How did you get started in rare books?
I started as a Saturday boy in my local second-hand bookshop in Dorset, on the south coast of England. After visiting it for three or four consecutive weeks the benevolent owner said that as I was spending about as much time there as he did, perhaps I’d like a job? I jumped at the chance; I’d always been bookish and the idea of receiving payment to be surrounded by them was a thrill. Of course the reality was that it was often hard physical work tempered with highlights: recommending books to language students, visiting the houses of people disposing of books, the ‘treasure hunting’ aspect of processing carfuls of new acquisitions and of course taking the best new acquisitions to a monthly London book fair - one that I still regularly attend to this day. That was in the early Noughties, which was I think a great time to get into the trade. There was still a shop or three selling books in nearly every town in Britain and the internet was just emerging as a great way to sell unusual books. I graduated to listing some of the stock for sale online, picking up the intricacies of book packaging, and dealing with the often unusual requests of customers in distant parts of the world along the way. Our books weren’t always rare - but many of them sold. Handling first editions of my favourite novels gave me the collecting habit - modern first editions by Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Siegfried Sassoon were my catnip. Working in the trade allowed me to build it up quite quickly.
When did you open Antiquates and what do you specialize in?
My heady days as a part-time bookshop worker continued during the long vacations of my time at Oxford - until the shop bowed to the fate of many and closed after my first year. By this time my own collection had grown, and through haunting online auctions and city bookshops I was starting to acquire more expensive tastes - in fine leather bound volumes and original condition copies of important books (as an historian, an early Das Kapital in publisher’s bindings stands out in my memory) - and so the idea of setting up my own business during the summer of 2007, after my second year at university, seemed relatively sensible. With much practical assistance from my father, an accountant, and my mother, who packs our books and manages the shipping department better than I ever could, Antiquates was born in a spare bedroom. I still loved studying History, and after flirting with jobs in finance and law very nearly went on to apply for a Masters - but bookselling seemed just the right combination of exciting labour, detailed research and, to be perfectly honest, informed gambling. After coming down from Oxford in the summer of 2008 I was a full-time bookseller with my own business at 21. Looking back, especially at the wider economic situation around the world, I was lucky. Beneficial exchange rates and the availability of older books in Britain meant I sold and sold countless first edition copies of Dickens to destinations all over the world. Some of my early buys at auction were unwittingly good; I bought anything that I could see an angle on and learned along the way that the unusual - Hobbes translations of Homer and seventeenth-century English manuals for Nuns, as two examples - tended to sell more readily than the books that can always be found. This led to Antiquates specialising in early printed books, especially in English, and to establish a customer base in this field. This speciality remains a key focus of ours today - but we’ve added a few others, too: we now actively seek and market pre 1850 books by, for and about women and children, books with interesting provenances, library-history, and literary/social history in manuscript.
What do you love about the book trade?
The ability to buy, sell, and perhaps most importantly own - even for a short period - tremendously significant pieces of history and creative endeavour. The book as more than text continues to grow as a collecting trend, encouraging us dealers to look at the book as object, the book as art, and the book as historical record itself. If I’d have gone into the city then I wouldn’t have been in a position to discover, purchase and research books actually taken on first voyages, manuscript collections of little-known, yet sometimes rather good, amateur poets, or sammelbande of Restoration play books. I’d also have missed out on the tremendously collegiate nature of our trade. Despite the fierce competition to buy at opening nights of book-fairs, friendships endure the element of competition; I’m currently drafting a list of friends in the trade to invite to an Antiquates 10th anniversary party and becoming a little concerned about how large a venue might be necessary! In the UK we have even two booksellers associations - albeit with quite a bit of crossover - that allows us the indulgence of an annual cricket match.
