Bright Young Things: Simon Patterson
Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with Simon Patterson, proprietor of Hyraxia Books in Leeds, England.
SP: Hyraxia, as a bookshop, officially opened in 2010. I'd been buying and selling for about a decade prior to this but more as a collector as our stock (or collection as it was then) was in storage which made it tricky to sell. My wife and I moved house in 2010 partly to have a room for our books and she started working on the business too pretty much straight away. She does most of the marketing and admin work, and I do most of the client contact and buying. We have a two-year-old and three-year-old, so it's been a pretty hectic couple of years.
We sell modern first edition fiction primarily, specialising in speculative fiction. We're gradually increasing our stock of science fiction, fantasy, horror and weird fiction. It's what I'm most familiar with. Saying that, a good portion of our stock is in regular fiction, and it's just as exciting getting a rare Evelyn Waugh in stock as it is getting a Tolkien - well not as exciting, but exciting still! We're also buying and selling fine press books and photobooks, though that's something we're just branching out into and the dynamics are slightly different, so it's pretty slow.
NP: You also are a partner in a children's bookshop, is that right?
SP: Yep, though that's really just in the embryonic stage at the moment. We've got the site, a small stock and a handful of ideas. Building the Hyraxia brand takes enough time at the moment, never mind building a secondary brand. But we do keep on top of it and do intend to progress it over the next five or ten years.
NP: How did you get started in rare books?
SP: I used to read a lot of fiction as a young child, but as I grew up I was encouraged more towards educational books. I read very little fiction between the ages of seven and 21. I remember clearly the first day of my first job as a computer programmer after I'd finished university. I was on the bus with a textbook and realised that I didn't need to read them any more. That lunch I went out and bought Salem's Lot by Stephen King in paperback. I was immediately pulled back into the world of fiction and haven't read a textbook since. A short while later I was looking for a copy of The Regulators again by Stephen King, I found a US first edition and bought it for a couple of quid. I barely knew what a first edition was at this point. When it arrived I thought it was a lovely object to hold, the cover was striking and the reading experience was quite different. I read it and sold it for twice what I'd paid for it. I used that money to buy a couple of other books, reading them and selling them on for more. Eventually, I found myself buying more than I could read but not spending any more. Moving forward a decade I found myself with a sizeable collection which formed the basis of our stock. The majority of that collection has since sold, and those that haven't are annoying me a little. I'm not sure how I made the transition to a dealer from a collector, I feel possessed.
NP: What is your favorite rare book (or etc) that you've handled?
SP: It has to be Ringworld by Larry Niven, it's not the scarcest or most-valuable book we've had but it is quite important to me. At the first book fair I attended (A PBFA fair in York, UK) I found a copy of Ringworld in the lovely yellow Gollancz wrapper. I had little idea of value at the time but saw it had a price tag of something like £2000. Along with Neuromancer, another yellow Gollancz book with a similar price tag, it just stood out as something very important and desirable. It was far too expensive for me, but stood out as a book I would want more than any other. As a dealer though, it was a feasible purchase and when my own copy arrived I had it on display in the book room for a good six months before reluctantly listing it. It was like a rite of passage. It sold a couple of months ago and I was a little sad - I put three return address labels on it.
NP: What do you personally collect?
SP: Haruki Murakami - signed books, limited editions and ephemera. As a collector I couldn't justify spending too much on a single book, and bought plenty of books that were only worth say £10 or so. When it came to making the transition to a dealer I found it easy to sell books that I found highly desirable, simply because I treated them as stock and they were very common. Murakami was different though as I had some uncommon items that I bought around the publication date, so the attachment was already there and there was the thought of appreciation in value. I still haven't made them available for sale but will this year - probably at prices that will stop them from selling too soon! Ask me the same question next year, and if I've been brave, I'll say that I collect nothing. I still think I collect Philip K. Dick too, but my wife reminds me that I don't and puts them on sale.
NP: What do you love about the book trade?
SP: The books. Sounds obvious, but I've come in from the collector angle, so getting lovely, scarce and often expensive books in stock is still a buzz. I admit that they're not as special as when I would buy for my collection but as my business has grown I find books in my possession that I would never have dreamt of. I'm very picky when it comes to stock. I mean, I won't turn down a bargain just because it has a chip in the jacket or fading to the spine but there's a good chance I'll dislike it and make it sit on the naughty shelf. There are a handful of books that I need to own before I can be satisfied with the business. Those books keep changing as I get them in stock, so I know I'll never get that closure, but I guess that's part of the fun.
It's also a fairly trusting trade. I like the way that dealers will send you a book to have a look at, and you can be comfortable with what you receive knowing that it's not going to be a problem to return it. I actually like it when I have a book at £100 and a dealer hands me a cheque for less than that. It sounds ridiculous, but I like the implicit trade discount - it gives the deal a much friendlier feel to it. It's an honourable trade, and a reputation for honesty is everything. I'm getting to know people in the trade a lot better, other dealers and collectors. I don't know that many people yet, but pretty much everyone I'm getting to know I've found very approachable and friendly. They're more like colleagues than anything else.
I love telling people I'm a rare bookseller, it's something I'm proud of. It's something I'll be happy to look back on a life of.
NP: Thoughts on the future of the book trade?
SP: Coming into the trade within the last few years means that I haven't seen things change. All the doom I hear of the Internet ruining the trade doesn't ring true with me. The way I see it is that the supply of rare books stays pretty much the same with minor fluctuations (authors go out of fashion, authors come into fashion) and the demand stays pretty much the same (the number of collectors and their combined buying power is pretty flat). What needs to be flexible is a seller's business model, constant reinvention.
I can see the number of printed books dropping dramatically over the coming decades, but to me this implies that the supply of new collectables will be lower. I'd like to see small presses having an increasingly important role to play. Publishers like the Tartarus Press, Subterranean Press and PS Publishing are producing books that are not only for reading, but are for collecting.
What I think we need to do as sellers is focus on bringing new collectors into the marketplace and this means being accessible and responsive, pulling them away from sites like eBay and offering them a preferable and more reliable alternative. I'm 100% certain though that the trade will persist.
NP: Any upcoming fairs / catalogues?
SP: We intend on doing our first catalogue this year, it will be an electronic version though I imagine. We're also doing a number of PBFA fairs in the UK, the York fairs, Harrogate, A couple in London and hopefully some others as the year progresses (and if we can get a babysitter!)