Real Books, Real People - Laurence Worms' Review of Rare Books London 2017
By Laurence Worms
A week of book-fairs and nowadays a whole series of related events – visits, talks and tours – all under a festival heading of “Rare Books London 2017”. No sparing of effort, much time generously given – applause and a heartfelt thank-you to all concerned.
Highlight for me was seeing most of the great and good of the rare book trade in Bedford Square the other evening to celebrate the return of the full Maggs Brothers operation to central London. When Maggs left their grand old premises in Berkeley Square, some eighteen months ago now, we were all left feeling a little bereft – a flotilla without a flagship. A toehold was kept with the little shop in Curzon Street and the intention to return in full strength was always made explicit, but the months dragged by.
The new premises are on the south side of Bedford Square – at No. 48, you will need to know this. I may be imagining it, but they seem even grander than the old ones. The building was actually acquired about a year ago, but fitting out a listed building for a new purpose in life is not done without much time, expense and anxiety. Consents are needed to do this, that, or the other, to a listed building – and Ed Maggs and his colleagues were concerned above all to get everything right – that’s always been the Maggs ethos. Where changes have been made they have been minimal, sympathetic, and all intended to restore the building to what it would originally have been, not what it had become with the hotchpotch alterations of the passing years. There were issues over floorboards and railings, delays and setbacks from suppliers – and that’s not to mention the sheer logistics of moving perhaps 100,000 books out of London into storage and then back again.
For all the anxiety and tension this must have entailed, it’s all worked – and worked supremely well. There are finishing touches still to be put – the sign outside (permission needed) is a temporary one until the real thing in real slate can be manufactured – but inside it already looks as if Maggs have been bookselling there for the last 100 years. The displays are perhaps a little more consciously “curated” than in the past, but that’s the modern way.
Book-fairs are all very well and certainly have their uses – I could barely carry home my purchases at Olympia yesterday and today’s bags from the PBFA fair were even heavier – but fairs can never be the bedrock on which a flourishing rare book trade is built. They are the icing. They don’t create collectors. I was forcibly reminded of this only the other day when putting the finishing touches to an insurance valuation of the book collection of a good customer and friend of mine who died, some years ago now, but far too young. He would never have started collecting as seriously as he eventually did unless he had got to know me gradually over the years by dropping into my old shop when he was passing. I could never have helped him put together such a valuable collection through chance encounters at book fairs. To do these things needs friendship, trust, collaboration and a fixed abode.
Only good bookshops can initiate and build these things – as Robert Harding noted the other night in his welcoming speech (Ed Maggs’ voice had apparently given way) – it’s all about real books and real people. That’s the Maggs way and, in my time and in my view at least – Maggs has not only been a good bookshop, but the best – the very best.
They are back in town. Welcome home. Bloomsbury now, rather than Mayfair – we can hear the geographical axis of the trade shifting accordingly.
This article was first published on 2 June 2017 on the blog The Bookhunter on Safari and is presented here by permission of the author, Laurence Worms.
Laurence Worms of Ash Rare Books is a member and Past President of the Antiquarian Bookseller's Association (ABA) and affiliate of The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB).
Image credit: The Bookhunter on Safari.