30 March 2009

A Conrad Ghost

We did a post a while back on books that are known as ghosts - a ghost is usually a work announced as a forthcoming book which never actually gets published. Sometimes this is because the book was never written, either because the author lost interest, got sidetracked or blocked, died or because the book appeared under another title or in a different form.

This morning I found a very decent condition World War 1 book 'The German Enigma' (Dent, London 1914) not especially scarce but distinctly uncommon in a jacket. On the back of the jacket some forthcoming publications are announced, including a new Henry James and a Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson. However at the top the list is the new Conrad 'The Planter of Malata' stated as being 'ready shortly.' In fact it never appeared as such, the story 'The Planter of Malata' was one of the stories in his 1915 collection 'Within the Tides.' Conrad apparently made a lot of money from this story and was peeved that 'Chance' and 'Heart of Darkness' which he considered greatly superior were comparatively poorly rewarded.

That's it. A ghost is announced. Rejoice with me. Will take the book to the June Fairs in West London for a bit of minor boasting.

28 March 2009

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived 1955

Philip Larkin. THE LESS DECEIVED. (Hessle, East Yorkshire: Marvell Press) 1955.

Current Selling Prices
$500-$1100 /£350-£750

One of the great Brit poets, probably the finest since Auden. His early works are much collected and can reach 4 figure prices. He is outpaced in fame and value by Heaney and even Hughes, in my opinion lesser poets, but should hold his own way into the 22nd century, if man is till alive. We just sold a copy on Ebay and Tom, our noted cataloguer, described it thus (it is a book with 'points'):-
This is the all-box-ticking first edition, first impression, first state of Philip Larkin’s breakthrough volume of verse. Having abandoned the juvenile and derivative lyricism of his early book The North Ship (Fortune Press, 1945) only to find the first fruits of his mature style routinely rejected by publishers, Larkin at last found a champion in the enterprising Yorkshireman George Hartley, whose Marvell Press in 1955 published twenty-nine poems including some of Larkin’s best and best-remembered work. ‘At Grass’, ‘Church Going’, ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’, ‘Toads’ are all here. Hartley printed 700 copies but began by binding only 300: this is one of those ‘first state’ survivors, answering the following called-for points
Flat, rather than rounded, spine
Misprint of ‘floor’ for ‘sea’ in the first line of ‘Absences’
Dustwrapper with price of 6s and rear printed in black only
Printed list of subscribers on the (unnumbered) pages 44 & 45
Overall, the book and its wrapper are in very pleasing condition: not price-clipped, not inscribed, not nicked or chipped. There is some very faint browning to the endpapers; some very faint fading to the dustwrapper’s spine and rear upper panel; and the spine’s ends are just a little bumped.
It made a satisfactory $610 (about £460). Russell in his firsts guide 2008/9 rates a fine one at £750 and it can achieve that with a following wind but you can't count on it. His 'XX Poems' published in Belfast in 1951 can make £2000 and is rare--he posted copies to England but put the wrong stamp on and some reviewers refused to pay the extra postage so some copies of the pamphlet were destroyed.

Larkin's famous line 'Books are a load of crap' often occurs to me on house calls where the book collecton is lousy or worse. Might adapt it as a codeword for a house full of doggish books -- a Larkin. Larkin was a sort of punk avant le lettre immediately before 'Books are a load of crap' he suggests 'Get stewed...' echoed in Rotten's exhortation 'Get pissed, destroy...' Certainly there is an over reverence for books, often among those who read little. It is common especially in country bookshops for dim shoppers to drift in and remark 'I love books ...aren't these wonderful. I have never seen so many... etc.' Usually they leave fairly smartly buying nothing. Books per se are not wonderful; think of a large collection of Naziana books or collections of other poisonous ideologies (or a shelf of skin disease atlases.) Mawkish reverence for books is rife on the internet--see Library Thing or Shelfari for the sentimentalisation of books and book collecting, and all that bollocks about a 'gentle madness.'