Describe a typical day for you:
I’ll be busy cataloguing and researching new acquisitions or preparing invoices if I’m in our newly opened shop, or viewing upcoming auction sales if I’m on the road. As much as I enjoy working in the shop, I’m very lucky to have a tremendous cataloguing, admin, accounting and dispatch team that has allowed me to view more sales than many individual booksellers manage. I try to spend a couple of days each week actively sourcing books, but the good ship Antiquates will still be listing books on our website and sending catalogues to our mailing list in my absence. Of course this level of organisation is abandoned totally when we’re preparing for a fair - all hands get involved in preparing displays, choosing stock, hefting books and finalising the details of our travel and accommodation needs!
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?
This has to be the manuscript travel journals and autobiography of a mid-nineteenth century journeyman bookbinder, socialist, and keen European traveller. It took me about a week in total to read and digest before even starting the technical cataloguing work. As the journals of an apprenticed craftsman and committed working-class trade-unionist, these were so much more interesting than the oft-found journals of young toffs carousing around tourist hotspots. ‘My’ bookbinder visited foreign colleagues, discussed working practices, sought tips on toolmakers and noted the best way to avoid the attentions of avaricious stewards and customs officers alike. He also carefully bound the journals in handsome red morocco, with countless examples of ephemera - tickets, passports, paperwork, trade cards and timetables. Needless to say they sold almost immediately - the best books have a habit of doing that.
What do you personally collect?
I managed to keep most of my modern literature collection, small and humble as it is, when starting the business - and that remains as a ‘time capsule’ collection neither added to nor detracted from. I also collect books and paper relating to my old college, Brasenose - the more ephemeral the better! Finally, in recent years I’ve started collecting nineteenth-century editions of James and John Stuart Mill owned by contemporaries - especially politicians. Those owned by radicals tend to be heavily thumbed and even annotated, but those immaculate, un-opened copies with a proud bookplate of an establishment figure please me just as much. It just seems so fitting that those in the latter group felt the need to own the works of a groundbreaking political philosophers, but didn’t deign to even cut the pages!
What do you like to do outside of work?
As you might have guessed from my previous answers, I’m keen on politics and cricket. If it wasn’t also my job, then attending every book fair I could get to would be a firm hobby of mine!
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
The trade itself is now, I think, more dynamic than I can remember. Great educational seminars like YABs mean a lot of us youngsters can benefit from the experience of our elders. The ABA is also very encouraging to us: in the past few years a real effort has been made to introduction internship programme, regular young booksellers get-togethers and networking events that is already showing tremendous results.
I’m very upbeat about the future of the trade. In part I have to be as I intend to be in the business for a lifetime, but I think the reality is that the increasing availability of texts - especially online - doesn’t really detract from the rare book trade. On the contrary, in fact, the internet and developing acquisitions policies means that more copy-specific information can be recorded, and thus what might appear to be a ‘duplicate’ may turn out to be a variant. This teaches us all more about the books we handle, and the history that they reveal. Just this morning, for example, I ‘discovered’ an additional section in our copy of a rare English seventeenth-century surveying book that I can quickly see is not commonly known recorded. That took a few minutes to work out; surveying institutional holdings like that would have taken days or weeks of effort only a couple of decades ago.
From another perspective, I almost wonder whether the reduction in the number of general shops allows greater attention to be paid to those opportunities that remain. Sure, it might be easier to find a paperback copy of an obscure cookery book on one of the large online listing sites now, but because not everyone under the age of 25 is familiar with the notion of ‘browsing’, book-fairs are an often exciting novelty. I manage the annual Oxford Book Fair for the PBFA and have been thrilled to see a broadening demographic attending in the last couple of years.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
We’ve always got a few catalogues in the making. I try to ensure we issue two printed catalogues a year in addition to 8 or 10 pdf e-lists. Right now we’re focusing on a catalogue of books by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors, which should be issued in the next month or so.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I am very positive (indeed some might say a bit gushing) about book-fairs - so we do quite a few domestically each year, including the largest at Olympia and York. I’m just in the middle of cataloguing a few choice items for the Chelsea Book Fair - if you’re coming, please drop by and see us at stand 16!Image Courtesy of Tom Lintern-Mole.