If truth be told my first encounter with buying antiquarian books came a young child. My American father was already an established used book bookseller with a love of poetry and modern first editions. He first started dealing in Maine in the early 1960’s then opened a shop in London after he settled to married life in the mid 1960’s. By the mid 1970’s he would take me on the odd trip up to central London on one of his his book buying journeys. As a 7 year old he always seemed to me to spending far too long in each bookshop we visited. However to his credit he did carry two old plastic carrier bags in his pocket which were nearly always full within two or three hours of book hunting.
We always seemed to have a purpose as we went traveled across London in the early hours of a weekend morning. Ducking down one small back lane after another to attempt to take the shortest route. My father always walked fast. My small legs struggled to keep up at first. The bookshops (early 1970’s Cecil Court, Museum Street & Charring Cross Road area) were a mixed bag. Some were well laid out with long rows of antiquarian books from floor to ceiling with their owners well dressed in tweed or a well fitting dark suit. While others were cramped and dingy places with strong smells of damp books, tobacco and old wood.
Some days were more memorable than others. One of my proudest days was finding a 1870’s magic book in a basement of an old, off the beaten track bookshop. The book was a beautifully decorative, thick and well illustrated with diagrams. It was also in excellent condition and stood out from the other books around it. My father was so pleased too, especially so when he saw the price. He gave me one of his rare smiles so I knew I had done well.
It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I once again got interested in buying and selling books. In my teens and early 20’s tennis was most assuredly my passion. After the tennis career reached an abrupt end in Los Angeles, I ended up back in the London looking for a new line of work. My father suggested I try selling a few books in Greenwich market (South East London), near the river Thames and Cutty Sark. With two boxes of books I set off the two miles to find a market stall and start the business that was to eventually become the Golden Books Group (now Goldiers).
Greenwich in the early 1990’s was a very hip and cool place. Lots of literary types and many odd characters. The traders were rough but mostly fair. It was like a village within a city. The book community was strong and welcoming with trade dealers alongside specialists. This was a great learning ground for a young trainee bookseller.
After a few months of buying and selling of used books everything started to become second nature as I browsed around the shops in Greenwich, South East London. The main places I bought were a little off the beaten track. There were one or two good quality Junk shops in Greenwich itself. Also within a bus journey was Deptford open air market, two local auctions and the hidden away storage containers at the dock yard. Yes you guessed it the dock yard was best for deals, though it took a lot of chatting and bartering to find the right deal.
Sales in Greenwich market were slowly rising to reasonable levels so I started to expand and took over a shelving area in a disused petrol station. As luck would have it this coincided with one of my best buys. On a sleepy Sunday morning a new pattern emerged of searching out book fairs/flea markets in the East End of London. I found my way for the first time to Brick Lane. A rather strange place in the early 1990’s. It felt so Dickensian with small undisturbed book and brick-a-brack shops lining the streets. As I soon learned the action was clearly in the streets and the side lanes. 100’s of street vendors would arrive in the dark to set up. Often there was a thick fog that would glare off of my torch making discoveries even harder. The thrill of the chase was there for sure but I found ways to see things first by befriending and helping the regulars.
There are one hundred and one stories from that time. The one I recall was amazing and a stroke of pure luck. I happened upon a newly started boot-fair not too far from Bow church (famed for the birthplace of true cockney’s) and rather hidden away from the public. If I didn’t know any better I would say the vendors were not too keen on being noticed.
After a few weeks of visiting and for some strange reason finding P.G. Wodehouse first editions I came across a man selling pet food and similar. I opened my mouth with the usual line, “have you got any old books for sale?” He replied yes but they are not here today. “OK” I replied and arranged to see him the next week. Before parting he strangely asked me if I had enough money to buy the books. I didn’t know what he was really asking so just said yes. The following week he was nowhere to be seen So I just carried on as usual searching around the stalls for any piles of books in the off chance there was a bargain lurking there. Spreading the word with my normal line and left just keeping the communication levels open.
The week after, I arrived at the boot fair a few minutes late and my eyes scoured the walled courtyard for the pet supplies man. Low and behold there he was tucked away in a corner surrounded by browsers and customers. I quickly walked over and his eyes lit up. He opened with “Hi, I have them books we talked about. Are still interested?”. Of course I was but kept a straight face. “Yes, what do you have?” I asked. We walked around to the boot of his car and he opened it. Immediately a hand came out of the crowd and tried to open an old looking box. The seller pushed the hand away and said “sorry mate, this lad has already bought it.” I was wondering what I had bought. lol
He opened the medium sized cardboard box and it was full of very early books. Just from looking at the covers they all looked to be from the 1500’s and 1600’s. OMG I started to shake a little as I handled them. They were stunning bindings mostly written in Latin or French. Neither of which I understood. Some of the original 16th century leather and brass binding clasps were still intact. One large folio had blind stamped hunting scenes all the way around the covers. I really didn’t have a clue what I was looking at but knew it must be good.
Eventually I asked the seller how much he wanted? Better to ask than to name a prices as I was very inexperienced. He thought about it for a few seconds. Being distracted by a small young Asian lady who had picked up a dog leash and was jerking it around for some very strange reason. He gave her a choice word or two and turned to me and said is £50 alright. Being new to the trade I just said “yes mate that’s fine!” Out came the cash to a nice big smile on his face. I didn’t even look around after that just made my way home on a near by bus stop and waited for the next red London bus. At that time all the East End buses were still from the WWII period. They were noisy and shook a lot but very reliable. After about 45 minutes the bus dropped me a few yards from my bedsit in Wapping (next to the River Thames) and I remember realizing just then how heavy the box was.
A day later I took the nicest book to my fathers book shop in Greenwich. His eyes lit up and he quickly offered me £200, which was a small fortune to him. It was the first time I had actually seen him excited at seeing a book.
With the rest of the books I decided to create my very first catalog. There were about 24 items in total including two sets of Boer War books I had recently purchased in the dock yard from a freight container. The catalog was very basic. Just a few pages stapled together with a simple design on the cover. I handed them out and all 50 copies were gone over that first weekend. By the end of the following week, so were all the books on in the catalog. They sold like ‘hot cakes’ and I made something like £500 ($750), which to me was a fortune.
My life and book business was on the up!