Sheila Markham in conversation with Tony Cox
My father spent his career in the education branch of the Royal Air Force. He had been a book collector since his school days, when Arnold Muirhead was his Classics master. Perhaps inspired by Arnold’s example of the collector- turned-bookseller, my father decided to do the same when he retired from the RAF. Arnold made his mark by issuing catalogues and trading from home, a style of bookselling which greatly appealed to my father. He had formed the idea of specialising in eighteenth century literature which he had always enjoyed and which, in those days, wasn’t much collected, apart from the obvious high spots.
Although Claude could live off his Air Force pension, he taught for a few years in local schools in Suffolk in order to earn money to buy books for his intended stock. He had been used to reading booksellers’ catalogues from his collecting days, and always looked forward to anything from Peter Murray Hill, with whom Arnold Muirhead had served his apprenticeship, and also from Blackwell’s and Quaritch. By 1975 he was ready to open Claude Cox, and to learn the business the way we all do – by going out there and parting with money.
My first scent of the world of antiquarian books had also come when I was still at school. Saturday afternoons would be spent in the many-storeyed dusty rooms of Thornton’s in Oxford -not looking for anything in particular, but taking great pleasure in handling an eighteenth century book, as a physical object as much as anything else. I was also involved in the printing society at Magdalen College School where we printed on an Arab treadle press. There was something very satisfactory about the bite of type into paper and producing something. We printed tickets, letterheads and other ephemeral items for the school, never with any great proficiency. I simply enjoyed handling type, and this early interest in the arts of the book was later to come out in my bookselling.
At York University I found myself just behind Brian Lake, Peter Miller, and Peter Allen of Robert Temple Books. Chris Johnson was also part of this ‘kindergarten’ of booksellers. Peter Allen and I worked on the student newspaper, which I edited and in due course handed over to Greg Dyke, who went on to slightly greater things. In due course I started my working life teaching English at Latymer Upper in Hammersmith, The school was convenient for lunchtime séjours at Bill Foster’s bookshop in Chiswick. By some generous freak of time-tabling, in my first year, I had Thursday afternoons off, which coincided with sales at Hodgson’s. My father was still accumulating stock for his business, and I was able to go to sales on his behalf. Fred Snelling, the auction clerk, had been a school mate of my father’s, and he introduced me to Lord John Kerr. They were both very helpful to me in my rapid apprenticeship in the world of the auction house.
Meanwhile my wife, Sue, had started a second hand and remainder business with a colleague from her days at The Economist Bookshop. We issued a catalogue under the name of Badgers Books, for which Sue did most of the work. It contained 250 or so items, mainly modern literature, particularly women writers in whom Sue was interested – Dorothy Richardson, Anna Kavan, and of course Virginia Woolf. The catalogue also contained a lot of books that I had bought from Bill Foster, including a box of John Masefield, who was then just as unfashionable as he is now. But the box contained some real rarities, for example, a first edition of Salt-Water Ballads. Masefield’s popularity in the 1930s coincided with the taste for vellum-bound, signed, limited editions, and so there were a number of ‘artificial’ scarcities, created for that first great modern first boom.
We advertised the catalogue in Bookdealer, having put together a mailing list from reference books at our local library. We received around 50 orders and were thrilled with this toe-in-the-water exercise. The catalogue came out towards the end of my three years’ teaching in London, but our fledgling bookselling career came to an end when we moved up to Yorkshire and decided to start a family. I was teaching at Bradford Grammar School, but we were living on the edge of the Yorkshire dales, fulfilling our romantic aim of getting out into the country.
Meanwhile I was watching from the wings as my father built up his business – knowing that I didn’t want to teach Macbeth for the next thirty years. By the time I joined the business, my father had got up to Catalogue 12. He had stopped making a loss, but wasn’t really making a profit. The thought of my coming down to Suffolk, with a young family, and living off the firm absolutely terrified him. But it was a question of now or never: if I stayed on in teaching for a few more years, my salary would have gone up as I reached Head of Department level, and it would have been harder to bridge the income gap.
I joined the business in 1979, knowing that I would have to make a very specific contribution. I couldn’t bring experience, skill or capital, but I could add a speciality to our catalogues and develop my interest in printing and the arts of the book. Soon after I joined the firm, we bought a large collection of books published by William Pickering, and/or printed by Charles Whittingham at the Chiswick Press. Pickering is a fascinating character; he took a great interest in reviving old texts, as well as publishing fairly esoteric nineteenth century material alongside such mainstream writers as Coleridge. He also cared passionately about what his books looked like, and so it was quite reasonable to have a Pickering section in Catalogue 21, our first devoted entirely to printing and the arts of the book. The catalogue sold extremely well, and gave me the confidence to expand into the field of private press books.
Within three years of my joining the firm, we were offered Tom Cook’s bookshop in Silent Street. Tom had run the shop in Ipswich since 1944 and had intended to die in harness, until his doctor persuaded him otherwise. My parents wanted a shop like a hole in the head, but I was convinced that it would transform the business. We took it on in 1982 and it became very much my baby. My parents were very supportive from the start and would man the shop as required. My mother did the book-keeping and a lot of the telephone work. She was very often the first point of contact that most of our customers had with the firm. Between the four of us – my parents and my wife – we developed a family firm. However neither of my children will be joining the business – my daughter is a doctor and my son a journalist. I’m not disappointed about this as I don’t see Claude Cox Books in dynastic terms. As I was almost in at the start, it didn’t feel like joining the family firm. My father would not have minded my saying that he wasn’t first and foremost a dealer. He greatly enjoyed the business, but I have tended to be a bit more hard-headed about it all.
