26 September 2010

A – Z of Celebrity Book Collections


One of the few book dealers to become a celebrity is ‘ King ‘ Richard Booth, the founder of book-town Hay on the Welsh border. I remember buying from him as a teenager circa 1970 when he would suddenly appear at the counter of the Old Cinema and price books on the spot that you’d chosen. He had the reputation for buying in huge quantities back then, but when I
interviewed him in 2004 his appetite seemed undimmed, despite the debilitating effects of a brain tumour. ‘ I personally drive a two-ton van ‘, he told me, ‘ and travel all over the north-west. I still offer competitive prices for quantity…I will buy a ton of books, where other dealers will turn away ‘. He also revealed that he was seriously considering moving from Hay Castle to set up gigantic book warehouses in Eastern Europe. ‘At Wadlstadt-Wunsdorf, a big army base near Berlin’ he revealed, ‘, there are fifteen disused supermarkets which could be filled with books from America for distribution to the ten new Eastern European countries ‘. He even half-joked that a statue might be erected to him there to replace the one of Lenin.
I don’t know whether, six years on, Booth has gone any way towards realising his dream , but you can’t fault the man for ambition.


Very recently I learnt that a friend had bought a volume bearing the bookplate of the late Michael Foot. We now know that in 2004 he pledged his unique Hazlitt collection, which included rare signed copies, to the Wordsworth Trust. But what happened to the rest of his large and impressive library of works on English political radicalism ? This contained rare pamphlets and radical newspapers from the Golden Age and I daresay his collection of Cobbett even surpassed that of Richard Ingrams. Years ago I tried to arrange an interview with Foot , but I’m not surprised that he turned me down. He was then in his mid eighties and lived alone, circumstances which present security problems.

Amanda McKittrick Ros

The late lamented Frank Muir, a passionate book collector, was a great admirer of this Irish writer, of whom Cyril Connolly wrote: ‘ She has given more indecent pleasure than any living novelist.’ The Inklings, Aldous Huxley and John Betjeman were others who sought out her work, which may have been easier to come by in the twenties. Simon Brett, who was given a copy of the 1926 Nonesuch edition of Ros’s Irene Iddesleigh by Muir, called her ‘ possibly the worst novelist ever to be published ‘. The words ‘ high-flown ‘, ‘ alliterative ‘ and ‘ melodramatic ‘are used by literary people to describe her unique style. For instance, this is how she tells her readers that her heroine earned money through needlework:

‘She tried hard to keep herself a stranger to her poor old father’s slight income by the use of the finest production of steel, whose blunt edge eyed the reely covering with marked greed, and offered its sharp dart to faultless fabrics of flaxen fineness.'
Reading Ros is still a secret pleasure that many writers keep to themselves, and it has been impossible to keep the prices of her novels and two volumes of poetry at an affordable level, such is the demand for her books. It’s odd that no-one has had the wit to republish all of them in full. The absence of such reprints may partly explain why her addicts are loath to part with any of her books that they might be lucky enough to find, which could explain why ABE have so few titles at present Maggs want $822 for a first of Delina Delaney and until recently Jarndyce was offering the exceptionally rare first of Irene Iddesleigh (1897 ) at $206, which is only $5 dearer than the Nonesuch edition for sale at the same time. When you consider how hilarious Ros is, these prices don’t seem too much to pay .


Lord Baker owns some separately bound Shakespeare plays from the First Folio as well as the exceedingly expensive ( £100,000 + ) King James Bible of 1611, though of course the Bard himself would have relied on the earlier Geneva Bible as a source.

