Books Are Meat and Drink
My apologies to those who have emailed P.J. Hilton to ask what has happened to me, and particularly to James who said he was addicted to my blog, (perhaps he cannot get to sleep without it), and wondered why I had stopped writing it. But it is not a case of ‘I blog therefore I am’, rather I buy and sell books therefore I am, since without eating the profits I would soon fade away altogether; and what an interesting period for buying and selling books it has been! Anyway, I promise to do better in the future, and have set aside the time after tea on Sunday to chronical the most interesting book-occurences of the week.
But before I do so, here are a few more favorite books from my beloved, if excentric, customers. Samantha’s all time favorite is Alice in Wonderland. She says; ‘I first knew Alice when I was six years old, my grandmother reading it to me, a few pages at a time, every time we visited her. I now own that very copy, in its torn red binding and treasure it.’
Tom writes from Georgia USA, that; ‘the only book is THE BOOK. God’s word. All my life I have lived in need of it but, last November, by the grace of God, I was brought to read GOD’S WORD’.
Jake says that he has collected books all his life and that his favorite books are a set of Bell’s British Theatre, that he found outside a shop in Brighton about thirty years ago for £1 a volume. ‘The edition of the 1770’s, with the wonderful costume plates, with all those great bustles and headdresses, and in a contemporary binding. But my girlfriend at that time, who was no bibliophile, was with me and kicked up a fuss because we were going to be late for some damn thing or other, and so I decided to go back for them next day. But when I got back to the shop next day they were gone.’
Heartrending;- we have all been there. I could write a tragic poem; ‘The Gap On The Shelf’.
But Jake I have some good news and some bad news for you. We have recently purchased two sets of Bell’s British Theatre and they will be available shortly. The bad news is that they will be priced at more than £1 per volume!
My Favourite Book
John from Sevenoaks in England says his favourite book is Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, and has been since he was twelve years old. (He does not say how old he is now.)
Sarah, on gmail, ‘loves with all her heart’ a title that I knew would be one of the choices,;- Charlotte Brontë ’s Jane Eyre. She has two copies, one inscribed with her time and her class at school when she brought it, the other on hand-made paper and bound in leather by Bayntum of Bath. I am to email her if I ever get my hands on an affordable copy of the first edition. But only nine out of ten Sarah as you do not tell us which of the copies is your favourite.
W.H. Auden, the poet, when asked what he had most enjoyed reading in the last year, answered that it was an article in a popular scientific magazine on, I think, the life history of jellyfish or crabs. Tom perhaps has something in common with Auden as his favourite is a dog-eared old catalogue of radio valves, ‘..my girlfriend thinks I am crazy, but I really get off on this.’
So whether it is radio valves, Mr. Rochester or jellyfish, keep them coming and I will report back.
A few weeks ago I blogged about one of the top ten questions I am asked by customers; ‘Which is your favourite book?’ This always embarrasses me because, like a child looking at a table full of sticky puddings, jellies and ices, I do not know which to choose.
If I had to name a work of literature to call my favourite favourite it would be The Wings of a Dove by Henry James. There is not a more subtle portrait of evil than Mrs. Lowder, she creeps up on you with her terrible respectability, and no moral dilemma in a novel is more ensnaring than Merton Densher’s. And I can identify my copy, out of the half-dozen copies I own (a good bookman or woman is never satisfied with just one copy);- the two volumes of the English issue of the New York Edition, in the green and gold art nuveau bindings with the Langton photographs.
Just after I wrote the last paragraph I was talking to my dear old friend ‘Chalky’ White about this and he said; ‘You’ve got to confess, you’ve got to tell the truth.’
So here it is;- my favourite book is not the set of first editions of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or anything on my shelf of Sixteenth Century books nor even the pretty little volume of Shakespeare’s poems from 1709, but - be honest Hilton - the beaten-up copy of a reprint of The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by ‘Q’, with a coffee stain on the cover, that has lived on the end of the bookshelf closest to the bed for twenty years.
