September 2010 | L. D. Mitchell

Book Collecting for the Folks in the Shire

Book collectors come in all shapes and sizes.  Some of us collect genre fiction (mysteries, for example).  Others collect topically (e.g., books about gardening). Yet others collect a favorite author or authors (Dickens, perhaps, or Herta Müller). Very few book collectors, though, seem to try to collect everything that is published by a particular publisher.

Of course, there always are exceptions.  Lots of folks try to collect everything published by The Folio Society.  Others make an effort to collect everything published by The Olympia Press.  But I've never encountered anyone trying to collect everything published by the likes of McGraw-Hill or HarperCollins.  The larger and less specialized a publisher is, the less likely it is that folks will have the interest, time or money to collect everything that the publisher has on offer.  (The Folio Society strives to publish finely printed, finely bound illustrated books at near-trade prices.  Olympia Press focused on publishing authors and topics that other publishing houses wouldn't touch.)

I have discovered that I frequently am able (when wandering about some dusty labyrinth of a bookstore) to spot a specialty publisher simply by searching out odd and/or quirky titles.  If, for example, I spot a run of titles like

  • The British Milkman
  • Beach Huts and Bathing Machines
  • Peat and Peat Cutting
  • The Archaeology of Rabbit Warrens
chances are I've stumbled across a specialty publisher.

It was in just such fashion that I recently discovered, to my great delight, the specialty titles published by Shire Publications. Founded in 1962 by John Rotheroe, this British publisher has, over the past five decades, issued some 1000+ attractive paperbacks devoted to topics long ignored by most larger publishers: rural histories, mechanical and electrical bygones, household bygones ... what larger publishers often denigrate as "nostalgia" or "heritage" titles.  

As Steven McClarence noted in an appreciative 2008 article for The Times of London, up until fairly recently one was more likely to encounter a Shire title at collectors' fairs, country shows, local history conventions, re-enactment weekends and vintage transport rallies than in a bookshop.  This has changed with the company's recent sale to Osprey Publishing, a change seen most readily in the publisher's attractive, easily navigated new website.

Despite a recent facelift for most of its bookcovers, Shire still rarely publishes more than a few thousand copies of each title.  The aim is to remain focused on "the interests of ordinary people, however unusual or obscure their passions might be."  As McClarence observes, [t]he resulting books are pocket celebrations of enthusiasm, erudition and eccentricity, pitched somewhere between the academic expert and the weekend hobbyist.

(Folks interested in trying to collect all Shire titles, most of which--despite being long out-of-print--remain quite inexpensive in the aftermarket, might want to start with Rotheroe's own 1992 title 30 Years of Shire Publications: A Bibliography for Collectors 1962-91, depicted above.  This was updated in 2007 with the online only publication of 45 Years of Shire Publications: A Bibliography for Collectors 1962-2007.)