Shell Guides

Celebrity admirers of these classic guides include Oldie editor Richard Ingrams and Jonathan Meades. Ingrams knew the general editors Piper and Betjeman personally and owns a fine collection, including some of the rare spiral-bound editions. Jonathan Meades, who once contemplated writing a Shell Guide himself has a favourite in Dorset by Michael Pitt-Rivers. He also admires the two principal photographers, Edward Piper and Edwin Smith. To Meades, Edwards’s photographs in Buckinghamshire (1981 ) make it appear as though the whole county ‘ was going to suffer an electric storm at any moment...' The Guides have now become iconic and their prices are rising. Less than ten years ago most of the spiral bound editions of the thirties could be had for under £20, but the trendiness of twentieth century British art has seen Shell Guide prices shooting up, particularly those by leading British artists, such as Piper and Paul Nash. At present ABE has no copy of the latter’s Dorset –always a rarish title—which can fetch over £100, and John Piper’s Oxon (1939) is nearly as expensive. So if you are lucky enough to discover a spiral bound Shell Guide in a jumble sale ( as I did once ) count yourself extremely lucky.


Hollywood star Nicholas Cage is said to own one of the largest private collections of comic books in the world. Bespectacled former surgeon Harry Hill is a comic who collects comics. Felix Dennis regrets selling his collection of action comics in his youth but now owns a vast collection of original art work, which he houses in his Warwickshire home.


The late George Melly, jazz singer extraordinaire, owned a fine collection of surrealist paintings, many of which he had to sell. He has also parted with valuable books in his collection, including Max Ernst’s Histoire Naturelle. Back in 2003 he was philosophical concerning the fate of his library after his demise.’ My wife will probably sell them ‘, was his assumption. Poet David Gascoyne, author of A Brief History of Surrealism and Man’s Life is This Meat ( a title given to him by Geoffrey Grigson ), also had to offload most of his surrealist paintings when strapped for cash, but hung on to most, if not all, of his books on surrealism. Celebrity zoologist Desmond Morris, whose great great grandfather was a bookseller in Swindon, is both a surrealist painter and a connoisseur of books on the movement, and the author of a catalogue raisonné (?unpublished) of his hero Joan Miro. One of his rarest volumes is Conroy Maddox: Surrealist Enigmas, edited by Sylvano Levy, which appeared in a limited edition of just twelve. [R.M.Healey.]

Many thanks Robin. Modest of you not to mention that the Shell Guide to Hertfordshire is your own work; must get mine signed. Michael Foot was a great bookshop habituée and is much missed. We nearly bought the library of his nephew Paul Foot--a great collection of radical literature, but the family decided to keep it. Possibly the same thing will happen to Michael Foot's books. Amanda Ros has become a standard collectable but I am not sure if she has a new generation of punters. I sold my own copy of her St. Scandalbags last year and deeply regret it. As for Nicholas Cage, occasionally seen in Charing Cross buying Illustrated books, I heard that he had sold his comic collection and much else due to a very nasty IRS bill. Parts of Melly's library have surfaced in various shops, mostly in Chelsea. As for Shell Guides we will not mention the severe overpricing of them in the Bournemouth area...

19 September 2010

A – Z of Celebrity Collections


A name I’ve invented to describe a category of book that Private Eye parodist Craig Brown has admitted to collecting. ‘Sometimes I wander around bookshops like a stalker looking for victims‘, he told me in 2003. One of the prized books in his working library is Kim Il Sung’s snappily titled The People’s Movement is a Mighty Anti-Imperialist Revolutionary Force, of which he admits there are probably ‘ten million floating around ‘. Possibly true, but perhaps most of them are still in North Korea. Certainly, ABE has none at present. Brown also owns two ghosted works by Robert Maxwell, whose Pergamon Press once brought out books by all the East European dictators. Brown admits that a good collection could be made of these hagiographies. Reggie Kray gave him a signed copy of his Thoughts, Philosophy and Poetry (1991), which according to one dealer, who charges $152.71 for his copy, is ‘scarce.' Enoch Powell’s Collected Poems (1992) is easier to find at around £8 and is worth tracking down to read what Brown found to be ‘very homo-erotic’ verse. Eroticism of a more conventional type also made Brown laugh. The romantic novelist Melvyn Bragg ( whose early firsts hover around $5 ) is a ‘parodist’s dream—very sub-D.H.Lawrence’, Brown thought. Bragg’s female equivalent in the romance stakes, Barbara Cartland, was another favourite of Brown’s. He once owned a copy of her booklet entitled How I’d Like to be Remembered, which the fragrant Babs used to send to anyone who wrote to her. This was bound with a red ribbon, Brown recalls, and was basically just a ‘ long list of her achievements ‘.