This question of favourite books causes quite a furore, one well know member of the book trade, who shall be nameless, said his favourite book was a presentation copy of Robert Browning’s Poems to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but, under some pressure, confessed that his favourite favourite volume was Noddie’s Driving Lesson, which he had owned for sixty years.
So what’s your favourite book? Email me, email@example.com
Buying and Selling Books
Why no blogging recently? Am I dead; buried under a landslide of Patrologia Latina, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Annual Volumes of Punch and Notes and Queries; or drunk, like (I suppose, since I never read the book) the author of ‘Ten Days in a Bar Room’? Have I been recruited, in Mr. Cameron’s brave new Britain, to do something really useful such as poking my nose into my neighbours affairs and telling them how to run their lives? Have I succumbed completely to the joy of reading, always a great temptation sitting, as I do, surrounded by books; or worse, for a bookseller, to keeping all the best books for my own collection?
None of these. Firstly I had a few days off, supposedly away from books, other than beach reading, but it is funny how a bookman sniffs out books and I think I spent as much time looking at books as sunbathing on the beach. Secondly I have been buying and selling books like mad, and the books I have found have been fascinating, including a Seventeenth Century chemistry book, a beautiful illustrated book by Cecil Aldin and a fine set of the first edition of The Flowering Plants and Ferns of Great Britain, with all 248 coloured illustration;- it just goes on and on. When the recession arrives at my door I will let you know, but at present, there is no sign of it.
Why no Blog recently? The answer is one heavy word;- Parcels. Dispatching customers books so that they arrive safely and in the same condition that they left my shop is at once my glory and my nightmare. If I get someone else to do a parcel I find myself breathing down their neck, making sure they protect the corners of the book and double-checking the address. I wake up at night wondering if I should have put one more layer of cardboard around Dr. Sacheverell or tied-up Madame Bovary with string. And this week I dispatched a monster;- nearly 100 kilograms of carefully chosen books that are going to form the basis of a private library in America.
Today I relaxed and checked-out the Digit Professionals website. Did you know they favour CMS for Drupal, or that they offer an embedded text alternative and semantic tagging? I didn’t. Indeed almost the whole page was Greek to me. Perhaps if you know what any of it means you could send me an email, as I feel so inadequate. But they made a jolly good job of my web site and taught me to use it without worrying me with any of this jargon. Oh yes, their blogs well worth reading (not a CMS or an SEO in sight), whether you are interested in football or art;- there is certainly something I want to follow-up next time I am in Berlin.
Let the Books Speak!
Suddenly the weather has turned cold after two gloriously warm weeks, from Saturday onwards the sun has shone only briefly, the wind pulled at the plane tree at the end of Cecil Court and showers of rain surprised me in the Charing Cross Road, soaking my jacket before I could cover the few hundred yards back to Cecil Court. But, of course, Monday was a Bank Holiday (that is a public holiday), and as sure as I will never own a Guttenberg Bible, it rains on a Bank holiday weekend.
However there are compensations;- on a rainy holiday you can turn to books with a clear conscience;- no one can point out that the lawn is so overgrown that the dog gets lost in it, and today is the ideal time to mow it, that the window frames need painting after the winter or that a long walk in the country would do us all good. So on Monday holiday afternoon I came up to the shop and, sure enough, the sensible bibliophiles were soon browsing along the shelves.
The happiest customer was the man who found two proof copies of books that interest him. For the uninitiated I should explain that proof copies are copies produced by the publisher before a book is published, often before the binding is ready so that they are bound in paper wrappers, sometimes with details of the books publication scribbled on the cover. It is easy to mistake proofs for ordinary paperbacks, but they often repay closer investigation.
Some proofs are no more than the pages as eventually published without the final cover, but other proofs are gems, containing variations from the published text or scribbled comments revelling the author’s opinions about the illustrations (or the editor’s opinion of the author!), revealing the stages of a books progress to its ultimate publication. Best of all holding a proof copy can give you a real feeling of sharing in the birth of a book.