According to John Betjeman the first punk was the 1890s poet Theodore Wratislaw--something to do with his desire to shock and upset the bougeoisie. His verse has overtly gay tones and is collected as such. However I once cleared a house in Earls Court where the old party there told me his father had known Wratislaw and the pale poet had even attended a soiree at that very house. On being given a drink he had asked his host to introduce him to 'the woman with the large breasts' causing some raised highbrows among assembled decadents, especially when he left with her. That was a house call that was most definitely not a 'Larkin' -- alot of Smithers, some Carrington erotica, a decent 'Silverpoints' and even a copy of the rare 90s drug novel published by Henry 'The Tide Ebbs out to the Night'* by Hugh Langley- a book I have more than one customer for...

* Catalogued thus by us back in 2000 (last copy seen):- Highly uncommon decadent novel in the form of a journal and letters, showing an infatuation with French Symbolism. There are descriptions of decadent London rooms and a good deal of drug-taking including kif, ‘hasheesh’ and morphine to which the chief character becomes addicted, when his love affair with a young woman goes awry. The number of decadent English novels of this period is very small: this books appears unrecorded by any of the 90s bibliographies and, although highly accomplished, seems to have attracted very little notice in its day.

25 March 2009

'Literary treasures uncovered by the recession...' (Daily Telegraph)

Tougher times are boosting sales at second-hand bookshops, says Peter Robins.

This is an article by the excellent Peter Robins who interviewed me by phone -it came out in early March in The Telegraph (British broadsheet daily newspaper sometimes called 'The Torygraph' by Lord Snooty and his chums at Private Eye.) Frankly this thing of bookshops booming is erroneous, they are doing well compared to sellers of carpets or Jaguars, but some shops are hurting pretty bad and turnover very much depends on what books you have bought.

Through a combination of sheer luck, dedicated and unctuous networking and using various cunning stratagems learned from old and vanished booksellers, we have this year bought some exciting libraries, mostly devoid of dogs. Such is this 'bookshops are booming' thing in the news that an optimist phoned me up wanting to sell some books and said something along the lines of 'I imagine you can pay a bit more than usual because books are much needed in these difficult times.' The odd thing is he was being deadly serious.

Above is the photo they used with the byline 'Keen: a browser at Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Photo: Paul Grover.' Here is part of the article...
This has not been a good decade in which to own a second-hand bookshop, with discounted new books at supermarkets, growing competition online and from charity shops, and the rising rents of a long property boom. Now, however, there is something that, squinting hard, you might just describe as a ray of sunshine. It’s what the rest of us call a recession.
At Scarthin Books, a rambling independent shop with new and second-hand books in Cromford, Derbyshire, Dave Mitchell has grown used to things running against him. He says business was expanding nicely until about 1999. After that, with great effort, it has been steady. But this year his January sale brought its best results since 2003; “not back to the glory days before Amazon and Tesco started eating into sales, but certainly no 'downturn’ on the last few years”.
Mitchell does not separate his second-hand and new sales, but he sees two divergent trends in the second-hand trade as a whole. “For the traditional antiquarian shops, business is appalling,” he says. “But the big browsing shops are booming.” Other reports seem to bear him out. Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, and Richard Booth’s Books in Hay-on-Wye – heavyweight “big browsing” bookshops – each reported a strong 2008.
Some gains at the cost-conscious end of the market are also visible at Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road, London, where Nigel Burwood offers a bargain basement, discounted review copies and an eye for rarities that he also shows off at his blog, Bookride.com. “There are more people looking for savings, bargain-hunters and bottom-feeders,” he says. “And they are all very welcome.” He hopes that the weak property market might reduce rent pressures.
At the same time, he is coping with the other side of the equation: buyers for books with three or four-figure price tags have grown “very cautious”. “In my experience,” he says, “the rich shut their wallets just the same as the poor, if not more quickly.” And dealers seem to be buying much less from one another.
But there is one potential gain from the recession even for sellers of more expensive books. A weak pound brings eager internet custom from abroad.....For many people, charity shops have become an important source of second-hand books. Oxfam considers itself to be “the largest high-street retailer of second-hand books in Europe”; it has more than 100 shops dedicated to books or to books and music, and its online bookstore has about 50,000 listings. Barney Tallack, its deputy trading director, does not detect a recession-related sales surge “yet”. “But we are seeing sales levels ahead of last year,” he says, “which in the current context could be considered good news.” The recession is also a chance for Oxfam to find new shops.
Traditional booksellers are often sceptical about Oxfam, and will tell you that its prices can be higher than theirs. But Tallack does not see his bookshops taking trade away from traditional dealers – they bring more buyers into a given area, he argues – and says its prices are set by volunteers with local knowledge and specialist expertise.
But the character of a traditional second-hand shop is impossible to replace. It’s a question of serendipity. There is no online equivalent of picking up a battered-looking tome about “The Men of the Sixties” and discovering, on turning to the title page, that these aremen of the 1860s. Then there’s community. “The second-hand bookshop is the last oasis for eccentrics and outsiders and general antinomians,” says Burwood.
At the bargain end of the market, traditional shops can still compete on price. Although AbeBooks is starting to experiment with free-postage offers, a 50p or £1 book online is still frequently more expensive than a £2 or £2.50 book in a shop once delivery is included.
“We do think that we undercut the net by the time you’ve taken that kind of thing into account,” says Mitchell. In a recession, that could be a critical advantage. For full article click here.

