A review by Joel Hyde
Out of Print and Into Profit: A History of the Rare Book Trade in Britain in the Twentieth Century
edited by Giles Mandelbrote. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006. 414 pp., hb. $55.00.
(Note: since I wrote this review of Out of Print and into Profit, a second printing has come out (2007), “with a few minor corrections.” Also, I’m sorry to report that Roy Meador, co-author with Marvin Mondlin of Book Row, died in early 2007. I reviewed their book in the August 2004 MWABA Newsletter, and I found myself still thinking about their book when I wrote the conclusion of this new review.)
In 1918 Bertram Rota was taken into the antiquarian bookselling business by his uncles, London booksellers Percy and Arthur Dobell. Soon after, he found himself at an estate auction, charged with executing their bids. Young Bertram was about to bid on his first lot, when:
Suddenly he felt an excruciating pain in his foot. He looked down and found that one of the Joseph family [also London booksellers] was standing on hi toe. “You do your bidding in the public house afterward, young man, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a poached egg on toast with your tea.” (From Bertram’s son Anthony’s autobiography, Books in the Blood, quoted in one of the essays in this book, Marc Vaulbert deChantilly, “Booksellers’ Memoirs: The Truth about the Trade.”)
This was Bertram Rota’s introduction to ringing, the practice–then legal–whereby prominent British booksellers colluded to deny the owners of private libraries a fair price for their books, and auctioneers a fair share in the profits from the sale of those books. The most valuable books in an estate were bought for a song by dealers who agreed not to compete with each other at the estate auction. The same books were then resold at a second auction or knock-out held only among the dealers, often at a nearby pub. Participants in the ring were reimbursed for items purchased at the estate auction, and the participants also distributed among themselves the difference between the prices realized at the estate auction and at the knock-out. Though made illegal in 1927, ringing persisted through most of the century, especially at provincial auctions, where booksellers encountered little competition from collectors.
This was not the genteel world of British bookselling depicted by Helene Hanff in 84, Charing Cross Road. In her defense, she was viewing the trade from a safe distance–and even close up the British bookseller may not be easy to get to know. The American collector Robert S. Pirie (in his contribution to this book, “Reminiscences of a Book Buyer”) recalls, on his first visit to a London book shop, being shown to the office of one of the owners, where the rare books were kept. After half an hour he had just gotten around to asking the price of a book, when a tea tray was brought in, with two cups on it:
“How pleasant,” I thought, but Mr. Harris’s partner arrived. I was told the price, agreed, and then was asked to leave so they could enjoy their tea. It was several years before a third cup appeared on that tray.
The authors of the twenty-two essays in this book–compiled and introduced by Giles Mandelbrote to celebrate the centenary of the ABA–are all insiders, all long-time British booksellers or their long-time customers. They admire but refrain from sentimentalizing the British antiquarian book trade. The twentieth century saw convulsive social, economic, and technological changes, not to mention two devastating world wars. Yet the trade adapted and persisted.
Throughout the twentieth century, the most catastrophic circumstance that the British antiquarian trade had to deal with–for its purposes–was the gradual drying up of its source of books. At the end of the nineteenth century, an agricultural depression deprived the landed gentry of the rents that were their chief income. Early in the twentieth century, inheritance taxes rose precipitously, and the First World War cost many estates their potential heirs. These circumstances led to the sale of many private libraries, some of them accumulated over hundreds of years–with the result that, early in the twentieth century, the antiquarian trade was swimming in books. A 1902 catalog of Pickering and Chatto—described by David Pearson (“Patterns of Collecting and Trading in Antiquarian Books”) as “typical…of the kind of catalogue issued by the upmarket London firms of the day”—lists 6,014 items.
But with the decline of the landed gentry, the British antiquarian trade also lost its chief customer base. Books which, in the nineteenth century, might have come up for sale in the British market again and again, were in the twentieth century often shipped abroad, mainly to American and (late in the century) Japanese buyers. Many books were sold to and tied up in college and university libraries, which grew rapidly in number and size with the widening of access to a higher education. The wholesale exportation of books and their immurement in libraries helps explain why a Maggs Bros., Ltd. catalog issued in 2000–and devoted to books similar to those in the 1902 Pickering catalog–lists only 99 items.
There is another important difference between the two catalogs, though, which suggests how the trade changed to meet its changed circumstances. Where the 1902 catalog lists an average of fourteen items per page, the 2000 catalog devotes an average of two full pages to each listed item. As its supply of books dried up, the trade became better at describing the books it had, and better at placing them with knowledgeable buyers willing to pay a premium for the right books.