This happy customer found a proof copy of a new book of fairy tales published by Fredrick Warne. It revealed a scissors-and-paste job on an earlier publication so complicated that it would surely have been easier to start again from scratch. Text had been added, text had been deleted, text had been moved forwards and backwards and a new suite of illustrations had been inserted by cutting up photographs of the new illustrations and pasting them onto the pages. This left the copy of the older book of fairy tales looking as if it had been attacked by a motley army of badly behaved children, fanatical censors and incompetent members of a crafts class, yet this was the moment of creation of a book that remained in print for many years.
As I always say, look closely at the copy of a book you are holding, examine it carefully and let it speak to you.
“Which is your favourite book in the shop?” An American customer asked this morning, drinking in the atmosphere ( 50% dust, 25% desiccated leather, 20% unknown, 5% eternal hope).
“That one over there, on the top shelf in the glass cabinet”. I replied, but this was a lie; I admire the copy of Edmund Bonner’s ‘A Profitable Discourse …’ (1555), I can appreciates its historical importance, but it is not a favourite. Like a renascence monarch, an absolute prince, I have many worthless favourites.
“Which one is your favourite?” I ask her;- two can play at this game.
Fresh from the bright sunlight in Cecil Court she peered around the dark quiet shop.
“I like Nineteenth Century novels, but nice old copies with character.”
“Have a look through the Nineteenth Century literature over here and then tell me,” I suggest.
While she worked through the shelves I went back to the mysteries of my accounts. It is remarkable the skills one develops as a bookseller; I feel I could, at need, work as an accounts clerk, a van driver, parlour maid, tourist guide, handyman or agony aunt. My reverie (who is R. S. Jones and why did I pay him £27.58 on the 3rd. October?), is interrupted by a regular customer. I know what he will buy.
When he comes to the desk I am proved right. He has in his hands several of the odd volumes of Charles Dickens’s magazine ‘Household Words’.
“I thought you’d like those,” I ventured.
“Yes they look interesting. I only buy books to read as you know,” he replied. But in my heart I know him better than he knows himself, he may only buy books to read but, over the years, he has brought many nice large octavos in neat green or red cloth, like these.
Another satisfied customer.
“I’ll take these,” the American puts the two books she has chosen on the desk. For a moment my theory seems to brake down; one is a cheap reprint of an Antony Trollope novel, a small cramped book, but an unusual title, the other a rather handsome first edition of Walter Scot’s ‘Redgauntlet’; three graciously printed volumes in half-leather.
“Oh look at these!” She takes out one of the small books in the miniature bookcase that stands on the end of the desk. “Aren’t they cute. This ones lovely.”
The book she holds is a leather-bound copy of quotations from Fenelon just 8 cm tall.
“You should buy it,” I say encouragingly, “if you really like it.”
“But I’d never read it. I mustn’t.”
“Are you sure, you’ll regret it if you don’t?” I pause as I put her purchases in a bag.
She purses her lips and shakes her head in reply.
“But its so cute,” she said again putting it back in the mini bookcase.
So her Fenelon is still there, and I will always think of it as her favourite.
Books for Sale !
Stand by for a rant.
A quiet Tuesday after a public holiday. A nice warm day with a freshness in the air after the recent rain and a sense that Spring is really here. Enter the first browser. He browses methodically, starting at the bookcase containing new acquisitions by the door, continuing along the wall though Poetry and Twentieth Century Lit., misses out Bibliography and African Travel and moves on to History. As he goes he occasionally comments on the stock;-
‘Very nice copies,’ he remarks of the volumes of Dickens’ magazine ‘Household Words’.
’Interesting,’ he says, checking some references in the index volume of Pepys’ Diary.
Reaching the bottom right hand corner of the History section he turns to me and says;
‘I’ve got a couple of old books on the Civil War…’
After some discussion I am able to work out that they are the first two volumes of the folio edition of Rushworth’s Historical Collections, the first volume with the wonderful, cartoon-style map still in place.
‘I don’t want to sell them,’ he ended. ‘I got them for 10 shillings, about 40 years ago, in a little bookshop on the coast; it’s not there anymore.’
At this point in his circuit of the shop he had reached the staircase; he went downstairs and browsed through the books in the basement while I returned to answering the postal correspondence and emails that had built up over the Easter weekend.