Funny to see the word 'antinomian' in the Telegraph. We use it as workplace slang for unorthodox religious books and their collectors- occult, new age, Zen, spiritualists, Sufi, millenniarists, diabolists, Wiccan, pagan etc., Some hardbitten dealers refer to their New Age books as the 'touchy feely' section. In fact New Age is not the great seller that it was--in the field of religious books it is the scholalrly and academic tomes that sells and, of course, the occult (the blacker the better.)

In the Age of Dawkins and Hichens it is good to see these sections thriving. An Antinomian, as every schoolboy knows, is one who denies the obligatoriness of moral law, one who believes that Christians are emancipated by the gospel from the obligation to keep the moral law, faith alone being necessary.' (Chambers.) Ed Sanders at one point calls Charles Manson an antinomian--in the sense of one who invents his own religion. (Pic left- a late work by Austin Osman Spare- a drawing from memory of Crowley done in 1955.)

20 March 2009

The Road to Oxiana (revisited)

Robert Byron. THE ROAD TO OXIANA. Macmillan, London 1937.

Current Selling Prices
$1500-$3000  /£750-£2000

This is a redoing of a posting from November 2007 with the values edited and some new info on the 'Byronic character' mostly from D J Taylor's masterpiece of research 'BRIGHT YOUNG PEOPLE; The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918 - 1940.' Robert Byron greatest travel writer of his day,  aesthete and leading member of the Brideshead generation and connoisseur of coloured architecture. The Road to Oxiana, describes his journey to Persia and Afghanistan in 1933-34. 20 years ago the book was known to a few collectors only, although RB pretty much invented the modern literary travel book. Paul Fussell insists that "what Ulysses is to the novel and what The Waste Land is to poetry", Byrons book is to travel writing. 
 After it appeared in a catalogue for £500 and sold, one over zealous dealer travelled the length of Britain looking for it  (they had  quite a few shops back then) and asked every seller if he had a copy. It is not an especially rare 'rare book' so he found a few. The book was then wide awake and later started to achieve spectacular results in auction and is no longer fun unless you find it at the bottom of a tea chest in a sale that somehow has eluded being listed on the web. Trouble is they are  all listed and they don't use tea chests anymore, and even the dimmest and most chinless book auctioneer has heard of the book.

Robert Byron is referred to (by Philip Hensher) as a 'High priest of Camp' mainly from the set he ran with at Oxford (Hypocrites Club etc.,) His taste, sometimes called kitsch,  was  for things that others at the time disdained - like Byzantine art and Persian architecture, Georgian buildings, Victoriana etc., He was said to resemble Queen Victoria and occasionally dressed up as her for parties. He never gave up his youthful enthusiasms or his desire to shock; he lost friends over his insistence from the start that Hitler would have to be fought, and that the Munich agreement was a disgrace. He did not get on with Evelyn Waugh.  He was surprisingly rugged, his journey into Tibet in 1929, for instance, was by any standards extremely harrowing and physically taxing. This is covered in a useful work 'First Russia, Then Tibet' (Macmillan 1933)--not uncommon but can command a £100 note and a lot more in the jacket. His signature  is highly uncommon, earlier this year we bought a couple of presentation copies --including one of his first book 'Europe in the Looking-Glass. Reflections of a Motor Drive from Grimsby to Athens' (1926). We described it thus:
'Signed presentation from the author --'Mrs.Harrod - if only I had seen her more- Robert Byron.' This is Lady Wilhelmine 'Billa' Harrod who was married to the economist Roy Harrod and co - authored the Shell Guide to Norfolk with  John Betjeman, to whom she had been briefly engaged. In 1937 as Billa Cresswell she had been the secretary and only employee of the Georgian Group with which Byron was passionately involved; he said of her '...she would make a wonderful agitator.'  On her marriage to Roy Harrod in 1938 she gave up the job and this inscription obviously refers to that. Billa Harrod continued to agitate for the saving of beautiful buildings all her long life, Robert Byron was killed in the war in 1941.'
It was not a nice copy but went to a collector fairly smartly at £800.

