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Book Review: A Bookshop in Chelsea by Philippa Bernard

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Philippa Bernard with Adrian Harrington at Chelsea Rare Book Fair in 2023

A Bookshop in Chelsea, Philippa Bernard, (Lewes: Unicorn Press, 2023)

Reviewed by Adrian Harrington

What a treat! A real stroll down Memory Lane, paralleling my time on the King’s Road in Chelsea. Philippa’s engaging account begins in 1971, the same year that I joined my brother, Peter, in the Chelsea Antique Market at 253 King’s Road. By the start of the new millennium, Chelsea Rare Books had departed the world-famous thoroughfare. We had also gone, three years previously. The rent that they were paying in 1971 of £700 pa was a distant dream. The new rents on the King’s Road made many shops unviable.

Bernard and Philippa had bought the shop, with no experience of the book trade, from Robin Greer, renowned for his specialist subject, children’s illustrators. Their first sale was a book from the famous racks outside for a 50p coin. Six months earlier and it would have been a ten bob note. Cheques were universally accepted and seldom bounced. There were no mobile phones or computers. Reference books, for most dealers, consisted of a well-thumbed run of Book Auction Records! We relied on instinct and the helpful guidance of the trade and our customers. The world seemed to be very hungry for all areas of antique and fine art collecting, and books were no exception. Dealers from Europe and North America beat a path to London and especially Chelsea. It was this lively environment that allowed our intrepid couple to learn the ropes very quickly. Bernard’s avuncular style endeared him to everyone and Phillipa’s grounded good sense and friendliness quickly made Chelsea Rare Books the ‘go to’ place. I always enjoyed popping in there, seeking books that I hoped to profit from and a friendly conversation.

Philippa speaks warmly of her various assistants over the years. They were generally young women and all of them remained friends, long after they had moved on. ‘Amor Librorum Nos Unit’ - ‘the love of books unites us’, the adopted motto of the book trade, seemed very much to apply here. The bonds that are formed working in books stay strong and Philippa’s various accounts of all who came into her shop, being captivated, then captured, and finally forming lifelong friendships, repeatedly demonstrates this. Even a book thief gets a kind word. Once caught, Leo gave him permission to ‘steal’ from the racks outside. Value not to exceed £1, number of books per week not to exceed one. It became a routine with our thief happily waving his latest acquisition to Leo to demonstrate his adhesion to the deal!

The various accounts of the great, the good and the not so good echoed our own experience. Many rock stars headed for the King’s Road as did film stars, the aristocracy, several politicians and famous people in general. Many were or became avid book collectors. Princess Margaret was a visitor who also opened the ABA Bookfair one year. Philippa’s accounts of such visitors are a labyrinth of connected people, all demonstrating how lucky we were to be at the epicentre that was Chelsea. Chelsea Rare Books was a hub where bibliophiles gathered to meet and discuss their various artistic and book passions.

Philippa’s book buying in Chelsea is the one area where my own experience was entirely different. Chelsea Rare Books were always being offered books. Harrington Brothers, as Peter and I were then, never seemed to get that opportunity. It’s one of the great advantages of having a shop – it inspires trust. I have found this at my own premises in Tunbridge Wells. In Chelsea we were in an antiques market - the world’s first antiques market in fact - a situation I suspect that meant we were somewhat outside the mainstream of the London book trade. In fact, one past president of the ABA gave “they trade from a market stall” as a good reason to deny us membership of the ABA. For Philippa and Bernard, the offers of books came to them in abundance, including a collection of books from Darwin’s library, several of them inscribed! Happy days!

The Beaufort Gallery was the name they gave to their prints and maps department that they opened in the basement of the shop. In those days the breaking up of books for their plates was prolific and very controversial, as well as being against ABA rules, as it is now. Dealers from all over Europe and America were buying travel and Natural History books for the value their plates would have once separated from the binding. I know of one London bookseller who evicted an Italian dealer from his shop. The dealer had started to dismantle the books he had purchased whilst still on the premises, saying it would make transporting the plates easier! Philippa tells us that their source of engravings was from incomplete and broken books. The strange thing is that now that the craze has passed, many of the remaining intact books have little to no value.

Philippa’s amazing recall of the various book runners, thieves, awkward customers, great friendships formed and extraordinary collectors paints a wonderful picture of the times. As she has moved from selling books to writing them, I am grateful that she took the time to write this one and I heartily recommend it.