Half an hour later he emerged and proceeded to look through the rest of the books upstairs carefully, a tax inspector examining the expenses for a business trip to Las Vegas could not have been more thorough. He was evidently interested in gardening since he spent 20 minutes reading a bound volume of a Nineteenth Century gardening magazine. (Conservatively priced at £25.)
Looking at his watch he returned the volume of Gardening Illustrated to the shelf.
‘I must dash. A lovely shop. You’ve got a lot of interesting books. It’s extraordinary there used to be good bookshops everywhere, but it is so hard to find a good second hand and antiquarian bookshop these days.’
With that he was gone: and this is where I start to rant. This is at least the third or fourth time that he has come into the shop, browsed and read for an hour, chatted to me, generally about an interesting book he purchased for nothing many years ago and the surprising dearth of good second hand bookshops, then left without buying a book. But if people behave like this it is hardly surprising there are so few second hand bookshops left; he remarks how much he has enjoyed his visits, but if he wants to continue to enjoy visiting bookshops he must buy books from them. Second hand bookshops are supported by the sale of books, they cannot be run on complements, reminiscences, or the hunt for a once in a lifetime bargain. No one owes bookshops anything;- people can buy books online or from a catalogue if they prefer, but if they want bookshops to continue they must buy books in them.
Look Around You !
The single word barked at me awoke me from my reverie this as I sat behind the desk in the shop this morning, taking a well earned rest after arranging a fifty volume set of Balzac on the top shelf.
‘Books about Alexander Pope, the Eighteenth Century Poet?’ I asked, playing for time, while my mind slowly turned from Nineteenth Century Paris to literary London a century earlier. ‘I’ve got a nice set of Pope’s letters-’
‘Nothing by him, only about him; and nothing later than 1750.’
There are quite a few single word enquires of this type; normally I at least know to what they refer, occasionally even this escapes me. I still wonder what the man who shouted something like; ‘Dray-horse’, at me wanted. Did he collect books on a particular type of horse? Was it a German surname? Had I misheard altogether?
In this instance I was unable to help and, as usual, the enquirer hurried off, without even glancing at the books on the shelves. Had he done so he might have spotted a book that I did not know was related to his interest;- contrary to some peoples belief, I do not read all the books from cover to cover, much as I wish I had the time to do so. He might even have had a surprise, and found a book on a completely different subject unexpectedly interesting.
Footsteps on the stairs and one of the regulars emerges from the hunt in the basement; she has been down there for so long I forgot there was anyone in the shop. She has found several books, including a battered copy of ‘Dr. Johnson’s Table Talk’ and a novel by Kalman Mikszath- not a name on everyone’s lips.
’I don’t know who he was’, I say conversationally.
’Neither do I,’ she replied, ’but it looks interesting.’
Dickens, Bibles or Cake Making?
‘What subject do you specialise in?’ A head asked that popped round the open door of the shop.
Now that is a question that always catches me out. When I see certain books I just know it is right to buy them and the shop is (reasonably) well sorted into labelled sections;- although is ‘Shakespeare and his Times’ a book about literature or history? But what I specialise in I do not know, and am always hoping someone will tell me.
‘Literature.’ I reply, with unnecessary firmness. ‘Or religion.’
‘Literature and religion.’ The head repeated, looking doubtfully at a pile of ‘The Journal of Psycho-Analysis’ which had come to rest beside the door.
‘And antiquarian.’ I added helpfully. ‘Oh yes, there’s also some science and travel, not that I would say I specialised in them. But there’s a lot of history and bibliography.’
I looked up, but realised he had lost interest, because the head was bowed over a copy of ’Tintinnabula’, an illustrated history of small bells. Now books about bells I don’t specialise in, although there was one there.
‘Are you interested in bells?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he replied and read on. You see the book had caught his interest, and that is what they do with me.
I can only remember two people who were clear about what my shop specialises in. One was an old boy, what London booksellers call a ’runner’, that is someone who goes from one shop to another selling books , often selling a book to one shop that he brought in another. This runner always called me ‘The Bible Man’, and its true I nearly always have a number of Bibles in stock.