Actor, film director ( The Stepford Wives, Whistle down the Wind ), and now thriller writer Brian Forbes wouldn’t mind me saying that he is vertically challenged. Napoleon Bonaparte was too. I’m not saying that there is any connection between these two very different men, but the fact remains that Forbes is a dedicated collector of books about the French Emperor and binds each new book he acquires in the same red morocco, thus obscuring any trace of the book’s qualities as an historical object.
Forbes has bound several valuable volumes in this bizarre way, including Barry O'Meara’s Napoleon in Exile (1822), which fetches between $300 to $500 today. As any bibliophile knows, such a practice will reduce the value of Forbes collection, should he ever fall out of love with the Corsican warmonger . There is a moral here. Resist the temptation to rebind rare and valuable books that are still in their original cloth or boards-- unless they are actually falling apart—and by falling apart I don’t mean that one board is detached and there is a loose gathering.

Nazi memorabilia

Leather-faced Stone Keith Richards, according to his recent autobiography, once wanted to be a librarian, and later on began organising his huge collection of books at his homes in West Sussex and Connecticut using the Dewey Decimal system. Most know him as a collector of Nazi memorabilia of all kinds, including books and pamphlets, but it would seem that we have been
underestimating the former hell-raiser. His special areas of interest now include the early history of American rock music and the Second World War ( though I suppose this would overlap with the Third Reich ). ‘ Lemmy ‘, from popular heavy metal band Motorhead, is so proud of his collection of daggers, guns, flags, officers’ caps, and insignia from this era in German history that he has posted photos of himself with his collection on his website. I peered at these pictures intently, but try as I might I could see no books. Perhaps Mr Kilmister keeps them all in his library. Or perhaps not.

Owen Jones

No apology for including this pioneering Victorian decorative printer again, as Battie and Gascoigne ( and doubtless other celeb collectors) are great fans. Battie used to pick up Jones and similar colour printers for next to nothing when Victoriana was out of fashion. The plates in his copy of M. A. Bacon’s Winged Thoughts ( 1851 ) were the work of Jones, who also created the embossed binding of gutta-percha. Battie paid £12 in the sixties for his copy of Jones The Preacher, with its binding of burnt wood. ‘A great deal of money', he admits. Such high Victoriana has not kept its value, even though examples of it aren’t common. I bought a copy of Jones’s splendid Spanish Ballads for a mere £3 recently and his books can be had for sensible prices on ABE.


Back in 1998 Iain Sinclair reckoned it was a ‘ racing certainty ‘ that the hitherto unrecognised poets of the period 1966 and 1979—men like Tom Raworth, Pete Brown. Michael Horowitz, Eric Mottram , J.H.Prynne, Andrew Crozier, Peter Riley and Douglas Crozier---would see their work revalued and therefore sought after in the years to come. Well, 12 years have passed since this hot tip, so have things progressed ? It’s a bit patchy.

Most firsts of Raworth on ABE are priced at around $20, while the undervalued Riley hovers at around $15, with rare items going for $40. Douglas Crozier seems to have disappeared, while Andrew’s limited edition firsts are priced at $20 or less. However, early, limited edition works from the seventies by the ‘ austere ‘ (some say unreadable) Prynne, rated by one dealer as the ‘towering poet of the late 20th century', are rather pricey at $60 - $75. So perhaps Sinclair was right about him.

