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Destination Dealers: John Atkinson Fine & Rare Books, Harrogate

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Could you give us a brief introduction to John Atkinson Fine and Rare Books?

We started trading around 2007, mainly online, using Ebay, and eventually other selling platforms like Abe and Biblio. We then applied for PBFA membership and started doing fairs, sometimes getting up at 4:00 in the morning to drive from Darlington to London! We’re now a multi-platform dealer and we have shop which has completely changed the business. Opening the shop has helped us sell books of course — though good stuff always sells — but it has ultimately enabled us to buy more stock, as people now know where to bring things to show to us. We began with a small shop in 2018 and then got drunk one night during lockdown and decided to open a bigger shop when all the shops were closed. And we did! It was mainly Polish larger that did it. And now here we are!

What was your personal journey into the rare book trade?

I was always interested in books because I was forced to read by parents, and got taken to National Trust properties on a Sunday when I wanted to watch the Italian football on Channel 4. They also used to take me to antiques fairs and things like that, so I always knew I could tell if something was old and valuable by looking at it. That’s probably what prompted me. When I ran out of money while at university I started selling football shirts. And then one day I was going through my mum and Dad’s attic, and they said I could put stuff on Ebay for them. I found about seven or eight Just William books that I’d bought for 10p each when I was younger. I put one on eBay and it went for £45, and I thought, well, I’m buying Real Madrid shirts from this guy in Malaysia at £6 a shipment, so I replaced that with books, and I made £50. Next, I bought a book from Anthony Smithson [of Keel Row Books], an Ian Fleming, and I became obsessed with the artwork of the dust wrappers and the aesthetic of twentieth century first editions. That’s why we’ve chosen to display items in our show front-on, with ladder-style shelving lining the walls. I always think it’s such a shame when you walk into a bookshop, and you get spine blindness from the volume of spine-on material.

So your specialism is really twentieth century first editions?

Yes, we tend to only buy first editions, first printings, many of them signed. We do have some old older books – the classics like Dickens etc., but we don’t really do non-fiction, though we also specialise in signed sporting books. We have a couple of typescripts and manuscripts, but it’s mainly the popular twentieth century titles we like.

Can you say a bit more about what drew you towards book and dust jacket design?

I was interested in the importance of the link between the author and artists, like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. But I also quite like the more ‘boring’ examples of book design. I like the Gollancz yellow wrappers, and the Penguins.

Do you have a favourite item currently in stock?

I recently bought a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s second novel I’ll Never Be Young Again. I think it's the second time I’ve seen a copy in the dust wrapper, so that’s a really nice thing to have. I also have a copy of Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis which is a really famous critique of the RFC with this super dust jacket designed by Roger Furse, who did a lot of the Nancy Mitford dust jackets.

Is there a ‘holy grail’ item you’re always on the lookout for?

I’ve always quite liked an inscribed Hobbit — that would be quite nice to find. I had a copy of Vera Britain’s Testament of Youth which came with these beautiful letters describing her work as a nurse during the war. I regret selling that. But I also think one of the philosophies of bookselling life (although I hate using that word ‘philosophy’ because it makes me sound like a football manager) is that special items will always come back to you. I hope to get that book back at some point.

Are you a collector yourself?

I’m not, but I collect other things – I collect whisky. But I find I can’t have my own book collection. I know a lot of dealers do, but I’m in too much danger of just selling it. I seem to have programmed myself in such a way that I can’t hold onto things. I’ve had about ten collections over the years and sold them all. I’m a bit addicted to the selling part.

Do you find you sell more online or through the shop?

Our business is 95% online, though it can flip the other way within a week. The material at the higher end doesn’t tend to go online as I wouldn’t be doing my job if I couldn’t sell that myself.

Do you have a favourite book fair?

I do like Firsts London. Its lovely to come down to London and stay at Sloane Place. I’m a Chelsea football supporter! It’s a nice walk into work along the King’s Road for four days, and I love the atmosphere you get at the fair. It helps that many of the people walking around it have money to spend and that’s the end game ultimately. I like Chelsea as well – it’s buzzy and a great way to get out of the shop and actively sell.

What advice would you give to a new collector attending book fairs?

It’s an old cliche but ‘buy what you like’ is always good advice. At the moment I would advise people to buy Mick Herron. First editions are actually quite hard to come by, but the success of Slow Horses on Apple TV has made it quite in demand. Slow Horses wasn’t published in big numbers but was sent to libraries. Dead Lions was rejected in the UK but printed in the US. Real Tigers was his tour de force and helped him on. So collect Herron but read them as well!

Do you have any favourite recent acquisitions?

I recently found an inscribed copy of Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, which is the first volume of his six part Second World War series. I bought it from a couple who came into the shop, and paid them rather good money for it. They found it in one of those library telephone boxes in a village near where they live!

Find out more about John Atkinson Fine & Rare Books