VALUE?  A copy of 'Oxiana' in a decent jacket made £1400 + premium in 2004.  A fairly decent copy is on sale as we speak at £2000. The book may (apres le deluge) go up gently if modern travel writing becomes more collected. Recent auction records for less than great copies have been well under a £1000. The great proponent of Byron was Bruce Chatwin who has turned him into something of a cult. Meanwhile Chatwin's own 'Oxiana',  his first book 'In Patagonia' has declined in value--at one point it was knocking on a grand but can now be found for less than £500 'fine/fine' -- there are  too many about and it is possible that he is less admired than he was in the 1990s. There are several other Robert Byron rarities and 'sleepers' that I might address at some point...in fact the main one is 'Innocence and Design', a 1935 novel he co-wrote with Christopher Sykes (under the name Richard Waughburton). Interestingly the Macmillan's clothbinding is a pastiche of the patterned cloth often to be found on nineteenth century Oriental travelogues. I once found a copy in the one pound book room of a Suffolk mansion--the jacket was rubbed but it was quickly converted into a £500 note. Now worth twice that for sharp jacketed copies.

  The 'Byronic Manner'.  Waugh was known as being difficult, prickly and abrasive but in the bastard stakes he was a household tabbycat compared to Byron. Basically a rageaholic - as DJ Taylor notes 'a railway journey invariably meant a quarrel with the guard or an altercation at the ticket office.' At least once he was arrested for 'insulting behaviour' (trouble in a cinema queue- fined 19/6). As DJT demonstrates the BYT's were an insolent and troublesome bunch and he was their star performer, a supreme put down artist, master of the 'sarcastic backhander,  the thinly veiled threat...' Vide his treatment of Harry Melville. Melville was well known to the BYTs although he was well into his anecdotage--'last of the professional diners out' (Osbert Lancaster) he had been a friend of Wilde and had known Proust- he embodied all the 'fabled sophistication of the 1890s.' During one of the veteran raconteur's reminiscences Byron is said to have shouted at him 'Can't you shut up, you hideous old relic of the Victorian age.'

On his trip to Albania his travelling companion observed that he 'spent most of the time cursing. He cursed almost everybody who did not speak English, sometime violently, but more often in a pleasant conversational monotone, as though he were discoursing on the beauty of the countryside.' Oddly enough Chatwin was also had his farouche side and could resort to force if countered; Byron was keen on threats of legal action especially against editors who dared to propose changes to his text.

15 March 2009

Martin Parr. Bad Weather, 1982 + the world of the Photobook (according to Parr).

Martin Parr. Bad Weather. Zwemmer, London 1982.

A mere 62 pages in soft wraps with 54 b/w photos. Text includes a commentary by cult status weatherman Michael Fish. Parr is a highly collected and gifted Brit snapper (born 1952) who at some point was inducted into Magnum to the disgust of vieux humbug Cartier Bresson who described him as being from "a different solar system." MP is also responsible for the droll collections of 'boring' postcards, now up to 3 books -they have practically become a franchise. Parr has a 'whim of iron' as Powell said of Betjeman. Both top photos from this superb book.

