RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS
12 May 2008
Someone wrote asking me to spill the beans on house calls. Sometimes known as 'call outs' or 'book calls' they occur when a second hand bookseller is invited to offer for a collection of books at someone's house. Sometimes it is a warehouse, garage, locker or even office but generally a goodish quantity of books is involved and one has usually found out on the phone beforehand whether it is worth going. Even then it is often not and one is back on the street in five minutes flat. However occasionally wonderful, exciting and rare books can be found - and in the most unexpected places.
It is a general rule that the wealthier the family selling the better books the books will be--which is why school teachers hardly ever have good libraries. Good books were always expensive. A 7/6 novel bought in the 1920s was equivalent to an outlay now of about £30 (and it is always good to see 7/6 on the jacket of a 1920s Bodley Head Christie.) However we once bought a marvellous collection of rare and collectable pre war books in fabulous condition from the estate of a fireman in Surbiton- an unpromising area. I recall he had a fine/ fine 'Road to Oxiana' and hundreds of similar books and even a few three deckers.
It is usually preferable to be buying from a deceased estate, living collectors tend to hold on to the good stuff or want too much for it- one of the sad facts of book life. One morose old Chelsea dealer was known for saying of house calls 'I like to hear of a death.' Someone once categorised the 5 reasons for selling books thus (the 5 D's) Death, Divorce, Debt, Disinterest and Displacement. The last refers to people moving houses, a very common reason. One could add 'Disease'- I was onced called to a house in Battersea where a man was selling every single book he possessed because he had become allergic to the paper in them. Marriage can occasion the turfing out of a lot of books, especially when two great collections are amalgamated. We were privileged to be called to the Notting Hill mansion of Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd at one point. Divorce as a reason is comparatively rare and a dodgy area, there have been occasions where one partner in a fit of rage has sold the others collection without permission and the books have to be taken back and lawyers start writing you letters...to be continued with anecdotes, advice and sundry indiscretions