Germaine Greer is a dedicated collector of female poets, especially of the seventeenth century. She once spent £1,000 on eighty volumes of mainly seventeenth century poetry at a country house sale in Wales. Rarities included a posthumous Hudibras, which Cambridge University Library didn’t have. Greer admits to not taking sufficient care of the rare volumes she has bought. Years ago, when she lived in Italy, she was sent slim volumes by lady poets from Heywood Hill, many of which ended up being eaten by insects, including scorpions. [R. M. Healey]

Thanks as always Robin. I also had a slight brush with celebrity when I was invited to Brian Forbes's Surrey villa to buy a load of books. A pleasant man, also an owner of a bookshop himself, he showed me his Napoleon collection - vast and impressive. I recall him talking about comedians he had directed and saying they were mostly desperate types. I bought a signed set of Roald Dahl off him, oddly uncommon. In France Forbes is regarded as one of our great directors (top movie -the moody 'Seance on a Wet Afternoon')- as an actor he is memorable for playing superb spivs. Iain was right about Prynne, his books unless grievously overpriced go, as they say in Canada, like snow off a dike.

17 September 2010

Teach Yourself Books

I have never met a collector of Teach Yourself books. There are collectors for almost all book series, types and genres so they must exist - there are even collectors of Reader's Digest omnibuses, but they don't want to pay very much. The ultra-whimscal proprietor of my local shop in old East Anglia  became a  temporary collector recently and in a few months amassed enough to fill a window (96). They make a wonderful sight, like an art installation gradually diminishing in size as they sell. He tells me they are shifting at a rate of about three or four a day at between £3 and £5 each. For £5 I bought M. Stuart's immortal Teach Yourself House Repairs (English Universities Press, London 1959) the only T.Y. book with a red d/w (they are invariably black and yellow or dark green and yellow.)

My favourite title on sale was Teach Yourself to Fly, possibly used by TM in their 'yogic flying' levitation attempts but also useful for owners of light planes. It would have been good if it was local hero Benjamin Britten's copy. At one point he had a plane parked in a Suffolk field to fly to gigs in Europe, i know this because I cleared the library of his pilot's widow. It did not go on for long because, although  he could be back home at the Red House in time for supper after a busy day in Amsterdam, the insurance was prohibitive.

The Teach Yourself books were published from 1938 until 1973 by the English Universities Press. After that they were published by Hodder mostly in paperback and they are still going, but seem to have lost out to hipper guides like the 'For Dummies' and 'Complete Idiot' series. There is even a parody The Complete Idiot's Guide for Dummies: The Fun and Easy Way to Achieve Total Stupidity and also Sex for Dummies. The latter one is curious because early sex manuals actually used pictures of dummies to demonstrate sexual positions etc., (and then there is Hans Bellmer whose Die Puppe is one of the great art book sleepers.)

The most expensive T.Y. title on the net is Teach Yourself Welsh at £400 but the seller is 'with the fairies' as it can be had in better condition for 37 pence. The most consistently expensive title is by the great needlework expert Mary Thomas Teach Yourself Embroidery, one of the earliest titles. An old respected modern first dealer wants £100 for a 1938 decent copy in a 'very slightly frayed' jacket. Sans jacket the 1938 can be had for £3 and there is even a copy for a fiver in an embroidered jacket, presumably done from the book. I suspect the £100 copy will be there for many years, unless collecting such books become a craze. Outlook? Patchy and uncertain, but as penny shares they are unlikely to tie up much money; go only for smart copies in decent jackets.

11 September 2010

A – Z of Celebrity Collections

Wyndham Lewis

Glam rock king of cool Brian Ferry is a fan of this controversial artist and writer. Ferry owns first editions of Lewis and a portrait of him by Augustus John. The singer also took the typeface used on the cover of Roxy Music’s Manifesto from Lewis’s magazine BLAST, as did Holly Johnson, ex-front man of eighties beat combo Frankie Goes to Hollywood, for his solo album, which he imaginatively titled Blast. David Bowie collects paintings by Lewis and no doubt owns first editions too.


Because he is always so well informed on the subject I once asked G. K. Chesterton lookalike and pioneer psychogeographer, Peter Ackroyd if he’d care to be interviewed on his collection of London books. He declined the invitation, explaining that he had no collection to speak of. I refused to believe this at the time and remain unconvinced today. There are no doubts concerning Ackroyd’s protégé, Iain Sinclair. His fine working library of Londoniana includes most of the works of Luke Howard (1772 – 1864), the London-based amateur meteorologist and author of, among other works, Barometographia, The Climate of London, and Seven lectures in Meteorology, all of which are very expensive. The municipal library in Stratford, east London, contains a collection of his books. Oddly, expensive or not, ABE contains no books by Howard except the usual 300 or more print-on-demand ‘ books’.