Current Selling Prices
$250-$450 / £200-£350

VALUE? Copies on web are mostly £200 +, seldom less. Signed copies are more expensive but Parr is the Edward Heath of signed photo books, signatures add little. 'Bad Weather' is the kind of book you might find at a boot sale under a cold British sky for buggerall - it looks like nothing. Its value has stayed at this level for 3 years now. One prominent dealer says of Parr '[his] influence in contemporary British photography is unparalleled, but it is his contribution to the understanding and importance of photographic literature that may be his most profound legacy.' They are talking about his magisterial 2 vol 'The Photobook' which sits on a shelf beside me as I type.

Looking at the 'photobooks' I have covered in the last 3 years there has been, in most cases, an ineluctable rise in price. Possibly this is now stalling but so far it is holding its own. One caveat--in my experience when you are selling photobooks on the net it is often hard to actually get anywhere near the supposed value of these books unless you have very sharp copies of known rarities. Many photobook collectors are not burdened with money and need serious discounts and even time to pay; the core of richer buyers (often NY based) are probably feeling less cushy than in 2007, a few may even have been wiped out. Also it is safe to say that many modestly pitched items sell rapidly and silently against the higher prices; some dealers actually need money coming in...

Here are some notes:-
Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas. (1976)
Was $600 about 2 years ago now at least $800 (up circa 30%)

Sumo. Helmut Newton. (1999)
Was $8500 late 2007. One of 10,000 signed and numbered by the photographer. A book so large that it comes with its own metal folding stand, engraved with the author's name. Still goes for about the same money, or as much as 25% less due to the state of the dollar. Some surrealists want $14000 and even $25000. Dream on!

David Bailey's Book of Pin-Ups, 1965. Sixties flared trouser cockney sparrow pointedly ignored by Parr ( they have probably had bidding wars as Bailey is also a great photo collector.) Was $7500 in mid 2007. A copy made $7000 mid 2008 but it had made $14000 in 2005. Probably standing still in price, not esp rare but hard to find complete (36 pics) and in good nick.

P.H. Emerson. Marsh Leaves. 1895.
$5000 mid 2007. Not really tested since but an unpleasant copy on ABE at slightly more than this seems to have sold in late 2008 and would now expect a decent copy to nudge into five figures at auction (with the juice etc.,) One of the greats.

The Book of Bread. 1903
Was $800 early 2007. 2 copies on ABE now -one at $3000 and one not so nice at $4000. Freakish book of which the mighty Parr wrote "one of the humblest, yet most essential of objects is catalogued as precisely, regorously and objectively as any work by a 1980s Conceptual artist" Not a book to buy at these levels but to find somewhere overlooked (in the cookery section.) Probably sells regularly at half these prices. It's appeal is essentially whimsical. 300% increase.

Robert Frank. The Americans. (1959)
$7000 early 2007. In 2008 it made $15K (fine in slightly used d/w) and $32K (F/NF) and was bought in at $3k in an unpleasant jacket. All at Swann NY except the $32K which was at Christie's NY where it was described as 'A FINE COPY OF FRANK'S MASTERPIECE, and rare in this condition. (Quotes Parr) "The most renowned photobook of all... none has been more memorable, more influential, nor more fully realized... it changed the face of photography in the documentary mode".

El Morocco Family Album. Zerbe, 1937.
$1000 in early 2007. Bad copies now at $1100 better at $1700, a chancer at Amazon wants $2400. Society photography, social document tend to be beneath the Parr radar, below Parr- as it were.

Takashi Homma. Tokyo Suburbia, 1998.
$850 early 2007. Can now be had at under $700 and from Japan at slightly less than $600 as 'supply and demand' takes over. His 'Babyland' from 1995 can be had for less than $300.

Bruce Weber. Bear Pond, 1990.
Was $400 early 2007.
Still $400 and on some days less. Parr still has no time for Weber.

