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Interview with Deborah Coltham, the ABA's new Vice-President

Deborah Coltham has been working as a bookseller since her graduation from St Andrews University in 1994, when she joined the London firm of Pickering & Chatto as an apprentice to the Head of the Science and Medicine Department. She took over running the department in 1998, before eventually established her own company in July 2006. A regular exhibitor at a number of the major international book fairs, including London, New York, and California, Deborah has been a member of the ABA National Council since 2017 and is currently the Vice-President of the ABA, and the Membership Secretary. She helps to organise, and sits on the judging panel, of the ABA National Book Collecting Prize, and is currently a faculty member at the annual York Antiquarian Book Seminar.


Congratulations on your new appointment to Vice-President of the ABA. Over the years, you have held several roles on Council, how are you feeling taking on this new role in 2021?

Thank you! It is such an honour to be taking over the role, and I am really looking forward to the next couple of years with a mixture of both excitement and a little trepidation! I was so proud to join the ABA back in November 2009 and I have benefitted enormously from the opportunities that it has afforded me, through the ability to exhibit at ILAB fairs, and from the support offered on a daily basis from fellow ABA members, so many of whom are now friends for life. It feels right to try and give something back, and so I am looking forward to speaking for, and working on behalf of, existing members, whilst at the same time remaining as Membership Secretary and looking to encourage new members into the Association. I am only one cog in a larger wheel, however. We have so far managed to navigate one of the most challenging years in the Associations’ history thanks to the considerable experience, business acumen, and negotiating skills of the recent Officers of Council, working along-side the excellent Office team, and with help from Council members, as well as a number of other ABA members who may be less visible, but nevertheless provide considerable time, help and support whenever called upon. It is very much a team effort.

Are there aspects of the role that you are looking forward to the most? Any challenges you are keen to tackle?

I love meeting and talking to people, but life as a sole trader, working from home, can sometimes be quite isolating: never more so than during the last year. Being a specialist dealer inevitably draws one towards colleagues in similar fields, but through being a part of Council, I have really enjoyed getting to know members who deal in different fields to me, and seeing how the various types of businesses are run and operate, and getting a better understanding of what matters most to them, and how the Association can help them going forward. We may all be booksellers, but no two businesses are run alike! Which is one of the reasons our trade is so much fun. I am very much looking forward to seeing our new venue, Saatchi Gallery, for Firsts London in October, and the ILAB Congress next year in Oxford will provide a wonderful chance for all of us to meet many other dealers from around the globe! I know from talking to colleagues, that they are great opportunities to meet and forge life-long friendships. The team organising the Oxford Congress are planning a fascinating schedule of events and tours – it will be a fantastic few days and I encourage everyone to sign up when they can.

In terms of challenges, it would be quite nice not to have to tackle too many and that the next few years will be plain sailing for the Association! In reality, however, coping with the uncertainties of the ongoing health crisis will continue to be the main priority for much of the year I suspect, although the picture is looking more promising.

Longer term, I think it is important that the Association keeps pace with changes to how people work and run their businesses. The constant refrain over the years is that we always need new members. That will never change. Many will continue to emerge from under the umbrella and training of larger established firms. Whilst a few people have recently opened physical independent shops, the trend seems to be more and more towards sole traders starting up online. Many prospective members are former students of YABS: many are only working part-time. Nearly all are serious booksellers, but who may not necessarily cross paths with existing ABA members to then be introduced to the Association. We need to find ways to reach out to this wealth of potential new talent, without in anyway compromising the high standards expected of our members. In terms of gender equality – I think we are definitely on the right path. In terms of cultural diversity, however, we still have a long way to go to try and make the Association, and indeed the book trade and book collecting as a whole, more accessible. That is going to be a challenge, but one positive effect of the pandemic is that clearly a whole new generation of book collectors have emerged, feeling comfortable and confident to buy online. We need to continue to work at making physical fairs and book buying encounters less intimidating and more welcoming.


How has the trade changed or evolved during your time in the ABA?

The internet was in its infancy when I started at P & C in 1994, but it has always been a part of my working life, although it has obviously grown exponentially, and certainly since I joined the ABA in 2009, the ease with which one can now buy and sell online improves almost daily. You only have to look at how quickly Virtual Fairs have developed and adapted over the past year, as proof of this. Think how different the situation would have been had the pandemic hit, say, 10 years ago. Those with online presences, I am sure, have probably fared slightly better, than those who rely largely on face to face sales. The ease with which someone can create their own website has hastened the move towards sole trading perhaps, and I know many people sell successfully on Instagram and Twitter. Who knows what new platforms will emerge in the coming years. Not that I am tolling the death knell for physical shops – far from it! From my time on the YABS faculty, it is clear that people do still aspire to own and run a physical bookshop, and so many of our members already run highly successful operations, of all shapes and sizes. One of the challenges for every ABA Council is to keep an eye to the future, listen to what the Members want, and respond in ways to try and best help them. Nice rhetoric, and easier said than done I know! However, we have a wealth of experience and entrepreneurial talent both on Council and amongst our members at large – I am sure that as an Association we will continue to adapt and evolve, as we have been doing successfully since 1906!


