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Sheila Markham

London: Sheila Markham Rare Books, 2014. First edition, 254pp. With illustrations. Price £20.

As in Markham’s first book, A Book of Bookseller (2nd edition, 2007), this continuation contains interviews with antiquarian booksellers, with the questions from Markham deleted resulting in monologues which cleverly give us the dealers often-convoluted route into the trade, their mode of operating and their views on the trade and its future.

As with the first volume it fascinates, especially in its demonstration, yet again, of the many diverse backgrounds from which so many members of the trade came.

I have come to believe that the motto of our International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), “Amor librorum nos unit,” is perhaps as true as any motto of any profession, ever. For, as in the first volume, the book is again the center of everything.

This continuation differs slightly from the first one. After an introduction by the highly respected Nicolas Barker, editor of The Book Collector where Markham’s interviews now appear, Markham herself contributes a long piece which quite appropriately details her apprenticeship and her entry into the trade. She also writes a tribute to Michael Silverman, the respected manuscript dealer, another fascinating character who is now deceased. Not just a record of his life in the trade, Markham’s piece is a warm homage to Silverman to whose memory she has dedicated her book.

This second volume is a bit disconcerting for me. The book is full of people I’d love to meet, to share food and wine and trade gossip with. Along with some old friends, there are some dealers I know and have dealt with but not met, and a number of dealers quite unknown to me. This brings to our attention a subtle change the trade is going through; now that the Internet has leveled prices many dealers don’t travel to scout anymore, so that dealers like me who seldom do fairs anymore, don’t meet many of their colleagues at all. Sad.

In this volume one might wish to encounter more curmudgeons in the mode of Peter Eaton, a socialist who ended up selling books from one of the old stately homes, and who despised and denigrated his customers; or the brilliant eccentricities of the inimitable Eric Korn. But we still are provided glimpses of some amazing characters and fascinating opinions and anecdotes.

How about, for instance, William Poole, a blind bookseller, and, more astonishing, not a bookseller who became blind, but a man born blind who in spite of that seemingly insurmountable obstacle became a bookseller and a good one too, a specialist in the classics. Almost unbelievable but here he is.

We are also introduced to Alfred Breitfeld of Buenos Aires who is much more courteous than I am. He mentions the common query booksellers get, “Have you read all these books?” “Of course not,” he responds with civility and attempts to explain. Myself, I now always respond, “Of course. Do you think I’d sell a book I haven’t read?” Surely there’s a limit to the basic courtesies when common sense is so ludicrously insulted.

And Elizabeth Strong of McNaughtons in Edinburgh who talks of the necessary ritual involved in doing business with the late, dearly-missed Edward Nairn, and his partner Ian Watson, the proprietors of John Updike in Edinburgh. Always, one does business at Updikes over a cup of tea. I’ve never managed to acquire a taste for tea (a heresy in Britain and even in my own home) but I drank a lot of tea with Edward and Ian – easily the most expensive cups of tea I ever drank, as Edward slyly and gently played on my book lust. But what wonderful books I got for my torture. And it wasn’t just the tea that was torture for we were invited for a wonderful lunch with them to their favorite restaurant in the borderlands, where Ian’s complete disregard for the presence of other drivers on the road meant we needed considerable amounts of Scotland’s real national drink when we got there.

I also find here my friend of some forty years John Windle, who I thought I knew well. But here are all sorts of things about him of which I was ignorant. John is a Brit who after an apprenticeship with Quaritch went to San Francisco and worked for John Howell for a while before going out on his own where he built a formidable reputation for himself, first in business with Ron Randall, then on his own. Now John provides us with another unique aspect of the book trade, for his wife Chris Loker runs her own children’s book business in an adjoining office. I buy many books from John for my own personal library (and even more from Chris – she’s not only prettier, so are her books) and so persuasive are his descriptions I never question the price, only if I can pay it. While he has lived for many years in San Francisco, John took off some ten years from the trade to take up Buddhism and to march for peace, consorting with the Dalai Lama. (“I had my sixties in the eighties,” he says wittily.) There is a picture of John somewhere striding along a highway in a peace march wearing running shorts, looking fairly ludicrous. This is almost unbelievable to people who have read his scholarly descriptions of medieval manuscripts or his learned writings on William Blake. But it’s true.

And Charles Cox, with whom I’ve done a fair bit of catalogue business in the last few years, exchanging many emails and invoices, but who I have never met; now I get his history and a photo as well (he looks very formidable but in fact he is quite amiable).

And I read about Timothy D’Arch Smith whose books and reputation I know and have heard about endlessly from our mutual friend Ian Young, the bibliographer of gay literature and a gay rights crusader in Canada and the U.S. for forty-five years. Now I know a lot more of D’Arch Smith’s fascinating career, than ever Ian told me. And being a pro who is able to read between the lines I can clearly see D’Arch Smith’s great contribution to bookselling, far more than even Ian could convey to me.

While I use here people I know there are many others in the book whose backgrounds are just as intriguing.

I found myself making notes in the margins of Markham’s book, indexing clever comments that I intended to steal for my own purposes later on (example: Larry Ilott’s brilliant rendering of every bookseller’s inescapable learning process. Booksellers pay hard cash for almost every mistake, but Ilott puts it more succinctly than I’ve ever seen; “Like everybody else in the trade I bought my experience.” Beautiful! It won’t take a week before I’ll have forgotten where I stole that).

What we also get here are strong opinions and views, and many subtle ones, which will impart very interesting information to a dealer, details which may be largely skimmed over or missed by outsiders, but which give a foreign dealer great insight into the trade in Britain. Outsiders to the trade may miss these subtle hints but future scholars won’t.

But I wasn’t many pages in before I found I needed two sorts of notes; one for wise and witty quote I wanted to steal, but another for the many brilliant and very wise business rules and ideas that I wanted to pass on to my staff and the younger booksellers I try to mentor.
Now, through the book once and on my second reading, I have pages and pages of notes lifted from Markham’s contributors.

Every member of my staff will be encouraged to read and reread all this wisdom, as will every young dealer I try to guide. Wisdom acquired often through great pain, in the real world.

I could go on and on about Markham’s two books and I intend to elsewhere, but here I have space restraints.

I wrote in my review of Markham’s first book, that I could write a review of every single interview in the book. That is true of this volume too, but with the space I have I can only advise any book collector, dealer, librarian or student of the history of the book to buy this book and read it. And read it again and again as I will, and as I do regularly with the first volume. I consider both of Markham’s books to be very considerable contributions to the history of British bookselling in the later 20th century.

Since they were conducted in Britain most of the interviews are understandably with British dealers, with a few exceptions. There is therefore another thing Sheila Markham’s two important books make clear: the North American trade needs to have its trade recorded in a similar fashion. With so many of the old famous bookstores already disappeared and now my generation of booksellers already gone or going, our history is in great danger of slipping into, first obscurity, then silence.

I urge the ABAA and the ABAC to take note.

-David Mason

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