A Wonderful Time. Slim Aarons, 1974.
Was $250 early 2007. About the same price now, sometimes a bit more for F/F copies, suspect they occasionally go cheap on Ebay. Pictures of the very rich enjoying themselves could now be a little de trop for some. In Parr - he normally eschews social snappers. (Image below)

Ballet. 104 Photographs. Brodovitch, 1945.
Legendary photobook. $3500 in early 2007. Early 2008 a superior copy went through Ebay at $3500 or a bit more, rather used copy on ABE now at $3950, carriage trade dealer wants an unfriendly $9500 for a very nice example, a similar copy can be had at $4950 and top of the pile a midwest Video shop wants $11000 for the least good of the 4 copies for sale. As often happens the worst copy is the dearest (the mad hatter principle.) Book has gone ahead by as much as 60% in 2 years but is proving less scarce than was thought. "...One of the most cinematic and dynamic photobooks ever published..." (Parr)

Outlook? . Not an area I would like to wade into with credit cards flying right now, but there may be further life in the market especially with the incunabula of photo and proven geniuses like Emerson and Sander. The problem with most photobooks is you don't get much for your money. Their value derives from their iconic significance, sometimes $3000 gets you a small thin glossy book with a few printed b/w snaps. As one wag once observed (paraphrasing Veblen) 'modern art is a rich man's way of making poor people feel stupid.' So in this spirit the fact of a book looking insubstantial and even insignificant is no bar to its being valuable--in fact it helps. The 'mere man' cannot possibly appreciate this stuff. You demonstrate wealth and status by possessing it and recognising its true value. This may change - as it has before.

09 March 2009

A. E. Waite / Divination / Bibliomancy


Found in A.E. Waite's 'Occult Sciences' (1891) between Belomancy and Capnomancy (divination by smoke) this method of detecting witches and sorcerers and also using a Bible for prediction etc., Belomancy, by the way, is divination by arrows...
"Occasionally the forms of divination exceeded the bounds of superstition, and passed into the region of frantic madness. There was a short way the sorcerers which was probably the most potent discoverer of witchcraft which any ingenuity could devise. A large Bible was deposited on one side of a pair of weighing scales. The person suspected of magical practices was set on the opposite side. If he outweighed the Bible he was innocent; in the other case, he was held guilty. In the days of this mystical weighing and measuring, the scales may be truly said to have fallen from the eyes of a bewizarded generation, and to have revealed " sorcery and enchantment everywhere."

Bibliomancy, however, included a more harmless practice, and one of an exceedingly simple character. This was the opening of the Bible with a golden pin, and drawing an omen from the first passage which presented itself. Books like the Scriptures, the "Following of Christ," and similar works, abound in suggestive and pertinent passages which all men may apply to temporal affairs, but declares that he had recourse to it in all cases of spiritual difficulty. The appeal to chance is, however, essentially superstitious.
By the way A. E. Waite is a useful writer to find books by but not in the same league at all as the Great Beast. His most expensive work is likely to be his first 'An Ode to Astronomy and Other Poems (100 copies, thought to be 1877) or his second 'A Lyric to the Fairyland.' R B Russell values these at £3000 and £2000 respectively, possibly taking the price from the air. His rarest is undoubtedly 'The House of Hidden Light' written with Arthur Machen and published in 1904 in 3 copies. Russell has this at £1500. The 2 authors are pictured below, Machen on the left (uncharacteristically.)

Waite's work was mainly on the occult and mystical (he was Grand Master of the Golden Dawn in 1903) and, although one sees some of these books at giddy prices (£1000+) they are seldom worth it and he is hard to sell at ambitious prices. Signed copies are often seen marked up as if he was Yeats or the Beast but are not especially uncommon and do not double the price. One of his works on the web 'The History of Magic (1913, translated from Eliphas Levi) turns out be Aleister Crowley's copy, signed by him and with his extensive (and scornful) annotations throughout. Crowley and Waite had an acrimonious falling out, a bit in the Naipaul /Theroux or Beaton / Waugh mode + he claimed to be the reincarnation of Eliphas Levi, and many of his own writings were inspired by the French occult author and Mage (pic left). Priced at the palindromic and "beasty" price of $11666.11. Toppish in price but not completely unthinkable, although a bit worn and shaken with the odour of cigarette smoke (possibly the strong shag that Crowley liked) it had also belonged to Peter Warlock the composer with his ownership signature dated 1916. Crowley punters are unlikely to be put off by the odour of baccy but it could be a good bargaining point. A distinguished and important association deftly catalogued by the mighty Powell's of Portland.

