Carl Williams talks about “dealing some of the most anti-establishment things on the planet”

Carl Williams talks about “dealing some of the most anti-establishment things on the planet”
“I’m working at Maggs, the most ‘Establishment’ bookdealer you could ever imagine, and yet dealing some of the most anti-establishment things on the planet.” – Carl Williams of Maggs Bros. tells Beatie Wolfe about his dealings at the forefront of Counterculture.

Carl Williams is a former runner and rare book dot-commer who studied sociology and, later on, the history of diplomacy at the London School of Economics. He also worked as a curator on secondment to the Ludlow Santo Domingo Library in Geneva for about three years. He trades in counterculture and its origins and occasionally curates art shows of punk, agitprop and related material in Maggs Gallery.

Surreal Beginnings 

There wasn’t really much decision on my part; I sort of stumbled into bookselling or perhaps I half-stumbled when a friend called Clive Boutle gave me a Sunday job in his bookshop, which had a specialism in Surrealism and Pataphysics. In my hometown, the local library was good but a pain, the frosty women who ran it asked me questions like “Nietzsche? Was he one of Hitler’s lot?” when I ordered a philosophy book. Or, “Drugs aren’t clever you know” when checked out something off-piste by say Cocteau.  So, I always frequented bookshops, and as a boy I plagued Harding’s (the sole independent new bookshop of my hometown) with orders for paperbacks by “serious” French philosopher-novelists, William Burroughs and others such as Charles Bukowski’s Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, Michael Leigh’s Velvet Underground, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, and Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. I hardly collected them from the shop, but they didn’t seem to mind me ordering more and filling in the little manila request cards. I really liked the titles even if I barely read any of them.

We Don't Need No ... 

My reading lists largely came from the stacks of vinyl we all had in the seventies and eighties, i.e. the writers and thinkers who had influenced Lou Reed, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, Dylan, Gong, Hawkwind, etc. School, apart from the odd teacher, wasn’t very good really and constantly looked down on pupils’ reading choices as far as I could tell. Second-hand bookshops were informal academies where you encountered new ideas and people who didn’t quite fit (good and bad). You were encouraged to learn in a shop because new interests can equal sales. This informal role of the bookseller has been largely replaced by algorithms, Amazon’s suggestions and Apple’s ‘Genius’ function.

Golden Years

I worked in a bookshop as I said, but my real start came when I was a shelf stacker at the LSE library. A librarian there showed me the noble fragments of the anthropologist Raymond Firth’s reading library and I started to run these books of social thought, sociology and ethnography to the desks of Ian Smith (formerly of Bernard Quaritch back in the Golden Square days), Jolyon Hudson at Pickering's and Edward Maggs at Maggs. It felt successful for a while, but the books ran out eventually and I didn’t really know how to buy more so I hung around Bloomsbury Book Auctions trying to buy stuff. The trade was episodic and still is. I am experiencing that characteristic right now. It has great trough and peaks to use the sea analogy.

Lucy in the Sky

I specialise in so-called ‘Counterculture’ because when I began working for Ed Maggs at Maggs Bros. he introduced me to a Colombian collector called Julio Mario Santo Domingo. I found a very early sort of pictorial manuscript diary of the first, and probably only, LSD trip by the anti-muralist Mexican painter José Luis Cuevas with the only anti-Castro Marxist Cubano in Florida. Cuevas’s brother injected him with LSD, and the artist wrote and drew pictures as he experienced the effects: "I remained some seconds with my eyes closed. Fantastic pictures of great richness sprang up before me … I will try to draw myself. I have done some thirty drawings. In these, feelings parade in front of me mockery, horror, anguish, indifference, contempt." Julio bought it for his planned LSD Library.

Greatest Coup

Tempted to say that my first coup was when I nearly won the school elections as an anarchist candidate. My first book coup was when I bought a tome by William Stanley Jevons on logic that had been stolen from the London Library. The guy who stole it, the so-called ‘Tome Raider,’ went to jail and in an article for The Guardian, Jay Rayner quoted a respected bookdealer saying how honest I was. So a loss on one book gave me an excellent work reference in a business that is based on honesty and good character. Another highlight was when I bought and sold, along with John Randall, a vast collection of opium pipes, accessories and ephemera from a Cypriot resident and collector called ‘Wolf K’ aka ‘K Flow’. We have had it on show until recently at Maggs.

Berkeley Square to Boston

Many ordinary working people, like myself, have spoken at Harvard and added their tiny contribution to the overall culture of this planet of an educational institution. It was a great privilege, accorded to me by Houghton Librarian Leslie Morris to whom I am eternally grateful.

High Times

Working at Maggs, the most ‘Establishment’ bookdealer you could ever imagine, and yet dealing some of the most anti-establishment things on the planet. Also, working at the LSD Library in Geneva, talking at Harvard and getting invitations to cool stuff – like the pop-star friend who invited me to his half-century birthday party and placed my artwork-gift on the wall near to Francesco Clemente’s. Recently, working with punkers like Jon Savage, journos like Peter Watts, meeting Sheelagh Bevan of The Morgan Library and visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to see Julio’s music collection. Plus making friends with bibliographer Barry Miles and doing the first William Burroughs photo-show with him at Maggs Gallery.

Hard Graft

I don’t create new customers, they create me. I reflect their interests and they shape me Pygmalion like. I just try and respond to them and speak their language.

Pipe Dream

Forgery was only a problem once for me when I dabbled in ethnographic drug antiques and bought a Yopo pipe from a dealer in natural history. It was of course a horrible fake. Another time, I sold some propaganda to someone and then doubted the authenticity and immediately told her. She seemed to think that made them more interesting and kept them. Luckily, I didn’t have to learn in public. I am very dubious about a lot of punk stuff and 60s posters, I tend to rely on sourcing them from someone very good and respected – even if I pay a premium and make less potential profit.


As the trade focuses more and more on the book as an object and not as a carrier of culture it has got flashier and less sophisticated as a result; a bit like the contemporary art market.

Life Offline

The impact of the internet? Huge, of Gutenbergian proportions. Trade bookshops close daily or migrate to backrooms to deal books online and yet other ones open in fashion stores and deal totally offline.

Now and Then

I can’t see the future; I cannot even see the past. Maybe I should have opened a few more boxes in the LSD Library.

Wise Words

I’m no sage but honesty is the best policy and the only true vice is advice.
Beatie Wolfe -