Lord of the Flies

In 2004 Joseph Connolly, former book-dealer and writer on modern firsts, and now novelist, told me a comic anecdote involving a first of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Apparently, a dealer had bought to his shop an immaculate copy of the novel :

‘ It was absolutely perfect in very way. So I asked the dealer what he wanted for it and he said he wanted eight pounds. We didn’t haggle and I gave him the money. Every year after that transaction the man came into the shop looking greyer and more haggard each time. He used to ask me what became if that Lord of the Flies. I told him I still had it. And as the price escalated he shrivelled up. I don’t think he will ever forget the day he sold me that book ! ‘

A first of Golding’s masterpiece with wrapper will now cost you upwards of £2,000.


Simenon exerts a fascination over the sort of people who are drawn to modern continental literature, the metropolitan underworld, and Greeneland . Chris Petit is one such person. Maigret books occupy several shelves in his City eyrie by the Thames. But his collection will probably never be complete. According to him, a couple of rich and determined Simenon collectors have inflated prices for the English editions published in the ‘forties. ‘One lives in Hong Kong, and some dealers act as brokers for these collectors. As a result these jacketed English editions now fetch up to £85 or £90 each.’. The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is a title that, according to Petit, never comes up for sale, though today ABE has a first with wrapper at $317 and one with no wrapper at a tenth of the price.

Modern firsts

Of the many celebs interested in collecting modern firsts, two I interviewed stood out as eminently able to afford the best and rarest of them. Billionaire Felix Dennis is one---the other is Lord Kenneth Baker, who is worth slightly less.
Dennis doesn’t collect any fiction less than 25 years old, but does own many firsts of classic American and British twentieth century fiction, all in immaculate wrappers, which he claims ( as an ex art student) are what primarily attracts him. When I visited him he could have chosen to be photographed with any one of a hundred volumes on his shelves, but for some reason he chose a copy of Lolita.

Lord Kenneth Baker, cruelly portrayed as a slug in Spitting Image, owns a collection of modern firsts that might have graced the shelves of the late lamented Ulysses bookshop. He owns firsts of Brighton Rock and Greene’s notorious Babbling April (both with wrappers ), and all of Waugh’s and William Golding’s firsts, except the latter’s elusive Poems. He also has a soft spot for Stevenson and cherishes copies of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island, both top drawer items. But he also owns an exceedingly rare pamphlet of just 4 pages that Stevenson had originally published for a charity bazaar in 1871 but which he reprinted in 1882 as Moral Emblems. Unexpectedly, Baker has some distinctly contemporary tastes in fiction. He likes Paul Auster and Candida McWilliams .

Prizewinning and fashionable chronicler of dysfunctional teenagers, Jacqueline Wilson, who began her literary life as a ‘ lowly typist ‘ at publishers
J. M. Dent, is a rare female bibliomaniac among hunter-gatherer males. Back in the 1990s she had so many modern firsts crammed into her tiny home ( she may have moved since ) that she had to have her floors strengthened to take their weight. Her favourite hunting grounds in the sixties and early seventies were Kingston and Richmond, where she recalls buying firsts of E. M. Forster for ‘ a couple of pounds or perhaps a fiver.' As a collector, one of her most chastening experiences was to receive back from a friend a first of John Fowles’ The Collector minus its wrapper and ‘ in nasty condition ‘. It taught her a lesson. ‘ Any book that’s special doesn’t get lent now .’ Quite right too ! [R.M. Healey]