Never been to Powells --I imagine it is like the Strand Bookshop in New York but on a gargantuan scale. I would like to go there. Martin Stone, uberscout and lover of fine books, was unimpressed by the condition of the good stuff there when he passed through with the good Baxter on their legendary road trip. He also did not dig their slightly anti dealer vibe. You sometimes get this in bookshops- they cannot appreciate that dealers are often among their best customers. All I know is when I have ordered from them they pack the books lightly-- belonging to the majority school who believe you merely have to put a book in a bag to send it; bubble, packaging and protection not needed (allright, some dealers go too far the other way with 7 layers of hurricane proof wrapping.) Apart from all that they are one of the world's top shops, with more books than the Bodleian, the tower of Babel and the library of Babylon.

06 March 2009

A Bookseller Poet

Bookseller poets are not especially scarce or rare but they seldom write about bookselling. Joan Barton was a bookseller. She was also an accomplished poet somewhat in the style of Larkin and Betjeman but with a lyric tenderness entirely her own. She was born in England in 1908 and died in 1988. When illness curtailed her studies at Bristol University she began her working life as a bookseller. Later she was employed by the BBC and by the British Council where she was a director of a department during World War 2.

In 1947 she and her partner Barbara Watson started the White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough, but after twenty years sold it and moved to Salisbury, where they issued catalogues of modern first editions and children's books from their home. She reviewed for the New Statesman and contributed poems to many magazines including WAVE. Early in her writing life she owed much to the encouragement of Walter de la Mare. In her final years she had struggled with failing sight but she gained some recognition through a feature on US radio, a published interview and in 1979 an article on her in the American Journal Women in Literature. She was also included in several anthologies including Poetry Book Society Christmas Supplement, 1974 (ed. Philip Larkin) and the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse.

She published about 6 little collections of poetry some of which can be bought online for modest sums, amongst them was a poem that referred to her work. There is another about a house call, a beautiful poignant poem which I shall air at a later date--meanwhile, take it away Joan :-


There are always lives
Left between the leaves
Scattering as I dust
The honeymoon edelweiss
Pressed ferns from prayer-books
Seed lists and hints on puddings
Deprecatory letters from old cousins
Proposing to come for Easter
And always clouded negatives
The ghost dogs in the vanishing gardens:
Fading ephemera of non-events,
Whoever owned it
(Dead or cut adrift or homeless in a home)
Nothing to me, a number, or if a name
Then meaningless,
Yet always as I touch a current flows,
The poles connect, the wards latch into place,
A life extends me-
Love-hate; grief; faith; wonder;

From 'The Mistress'. Sonus Press, Hull 1972.

04 March 2009

Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas.

Susan Meiselas. CARNIVAL STRIPPERS. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, NY 1976.

Desirable photo book, not uncommon but seldom shows up as a first, jacketed hard back. Cover is silver. In the early 1970s Meiselas travelled with some small New England and Southern "Girl Shows", including the Club Flamingo, the Star and Garter & the Club 17. Pictures and text from 100+ hours of interviews. Not a salacious book, somewhat noir and poignant, some photos are said to shock. A journey into the darker side of American life. A great photographer, she won the Robert Capa Gold Medal, the Leica medal for excellence, and The Photojournalist of the Year etc., Her book 'Nicaragua' is in Parr's definitive 'The Photobook' and this book is in in Andrew Roth's Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century.'

Current Selling Prices
$800-$1200 / £500-£800

VALUE? Hardback copies in jackets are avaiable at $1000+ but are attainable at less, one hopeful wanted $750 for the paperback, but it can be found at under $200. Kind of book you might find in a slightly curled jacket at a flea market (priced at $10 for its sleaze factor) if you got there at dawn. It has gone up in value over the last 2 years as a hardback. Hard to know whether photobooks are still a good investment bought at these levels. Their values, which crashed in the 1980s have gone up and up and a correction is almost inevitable especially in a market that is otherwise troubled. Will examine this question further as I have records of values of photobooks from 2/3 years ago.

