How did you both get started in rare books?
I’ve been a haunter of secondhand bookshops ever since I outgrew the children’s section at my local library, so when I went looking for a part-time job while working towards a degree in London it was a stroke of luck that Charlie Unsworth of Unsworth’s Booksellers was in need of interested amateurs to help staff his then-new concession in Foyles on Charing Cross Road. I started there doing basic cataloguing of academic secondhand books and discovered the joys of collation and binding description under Leo Cadogan, who was then Charlie’s antiquarian specialist and shop manager. I was studying Greek and Latin and interested in the history of scholarship, so handling the original editions which I had read about in secondary literature was a strong draw towards that side of the trade for me. The completion of my degree happened to coincide with Leo’s decision to set up Leo Cadogan Rare Books, so I stepped into his shoes for Charlie, later moving to Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford when internal developments at Foyles meant Charlie had to close his concession there.
At Blackwell’s I met my wife and business partner Anna. She worked in the new books side of the business, so she’s now learning about rare books as we run McNaughtan’s together. Pretty much my entire history of paid employment has involved cataloguing or archives, but Anna has many other skills, having studied film and worked in radio and journalism as well.
When did you purchase McNaughtan’s and what do you specialize in?
We took over McNaughtan’s in August of 2015. We had been considering a move away from Oxford, which is a beautiful city but we felt after 7 years that we’d experienced most of it - plus it is impossibly expensive to settle down in that part of the UK. We were planning to visit Edinburgh anyway when we heard that Elizabeth Strong was looking to sell McNaughtan’s, and luckily it all worked out.
We have inherited some of the specialties of the shop - secondhand art books, literature, and the obligatory Scottish history and local subjects - and brought with us the interests I developed at Unsworth’s and Blackwell’s - Greek and Latin classics, the history of scholarship, hand-press-era printing, bindings, private press books. The elegance of type and press-work that was achieved in 18th century printing is something that I particularly appreciate, and Scotland has strong representation in that category, particularly the output of the Foulis Press.
How do you divide your roles at McNaughtan’s?
I am the book-buyer, antiquarian specialist, and accountant, while Anna does most other things. That includes pricing secondhand books, processing photographs of stock, handling the shop’s social media accounts and mailing list, and of course overseeing the Gallery, which hosts a new exhibition of original artwork every couple of months. This is something that we inherited from Elizabeth Strong, a keen painter, and it gives us a venue for promoting local and up-and-coming talent, as well as new and interesting things to look at ourselves on a regular basis.
What do you love about the book trade?
First of all the books - holding something really fine is a physical thrill, and there is always more to find and learn about. Having an open shop ensures that things I wouldn’t have thought to look for regularly walk in through the door, and also gives us the opportunity to occasionally introduce someone new and unsuspecting to the joys of rare books.
There is also a special sense of stability and purpose to maintaining the tradition of the trade in rare books: we are lucky to be able to handle the same objects - not just the same type of thing, but often the actual individual artefacts - that had passed through the hands of scholars, collectors, readers, and other booksellers in generations past. As a hobby I used to practice juggling large numbers of objects, in which keeping a pattern going is a constant effort against gravity and entropy, and I sometimes thought this was a good metaphor for human culture and our purpose in the world. Preserving and circulating this knowledge and these artefacts are ways of maintaining patterns of human ideas and achievement, as much as we can, against the inevitable forces of neglect and oblivion.
A typical day involves getting to the shop in time to do a little bit of prep (sweeping steps, emptying receptacles) before opening the doors to the public at 11am. There are always emails to be written, often auction or dealers’ catalogues to browse, and then books to research, describe, price, and photograph. We hope for there to be orders to pack and send, and put up with administrative paperwork and accounts. We also keep a stream of secondhand books flowing out onto the shelves, which requires regular efforts in pricing and reshelving, and all of this is punctuated by questions from customers (some interesting, some inevitably silly) and, we hope, sales.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?
Not long after we took over McNaughtan’s we acquired a copy of Barnes’s 1711 edition of Homer - this edition was a masterpiece of its type, compiling the learning of virtually all previous commentators and editors, and printed in ruinously elegant style at the editor’s own expense - in an attractive red leather binding. On closer inspection it turned out to have been the copy of John Urry, an Oxford scholar best known for an edition of Chaucer which represents either the nadir or the zenith of Chaucerian study in the early modern period. Furthermore, it had been given to Urry by Edward Harley, who with his father built one of the finest collections of manuscripts ever seen, including manuscripts of Chaucer that Urry consulted. And then the book was curiously extra-illustrated with several plates which turned out to have come from the first edition of Pope’s translation of Homer - except that they were bound into these volumes some time before Pope’s edition was published. The solution to how that came to be may lie in the fact that Urry was at the time working with the publisher of Pope’s Homer towards printing his edition of Chaucer.
A heady mix of fine 18th-century printing and binding (including elegant Greek typography) and notable provenance, touching on scholarship both at its most learned and most naively mistaken as well as high-end book collecting, with a bibliographical mystery thrown in - one would have a hard time imagining a book more relevant to my interests.
What do you personally collect?
My desire for rare books is largely sated by being able to handle them every day at work. At home, I personally collect a number of authors and subjects that I enjoy reading and reading about - focusing not on ‘collectable’ editions but rather on ‘completeness’. These include Anthony Hecht, Philip Larkin, John Lanchester, Umberto Eco, and A.E. Housman, plus books about books, classical reception, and other topics.
Anna is a film buff and looks out for books on the history of cinema and visual culture.
I like to read, keep up with new technology, and explore sweet delicacies (Edinburgh is seeing something of a doughnut renaissance at the present moment). Anna enjoys the rapidly developing vegan food scene in Scotland. But we just had our first baby, so he will be occupying most of our spare time for the foreseeable future.
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
I don’t think the trade is going away. It’s had boom times and lean times, and governmental failure to appreciate the value of libraries, plus the concentration of wealth in the hands of people who think all solutions are technological, will continue to affect it in the short term. But fundamentally, books will never stop having been the major way in which human beings communicated stories, ideas, and discoveries for centuries. Nothing that can happen in the next hundred years (apart from a total collapse of civilisation) will significantly affect the importance, interest, and saleability of objects that are already three hundred years old. And, as we’ve already seen to some extent, the more that people spend parts of their life in digital interactions, the more they value having a real experience - handling a nice book, eating a quality meal, visiting a beautiful place - as a special treat.
We plan to begin issuing printed catalogues, once we have been able to build up an appropriate group of books; in the meantime we issue a short list of 25 or 30 items as a PDF every month or two. The next one should appear in March.
Also in March will be the Edinburgh Book Fair, at which we will be exhibiting. This is one of the few events jointly run by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association and the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, so it features a range of dealers and stock that is broader than most fairs. In addition, this year the fair is the centrepiece of a new festival which I have organised dedicated to rare books and book history, called Rare Books Edinburgh. There will be talks, workshops, exhibitions, and other events from most of the city’s major bookish institutions, including the National Library, several departments of the University of Edinburgh and its library, and the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society.
Then at the very beginning of June we will be exhibiting at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair, at Olympia, a fair which needs no introduction.Images courtesy of Derek and Anna Walker.