I started my bookselling career in Bristol in 1982. This was a happy (some say) accident due to my being recruited as a shop-sitter for a local secondhand bookseller who preferred being out of his shop. A traditional attitude which I believe still exists within our trade to this very day. I had a bookish background and have always felt at home with them. The idea of rare and valuable books was unknown to me though. Books were just stuff you read and then looked after until you read them again, or not. After a few days of working in a business that I knew nothing about I realised that the bookseller appeared to be making a living (he wasn’t) and was even thicker than I was. Career opportunity!
Inevitably it wasn’t long before my ‘mentor’, who was perhaps not as daft as I thought, realised that he had a live one here, and the shop was mine ...
At the same time the shop next door, a picture framing workshop, also became available and my old friend John Patterson, who, like me, had been jettisoned from the caring, sharing world of rock n’ roll, felt that he could develop that and we could join the two shops and businesses together. To cut a long story short, that’s what we did and it sort of prospered for a lengthy period. I began to learn the trade though a long series of unwise buys funded by John's nifty framing skills. At that time we didn’t have wives, children or mortgages so we could push money into stock, and move most of it through the valuable network of PBFA London fairs and, a little later, ABA ones. And visits from the Harrington brothers.
In the early 1990s we knew we weren’t going to get too much further in a Bristol suburb that most people couldn’t find and had probably never heard of. So, after an evening with Graham York and a quantity of choice claret, we decided to open a second shop. This would be in Margaret’s Buildings, Bath, more or less opposite Bath Old Books and just up the street from Bankes Books. The idea was to create a sort of provincial Cecil Court, which I still think is a sound idea. It was certainly popular with customers. Some American visitors to Bath thought they had died and gone to heaven.
We quickly realised there was no way we could keep both the Bristol and Bath shops open and, for once, took the sensible option – stick with Bath. This freed John from the framing work and enabled both of us to concentrate our efforts on books. The shop ran from around 1991 to 2005, was much admired and we were both proud of it. I think if we had owned the premises we might still be there now, but a combination of things meant it was time for a change. Rising costs, static sales figures and a bit of restlessness all contributed. Amazingly, John and I never had an argument in twenty-three years of shopkeeping! We remain the very best of friends.
These days I work on my own, at home, and on a much smaller scale. I’m happy with that. So much of the tearing around auction rooms that I used to do has become unviable in the internet age. And the bookshop tour (which was always one of the best bits) is very much a gamble now, although I applaud our President’s efforts to revive it. I’m optimistic about the future of our trade. People will always love books – and they won’t be getting much for a secondhand Kindle (corners bumped, sllghtly rubbed, sun faded). They also like good booksellers who carry stock, are decent people and describe things properly.
I have been helped enormously by being a member of our two national trade associations. I am a passionate supporter of both and will, if asked nicely, do almost anything for either of them. I have been or am, manager of the Bristol PBFA fair, manager of the ABA Bath fair, co-manager of the ABA/PBFA Bath fair, co-manager of the current PBFA Bath Fair, co-manager of the legendary ABA Jersey fair, Hon. Sec. ABA western region committee (not a testing role, I know), Hon. Sec PBFA/ABA Credit Union, current member ABA Olympia fair committee.
I am very happy to serve the ABA, its members and Council to the best of my abilities. My political stance (re matters ABA) is unashamedly reformist and I feel that we need to have a serious rethink about our relevance to the next generation of booksellers. As things stand our recruitment successes, outside of the south-east, are pathetic. We are not reaching the growing number of very savvy internet entrepreneurs who are perhaps more active in our trade than many of us realise. A very few of these bright sparks wake up to the usefulness of fairs and networking. More of them need to know why they need to belong and that it's good to belong. Furthermore, there are many established dealers who should be members but who dislike our attitude and, in certain cases, prejudices. This has to change – the best and the brightest should be ABA members. I regularly hear (because I get around) really good booksellers, well known to many of us, saying ‘I’d like to apply – but I won’t get in’ or ‘I got turned down – I won't be putting myself through that again anytime soon’. We have got to get real, stop working to a rulebook set up for 1909 (with cringeworthy more recent additions) and make the application process more transparent. The future of this Association will not be in recruiting the odd employee of major London firms, who have found a bit of capital and fancy going it alone – welcome though they are. Nor can it survive populated by the few of us who do the London/international fairs. There’s not enough of us, as things stand.
I also believe the administration (i.e. Council) is absurdly top heavy for a small organisation. The Council reports, so carefully documented in our newsletters, make this abundantly clear. And then there’s our obsession with the past. I suppose this can be understood given that we are, to some extent, working with it. But how many businesses keep inviting the retired bosses back to chip in at meetings? Ad infinitum ...
Most of you know me pretty well. I am more interested in selling books than endless discussions, sub-committees, focus groups, quasi-legal guff and the rest of it. I really do believe that the used book trade needs the ABA. But not an ABA which is under-subscribed, over-regulated and, in some quarters, unloved.