Bright Young Booksellers: Laura Massey (Revisited)

Today we are checking back in with Laura Massey, who was featured in our Bright Young Booksellers series over two years ago when she was employed by Peter Harrington in London. Massey has since gone on to open up her own antiquarian bookshop in London called Alembic Rare Books

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Please introduce us to your new shop.  What does Alembic specialize in? Where are you located?


Alembic is based in north London and specialises in books, manuscripts, objects, and visual material in the sciences, with stock in all major scientific fields from the late medieval period to the present. My particular areas of interest are alchemy and the early history of science; nuclear physics & the Manhattan project; natural history; computing; and anatomy. I’m also fascinated by popular science, especially from the Victorian era when scientific pursuits became recreations for the middle classes. Often you find that these books inspired children who grew up to become renowned scientists. They also gave women an entry into scientific fields that were closed to them at the professional level, and a number of women became best-selling popular science authors. These types of books are great gifts or starting points for new collectors, and I keep a good selection in stock.


That leads me to our other area, which is women’s history. In addition to books by female scientists, I tend to focus on the lives of ordinary women and stock things like scrapbooks, manuscript recipe books, diaries, and crafts. One of my most interesting pieces is a manuscript receipt for rent payment received by an Englishwoman in 1353, which demonstrates how involved medieval women were in running businesses and estates.


Remind us of your background in rare books:


I did my undergraduate degree in the history of science at Georgia Tech and spent several years as a student worker in the school’s archives & special collections department. There’s a great bookshop in Atlanta called A Cappella, and the owner Frank Reiss graciously allowed me to volunteer there while I decided whether to pursue a career in rare books. In 2008 I moved to London and completed a master’s degree in book history at the Institute of English Studies of the University of London. I then joined the staff at Peter Harrington, where I spent four years as general cataloguer and blogger, and also began specialising in science books, contributing a significant portion of the firm’s recent science catalogue.


How has the transition been from employee to shop-owner?


It’s been fantastic, and I’m really grateful for the huge amount of support and encouragement I’ve received from the rest of the rare book community. As for the day-to-day stuff, being a general cataloguer in a large shop is great because you encounter so many different types of books, but now it’s nice to be able to focus on the specific areas that interest me. I’m really enjoying making my own decisions about purchasing, and it was a lot of fun to design my website and logo. Though I do really miss the camaraderie of working in a shop, and being able to share my interesting purchases with colleagues.


In your original BYT interview, you mentioned that you were reluctant to open your own shop as you weren’t keen on admin and bookkeeping.  How’s that been going for you?


Much better than expected! The first thing I did when I decided to go out on my own was buy the Financial Times Small Business Start-Up Guide, which was extremely helpful, mostly in reassuring me that all the unfamiliar things I needed to do and know as a business person were relatively straightforward. And I’m apparently such a nerd that I’m even finding accounting software and tax law interesting.


At Peter Harrington, you were a resident blogger.  Are you still writing anywhere online?


I’m writing a blog for Alembic, and my first post is on a rare jacketed copy of The Salamander, the first novel about a flapper and the book that inspired Zelda Fitzgerald’s lifestyle.


Favorite book that’s crossed your door at Alembic?


This wonderful prize-binding that contains two works on the physics of spinning tops and soap bubbles. Prize-bound books were given to students as rewards for scholarly excellence. Most of them date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they’re often works on general topics, such as overviews of natural history. This example is special because the subjects are quite specific and unusual. But what makes it really interesting is that both the books were written by leading scientists who were fascinated by these seemingly minor phenomena because they encompassed some of the great concepts and questions in science. In fact, the work on soap bubbles was considered the definitive account of the subject. It’s a gorgeous book and represents the best of what science writing can be.


Started any personal collections beyond antique jelly moulds yet?


Not yet! My personal collecting is still pretty haphazard. But I am pleased to be branching out into scientific objects and other types of antiques as part of my business. I have a particularly nice diptych sundial & compass at the moment.


Any upcoming fairs / catalogues?


Nothing firm yet, though I’m working toward catalogue number 1 and my newsletters can be subscribed to at the bottom of this page. I also regularly post images of new acquisitions to twitter, facebook, and Google+.
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