Then one day he came into the shop and said, ‘I’ve got some more Bibles for you.’
Taking the large defective volumes bound in tatty brown leather out of his carrier bag I explained. ‘These aren’t Bibles; this one’s a history book, and the other a volume of Latin sermons.’
‘Bibles,’ he said. ‘Them big brown one’s called Bibles.’
The other person who knew what I specialised in said it was books about making cakes. Once, when she came into the shop, I had just brought a box full of books about baking cakes, which was exactly the subject that interested her. She and her friends returned over many years because they knew I specialised in books on cake making - had not she once purchased a bag-full of gems on the subject from me? But since that date I have never purchased another box of books about cake making. Bibles anyone?
Books. And Books. And More Books.
An interesting visitor in the shop today. A tall woman, casually dressed, who walked in and stood by the glass case you can see in the picture. After she had stood there for some time without moving, I thought I should say something.
“Can I help you?” A question I have asked thousands of times and got some surprising answers.
“I just love the smell of old books,” she answered, “and your shop smells great.”
Then she went on her way, having got her fix.
I sympathised because I too love books. I want to buy them all, because they are interesting or because they are great literature, or because they are about a subject no-one could possibly be interested in, or because they speak to me of an age with different values, different materials to work with and a different (and better!) pace of life to ours. And yes, because they smell just right.
Saturday is my favourite day of the week at the shop. There is a holiday feeling about it; in the week a lot of the customers are in a rush, only able to dash in for a minute in their lunch break or before their train leaves, but on Saturday the pace is slower, the mood relaxed, and customers can linger over books that interest them.
To the delight of one customer I had recently brought a collection of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century play scripts. I should catalogue these, but sharing the relaxed Saturday feeling, I have put this task off until next week;- many of them are in muti-volume sets, with several plays and illustrations in each volume, involving me in much counting and note making. If you are particularly interested in these give me a nudge and I will get on with it. Anyway one satisfied customer with plenty of new material to adapt for his puppet theatre.
Poetry and Shakespeare
Looking through the books that are now offered on this web site in an idle mood this afternoon, I was amazed how little poetry I have uploaded and absolutely no Shakespeare. The only reason I can think of for this is a Freudian desire to keep such good things for myself. This must be overcome, so look out for lots of poetry, plenty of editions of Shakespeare as well as plays by the dozen next week!
Antiquarian, Rare and Second-hand Books?
It feels as if spring is on the way in London this morning . The rain has finally abated, the silvery sun is doing its best to penetrate the mist and there is a sweet smell in the air that reminds me of the seaside. Even the London pigeons look brighter. There are more people on the streets again and, by lunchtime, the shop was really busy; so not much time for gossiping.
As the rush died down in the afternoon a genial American man who was buying a handful of English poets asked me a question;
“I know that second hand books means what we Americans call used books”, he said. “But what do you mean by Antiquarian?”
This stumped me for a moment. I know what I mean by antiquarian, but didn’t know how to put it into words.
“Antiquarian comes from a Latin word meaning old”, I said, playing for time.
“It means old books?” he replied, “how old?”
“Old, old books, as old as you like. But it means more than that, it means special, chosen, cherished.”
“Chosen by who?” He asked.
“By me, by you, by anyone, who has the wit to do the choosing.”
“And that’s what Antiquarian means?”
“Yes. Do you want to know about rare books”, I asked? Walking to the doorway I took a book off the bargain-shelf outside. “Poems by Elizabeth Burden, no publisher or date. That is a rare book.”
“At one dollar?” he asked, forgetting which country he was in.
“Yes rare: you will never see another copy. Unfortunately a customer for it is even rarer. A rare book, but not antiquarian.”
