot of the title leaf drew attention to the drawings, and the volume was certainly spotted by at least one other prospective purchaser on the day of the sale, for the lot realised about seven times its top estimate, although still nowhere near its true market value. Bibliophiles were later informed by the usually omniscient sale room correspondent of The Book Collector that the best item in the sale was an Irish masonic binding of 1839, a statement that generated predictable mirth in the Pagan household.

Finally, although I never got round to writing my Oxford thesis, I have managed to pursue with some measure of success a parallel existence as an authority on the history of the British coinage, which brought me the Presidency of the British Numismatic Society and election to the Society of Antiquaries of London in the mid 1980s, and although I do not propose to add indefinitely to my parallel existences, it is a common trait of antiquarian booksellers that we believe that we can master practically any area of historical or literary knowledge, and there are further subjects for all of us to conquer in the early years of the third millennium after Christ.