The trade and its customers also began to redefine what sorts of books might be considered collectible. In the mid-1930’s, Ian Fleming asked the scholar-bookseller Percy Muir to help him purchase what the two men came to refer to as “milestones of progress” (as reported by David Chambers, “Dealers and the Specialist Collector”). Fleming’s collection eventually provided the core of the “Printing and the Mind of Man” exhibition of 1963, which advanced the idea that first editions of Copernicus or Darwin were as collectible and might be as valuable as those of Shakespeare or Austen.
Fleming and Muir were not the only collector-dealer team to help open up a new avenue for bookselling. George Lazarus teamed up with Bertram and later Anthony Rota to form complete collections of the works of thirty of Lazarus’s favorite contemporary writers, especially D.H. Lawrence. Bertram once described the guidelines followed in assembling the collection:
Gather every separately-published work by each chosen author. Buy the first edition, wherever printed, and the earliest issue, whatever its form. Insist upon fine condition. Try to enrich each author collection with original manuscripts, letters and interesting association copies. (Quoted by David Chambers, essay cited.)
Today this would be considered standard procedure by the many dealers in and collectors of contemporary literature. At the time the project was considered eccentric.
Another useful change in the antiquarian book trade came with the growing influence of the ABA (as described by Anthony Rota, “Defending and Regulating the Trade: A Hundred Years of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association”), which encouraged its members to be better informed about books and more ethical in their buying and selling practices. Not that the trade consisted only or even primarily of ABA members, or even of people whose activities were capable of regulation. Michael Harris’s contribution to this collection, “The London Street Trade,” describes the Dickensian world of dealers who made a living selling the leftovers from book auctions and other rejects. These dealers set up shop on city streets and sold their books off carts. Among them was George Jeffery III, an ex-paratrooper who inherited the business from his father, and who combined a comprehensive knowledge of books with physical strength and occasional ferocity:
Attempts to quibble over prices were met by a stony response and even—if pursued—by violent intervention as books were torn in half and thrown over the wall onto the Metropolitan Railway line, 30 or 40 ft. below.
For much of the century, provincial dealers had almost no market for better books, except for the occasional London dealer on a buying expedition. According to Paul Minet (“West Country Book Shops in the 1960s”):
In the provinces we operated far more remotely from the rest of the trade than dealers do today…. One applied experience to the pricing, often experience learned the hard way by once selling a book too cheaply….I do not wish to paint a picture of some ultra-rosy past, but rather the reverse. We were to some extent trading in the dark, although we were aware that the major London dealers at that periodwere making some serious money from American dealers and librarians.
The lot of the provincial dealer improved with the formation of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, which began holding book fairs in London and other major cities. At these fairs dealers could sell directly to high-end customers and, by viewing the booths of more experienced dealers, could get a painless education in the pricing of books. Internet bookselling offered similar benefits, and late in the century it was embraced by many provincial booksellers.
It is interesting to note, in Paul Minet’s essay, and in fact throughout Mandelbrote’s book, the absence of an elegiac tone. The sense of loss is reserved for individual people. This is James Thin remembering “Old” Ainslee, who presided over the “second-hand” (as opposed to “rare”) part of Thin’s shop in Edinburgh:
[Ainslee] liked to think that he knew all his customers personally….“Who’s that fellow who has just bought Osbert Lancaster’s Draynflete Revealed?” “I don’t know,” I replied “he just paid for it and went out.” “That’s no good,” he said. “Who is he?” Where does he live? What does he do for a living? What are his interests? Bookselling is all about books and people—nothing else matters.” (Quoted by Elizabeth Strong, essay cited.)
Old friends are missed by these writers–but not the bygone world they inhabited. In these pages there is little or none of the nostalgia that pervades Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador’s Book Row, an equally informative account of the book trade which I reviewed in a previous MWABA Newsletter, and in which the rather amazing story of the survival of the Strand almost gets buried under all the regret for the many Manhattan book stores that went under.
Maybe its refusal to succumb to nostalgia and sentimentality is the most important lesson that the Old World of bookselling has to offer the New. The antiquarian book business, in Great Britain as well as here, is currently passing through its latest crisis, with the arrival of internet bookselling (a subject treated only in passing in this book—and worthy of its own volume of essays by writers of this caliber). One can mope over all that has been lost, with the coming of electronic bookselling, or one can try to profit from it and otherwise just deal with it. This book offers reassurance that the present crisis also will pass, and sheds light on how we might weather it.