Many of our members have had a challenging year due to the global pandemic, do you have any recommendations or words of advice for our dealers as they transition out of the lockdowns and adjust to the ‘new normal’?

It has been an incredibly difficult year, not only with the pandemic, but the reality of Brexit and the challenges that that has posed since January. Thanks again go to Daniel for his excellent guide notes which have helped so many of us this winter. I am sure many feel anxious about quite what the future holds, as I do. I think many have taken the opportunity to finally get around to updating and upgrading websites – but again if you have not quite got around to this now is the time. However, talking to others there is a real appetite for people to get back to physical fairs. ‘Build it and they will come’ to misquote Kevin Costner from Field of Dreams.

I would encourage people to take advantage of the online fairs if they have not already done so. I have certainly picked up new customers who would never have found the book by wandering up and down an aisle. They will continue in some form for the foreseeable future, even if running in tandem with physical fairs. Remember you can also send pdf catalogues to Riley, to then send out to the wider trade, if you are finding it less easy to get catalogues printed and sent out at the moment. The success of my local independent bookshop in Sevenoaks, which has expanded during lockdown, also gives me hope that there will always be a demand for physical shops – you just can’t beat a good browse!

I would like to hope that members have taken advantage of all the government schemes available to them, the various Bounce Back Loans etc, but it might still be helpful to reach out to local councils who have been offering grants to SME’s, and who no doubt have advice about how to handle physical re-opening. Perhaps there are local Chambers of Commerce who can provide advice? On the suggestion of another colleague, I joined the Federation of Small Businesses, and have attended a couple of online zoom seminars which have been quite useful.

Importantly do reach out to colleagues and other members. I am sure people do – but for someone who works alone, it is sometimes easy to sit and brood, when all that was needed was a reassuring chat (though I realise that does not help cash flow). At the risk of sounding like our floppy haired leader in No. 10 - ‘hang in there’. We will get back to fairs, we will get back to meeting up again for a good chin-way, and there is certainly an appetite for book buying.


If you had not become an antiquarian bookseller, what profession would you have chosen to pursue?

My Dad was a WWII submariner, and most of my child-hood was spent dreaming about entering the Navy. Until they decided that women could actually go to sea, that is, and as I can’t swim that put paid to that idea! Though my Dad was not a great swimmer either – as he once rather drily and grimly noted – being able to swim if you are depth-charged in the mid-Atlantic was not much use in reality. I would love to have been a professional musician, and still enjoy a good warble. That is what I have missed the most during this past year.


Have there been particular ABA members over the years that have inspired you or impacted you positively?

Almost too many to mention! I was very lucky to have started out at P & C, and was helped enormously by everyone there, and still count them amongst close friends today. A number of people took me under their wing when I started out, and I owe them a big debt of thanks. There are so many very clever people in the book trade, who work quietly under the radar, but who really are at the top of their fields. Every-day I wish I was more like them!


As a woman in bookselling, do you feel like the industry is making progress in being more inclusive?

Definitely although, I think as I have spoken about before, I was lucky, if in retrospect unusual, in that when I started at P & C in 1994, three of my direct bosses were women! Which sometimes brought with it, its own challenges at times. I confess that it was a few years before I really became aware that there was an imbalance. My role models were all strong, successful dealers, who happened to be women: they were expert dealers first and foremost, who were respected by their customers for their knowledge. It was only more recently that I came to appreciate and understand that other colleagues have had very different experiences, many of which have not been positive. It may have caused some chuntering from the galleries, but the Women Networking Initiative helped to move the dial in the right direction, and it is so great to see the increasing number of women owned businesses, as well as an increasing number of female employees. Dare I say it, but we still need to see a few more female directors, and recent applications for ABA membership have still been predominantly male … Hopefully that will even up over the next few years.


Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for women trying to get into the rare book business?

In many ways now is the perfect time to be setting up – and indeed from talking to Anthony Smithson, the majority of prospective YABS students this year are women which is great! Some of the very best dealers in their fields over recent the years, and indeed currently, are women. Just quietly getting on with running businesses, often juggling family responsibilities at the same time. Not that male colleagues don’t have similar challenges it must be said. There are some great role-models out there who I know would be happy to offer support and advice. It is a shame that this should matter at all really, but obviously it still does, and if my being a more public face of the Association helps in any way then that is great. What would be ideal, though, is if in the not too distant future, all that will matter is whether as a dealer, you are trusted, have integrity, know your material, treat your customers and colleagues with respect, and basically have good books that sell – without that, nothing else matters.


Visit www.dcbr.co.uk to learn more about Deborah Coltham and her business.