By the mid-eighties, I had taken over most of the buying. When I’m at an auction, obviously I try to buy as cheaply as possible. The preoccupation with booksellers’ settlements in the auction ring is to some extent misplaced. I quite understand that the ABA has to promote good practice, and can hardly turn a blind eye to the law of the land. But the notion that it’s the purchaser’s responsibility to make sure that the lot makes a good price is obviously ludicrous. It’s the auctioneer’s responsibility, and he’s charging enough in commissions and premiums to have the necessary incentive to do so.
When I’m dealing with the public, I try to pay as much as I can. A lot of our best purchases have come by word of mouth, and a good reputation is enormously important. All my greatest moments in bookselling have begun with a door opening. Over the years I’ve been invited into a lot of homes, both humble and grand, and it’s a huge privilege which I don’t underestimate. I shall never forget walking into Loyd Haberley’s studio in the attic of Stoney Down in Dorset, and finding everything more or less as he had left it when he returned to the States in 1937 to teach at Harvard. I was able to buy not only copies of all his books in sheets, but also wood blocks and notebooks.
Several very good collections have come to us through the shop, although of course there are people who think that any old book will do for the old bookshop in Silent Street. The charity bookshops have largely taken over the run-of-the-mill side of second hand bookselling, and it’s impossible to compete with them. We do have regular customers who live locally and others who make a pilgrimage from further afield, whom we welcome with open arms. I’m very conscious of the second hand bookshop’s function as a meeting place, and the shops that do well are often those where the customer is made to feel welcome. It’s always a pleasure when young people come in and gaze in wonder at an odd volume of eighteenth century literature, which might cost very little. They just get a kick out of handling something of that age which is also affordable. It might happen to no more than one in 10,000, but perhaps the antiquarian book trade doesn’t need more than this percentage of the population for its survival.
The ‘tyre kickers’ are less welcome – a phrase I learnt from the Kendalls of Limestone Hills Bookshop in Texas, who came to this country every year and would spend two days combing the shop for stock. Tyre kickers are people who come into the shop and ask for some great rarity. When you produce it, they are horrified that anyone could be expected to spend more than a fiver on a book. They’re not to be confused with people who come into a shop just to browse. What is the point of having a bookshop if you don’t welcome browsers?
But basically the shop is here because it houses the stock. The printed catalogue is still our mainstay, and I try to produce one every other month. A lot of my cataloguing these days is fairly mundane, because one tends to plough a similar furrow and therefore to handle the same things. Ironically I spend more time cataloguing these days, because of the wealth of information instantly accessible on the net. The coming of the internet had quite a significant impact on our business. A lot of our customers around the world are academics. When they need to buy a particular book, rather than waiting for a catalogue to arrive, they can go onto the net and spend their money.
It became clear that we had to respond in some way. Initially we uploaded onto ABE around 4,000 books which hadn’t sold from the previous ten catalogues. The first upload was pretty dramatic and, within a month, we sold about half our back stock. The result was equivalent to issuing a couple of big and very successful catalogues. As every Internet bookseller knows, you never repeat the success of that initial upload. Nowaday I have a routine of uploading what’s left from a catalogue a month or so after it’s been sent out. It provides a regular trickle of sales, mostly through ABE, but also the ILAB site, UKBookworld and our own very basic website, which enables you to read our last ten catalogues online.
The internet has made rarities more expensive, and common books cheaper. Scarce items are more expensive because if you’ve got to pay more, you’ve got to charge more. In the old days a lot of dealers made a living going round provincial bookshops and picking up on their mistakes, and also on books that were outside their field where, in both cases, there was still a profit to be made. Now everyone can check the price, and that pecking order has to some extent gone. Common books have dropped in price because, if there are already plenty on the net, your copy will only sell if it’s the cheapest. However this isn’t always the case; there’s also an element of the devil you know, and buying from a dealer, whose copy may not be the cheapest, but whose reputation you trust. ABE’s star-rating system, which I believe is based on the successful fulfilment of orders, is not always the answer. I’ve managed to slip from five to three stars, because I’ve failed to keep my internet stock up-to-date, which happens very easily when you also sell books in the shop and through printed catalogues.
In the last fifteen years a lot of the new money in book collecting has gone into modern first editions and children’s books. The high-spot antiquarian books have kept going up in price, but the middle ground has just trodden water. The easy answer is that modern firsts are easy to collect. In a word, it’s all about condition. If you’re going to pay a high price for something, there has to be a degree of scarcity and, in the field of modern firsts, this is likely to be a dust wrapper in pristine condition. You can learn a few points, but by and large it’s not complicated and you can assemble a collection rapidly. The internet has made it possible to do a lifetime’s browsing in seconds.
There will always be a place for the book as a work of art which reflects great craftsmanship and stimulates one to read a wonderful text. I exhibit at the Oxford Fine Press Book Fair, which includes fifteen or so specialist dealers and representatives from a large number of private presses. It’s an opportunity to meet a lot of enthusiasts of all ages in a very buoyant area of book collecting. I’m never very convinced by the articles published from time to time predicting the death of the book. Apparently we will soon be reading novels on our mobile phones. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, it’s amazing that you can do this, but more amazing that you would want to.
The interview was published in The Bookdealer, The Bookdealer in April 2008, and is presented here by permission of Sheila Markham. Thank you very much.
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