Bibles, Religious Books and Literature
A quiet morning in rainy London; but there is something satisfying about a wet Monday in London, with the pavements glistening, the tall buildings half shrouded in mist and the streets quieter than normal so that you notice each person passing, Not many people came in to the shop, but there were two people enquiring about Bibles. One wanted a standard King James Bible, with the reasonable caveat that the type should be large enough for him to read and the book small enough for him to carry, the other wanted a Roman Catholic Bible, old and suitable for presentation. The first of these I provided easily enough, the second I am going to have to do some work on. There was also an enquiry this morning for antiquarian religious books, which was welcome since I purchased a small collection of them recently and am waiting for them to be delivered. The growth in demand for Bibles and older religious books in the last few years is extraordinary; is it a sign of the times?
Nineteenth Century Literature - Buy It Now!
I am pleased to say there are more enquiries for what I call ’real’ literature, by which I mean Nineteenth Century literature; do people really think that Harry Potter and Agatha Christie (in original dust jacket, slightly rubbed), are better than Byron or Trollope in half-leather, or dear old Vanity Fair with Thackeray’s own illustrations? Now is a great time to buy Nineteenth Century Literature: the prices are low, the choice great; people will be kicking themselves in twenty years time when they are searching high and low for Browning or Ruskin titles and paying inflated prices for them.
What I purchase never ceases to amaze me. A man came in with a large printed text headed:
‘The World of Books’
in a nice plain honest oak frame. On closer inspection the high quality of the printing was explained at the bottom of the text; ‘Presented By The Nonesuch Press To The Bookseller’s of Great Britain New Years Day 1938’. The owner told me it had hung in a bookshop in Cornwall that closed in the seventies and that he was sure it belonged in a bookshop. It now has pride of place over the staircase.
Sold a biography of Benjamin Disraeli to an American customer who wanted to know how a man of Jewish extraction became leader of the Tory party and one of Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Ministers. I could not tell him but only point to Disraeli’s consummate political skills and the long tradition of pragmatism in the Conservative party. I hope the book gave a more complete answer. Perhaps we are going to witness another triumph of Tory pragmatism in the next election.
More developments in the case of the book-cover thief (see below). When I was looking at the books heaped-up in the basement of a shop in the Charing Cross Road, I saw two more examples of his handiwork. Again they were books of no value with nice decorative covers, and again the front covers were torn clean off. I though he might be an artist creating some strange mural, but another bookseller thought he might be a mad bookplate collector, who wanted the bookplates and not the covers themselves. Why do I assume the thief is male?
Enough of this. I have a couple of parcels to wrap before I go home, good packing is an art and a well made parcel a satisfying thing.
Bibles and other religious books.
My offers were accepted for both Eighteenth Century books, so I am now the proud owner of Stackhouse’s ‘History of the Bible’, 1742, in a contemporary full-leather binding and of ‘The Holy Bible’, 1732 in polished black calf. They look very well together. I cannot understand booksellers who despise Bibles and other religious books, surely they are amongst the most highly charged, most loved, most read and most influential of the books we are privileged to handle.
The web site is proving more useful, and much easier to manage than I thought. After a few tutorials from John, my adviser at Digit Professinals
, I am uploading more stock, dealing with the emails and even discussing links, http and other esoterica. I can thoroughly recommend Digit Prosfessionals.
Mysterious goings-on in the basement of my shop; someone has removed, I suppose I should say stolen, the front covers of two books. What their motives were I have no idea, the books were of no value;- one was a volume of Nineteenth Century memoirs, the other a reprint of Swinburne’s poems - but it annoys me. Beware whoever you are, I am on guard and armed with my History of the Bible (folio).
Eighteenth Century Books
An interesting day: two people came into the shop with Eighteenth Century religious books they wished to sell, both in interesting contemporary bindings. One was a Bible in a 'Scotish binding', the gilt-work on the cover as well designed as any I have seen. The other was a copy of 'The History of the Bible', folio 1842, all the parts and plates bound in one volume. This makes it a monster of a book, probably 8 inches thick. It is bound in brown calf, in the 'flat-back' style (that is with the leather on the spine pasted to the back of the pages. The extrodinary thing is that it is virtually undamaged. It is quite rare to find one of these flat-backed bindings undamaged these days, and to see this monster in good condition made it a red letter day. Let's hope they both accept my offers.