A re-issue appeared in 2003 which has a CD of some of her interviews and added new pix - it can be bought signed at $150 or less. The publishers (Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Steidl Verlag of Göttingen Germany) say this of it:
"From 1972 to 1975, Susan Meiselas spent her summers photographing and interviewing women who performed striptease for small town carnivals in New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. As she followed the girl shows from town to town, she portrayed the dancers on stage and off, photographing their public performances as well as their private lives. She also taped interviews with the dancers, their boyfriends, the show managers, and paying customers. Meiselas's frank description of the lives of these women brought a hidden world to public attention. Produced during the early years of the women's movement, Carnival Strippers reflects the struggle for identity and self-esteem that characterized a complex era of change....essays by Sylvia Wolf and Deirdre English reflect on the importance of this body of work within the history of photography and the history of feminism."

01 March 2009

Booksellers and the Big Crunch 2

More uninformed and subjective notes on how the recession is affecting the trade in rare and used books. It's funny but as a retailer with a shop in the dead centre of London I am now continually asked by concerned friends 'How is it going?' Like someone inquiring of the health of a patient with a long, lingering and potentially fatal illness. I usually reply something on the lines of 'mustn't grumble' 'keeping my head above water' or 'not too bad.' It is not a good idea if it is going well to boast about it (apart from inviting the wrath of the Gods, it tends to annoy) and if it is going badly you don't want to bring people down, or accelerate the process by spreading the news. Considering we are in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the South Sea Bubble it is actually going pretty much as normal, possibly with slightly more poor days than 2007 and 2008. Confidence is generally low, especially among American dealers, and there is talk of a coming serious 'buyer's market' with sellers overwhelmed with 'borassic'* collectors trying to raise money. If I see hoards of impecunious book collectors advancing on Charing Cross I will let you know. The last time it happened was when the shop on the corner took a large 'books bought' ad out in the Daily Telegraph - but that's another story...

Even the internet is still just about holding up. My theory is that its use for retail is still growing fast and that is making up for slower sales -two and a half paces forward two and a quarter paces back.

Some notes.

1. Reports are coming through that 2009 book auction results are 30% down on the first two months of 2008. A difficult one to call as it depends on the quality of goods offered and it is likely that owners are holding back from consigning really good books. If I hear of further drops I shall start going more frequently, but lately I have found the process of viewing, bidding and clearing tiresome.

2. A high end American dealer reports (in an interview) that nowadays 3,4,5 days can go by without him getting a single internet order. He has 8000 books on the web and should sell about 4 a day (1 per 2000 per day). It used to be 1 per 1000 per day but has now migrated to 1 per 2 thousand and may be heading towards 1 per 2500. This is very general - if you have cheap books well selected and attractively priced and you are on Amazon, Alibris and ABE it can be much higher and they will know you well at the post office. Looking at this genial dealers stock online I found that even for relatively common books he is usually the most expensive - this might explain poor sales. Confronted with a list of books in similar condition the buyer chooses from the least expensive end of the list - a strange, perverse quirk and hard to explain.

3. I read an article about how to survive the recession (Harvard Business Journal). It used the Muhammad Ali - Foreman fight 'The Rumble in the Jungle' as an analogy. Ali apparently won by being able to absorb more punishment than his opponent and by being more agile. The Harvard bloke said these are the 2 qualities needed right now for financial survival - absorption and agility. Sounds fair enough. I have written the two words on a card and stuck it on the mirror so I see them every morning. Got to remember that absorption does not mean being able to absorb a ton of bad books. These are best avoided with some clever foot work. Basically you have to box clever...

4. I was in a shop the other day in a town which I shall call Seatown, a name out of 'Mass Observation.' The shop, not large, had plenty of punters and in the half hour I was there the guy took about a £100 and I then spent £65 which he rounded down to £50. The prices were very modest but the stock was very good and well chosen and there was what appeared to be plenty more of it coming out. The secret is that Seatownman has always been modest in his pricing and hasn't suddenly turned into a decent type after being a bastard all through the boom years. He is well known throughout the large extended coastal community, turns no one away, listens to the tales of the 'talking wounded', the bores and bullshitters -even makes a cup of tea for some of them. He is not going to end up with a Camargue or a Cayenne or a Cadillac but he is also not going to go broke and can buy his round, even take the occasional extended holiday.

5. There are no green shoots visible but people are now getting used to the recession. In the initial shock people zipped their wallets tight, went home and avoided non essential shops. That may be over, unless like an earthquake, there are further shocks...

*borassic = financially embarrassed, broke --rhyming slang where borassic lint = 'skint' = broke.