Wise and pertinent words Robin. I knew Ferry collected the great Vorticist Lewis. Lewis is not quite as saleable as he was but always shifts fast if not overpriced. Like Lewis, Brian may also have felt the appeal off 'fascinating fascism.' I have seen Kenneth Baker ('Teflon Man') in bookshops and am surprised that he lacks the Golding's Poems (Macmillan, London 1934). A famous sleeper, it is by no means impossible to find. Golding told one collector "I'm sorry to hear you found a copy of my alleged 'Poems.' I had thought them sunk without a trace." Value £2000 or more for limpid copies. The hard one for a completist is Waugh's juvenilia The World to come. A poem in three cantos (London: Westminster Press, 1916.) 22 years ago a copy made just under £10,000 at Christies--described as 'slightly dust-soiled' and inscribed (later) to Ian Fleming's wife Ann. It would make considerably more now, top-end Waugh tends to be collected by wealthy punters, some American. As for Iain Sinclair he might bridle at being called Ackroyd's protegé...more likely (here we go again) he is Arnaut Daniel de Riberac to Ackroyd's Dante -- Il miglior fabbro.

06 September 2010

The Great Book Glut of 2010

We are being offered far too many books. We still buy and are still keen on interesting and unusual books and great collections, but are having to turn away offers of many good books that formerly we would have bought. It is painful to turn books down but generally we have far too many and advise people to give them to charity or try Ebay or, at a pinch, a local dealer. This is a business where dealers will carry on buying even if they can't get into their garages, storage unit or warehouses any more -- accountants are perplexed, if we were selling fridges or footballs we would stop when we had bought enough for current demand. Only lack of money or space will stop most dealers and if you have money you can buy more space.

There has been an over supply for some years now but it has become a palpable glut in 2010. Occasionally people offer to let us have them for free, even to deliver them gratis. This can sometimes be a good plan but as the great Moe of Berkeley said--'...if you let bad books into a shop pretty soon the place fills up with them.' I sometimes wonder what happens to the books we turn down and worry that books will fill up every charity shop, flea market and junk shop and become as hard to sell as old VHR Videos (in one North London shop they have good videos at 10 for £1.) The comparison with the transition from LPs to CDs is more apt and certainly at that time huge collections of albums were sold off. A few observations on the glut:

1. Auction houses have become much more choosy. Some will not look at a book worth less than £500 and cannot raise a smile for anything worth less than £5000. Few now sell big lots and if they do they tend to make pathetic sums (with a few exceptions.)

2. An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing to homes and flats. Their heirs tend to keep very little and sell off the collections almost intact. Books are often regarded as a nuisance and some heirs are amazed that any money is offered at all. In the case of bland book club books, dull biographies, 'doublet and hose' history and fat dated remainders there are no offers forthcoming and owners resort to pulping, burning or the municipal dump. Even charity shops can be choosy.

3. Ebooks are having an impact, not at present vast but buyers and sellers are confused and see books in the main as a declining asset - we are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift.'

4. Certain categories of book are holding their own and even improving in value and desirability. Books that are uncommon on the internet or command high prices there are much wanted-expensively published scholarly works, abstruse books and those printed in small quantities. Collectables, signed books, limited editions, fine condition antiquarian books, modern firsts, rarities and trendy art books are all eagerly traded.

5. Meanwhile, ironically, the seller has become more knowledgeable about prices through the net and has higher expectations. Unless the seller is possessed of really good books he finds that no one wants them or offers are ridiculously low and he is condemned to wander the earth with the books looking for the prices seen on the internet.

6. Some glut reactions. Is the glut a bad thing? For the seller it is a problem. The buyer must be choosier, more wary and more careful with his or her money. Will it get worse? Undoubtedly. Will it ever end? Unlikely. Is it just you or are some dealers having trouble finding stock? Dealers are always complaining and many specialists are not overrun with the books that their hearts desire. However, I would be interested to hear of dealers who can't find enough decent stock for a second hand bookshop. They would have to be singularly charmless, mean or obtuse. Great stock is another matter.

7. Evidence? Personal experience, a ridiculous profusion of email offers, some quite tempting, some even leading to buys. Phone calls all day, lists and letters, anecdotal evidence, tales of bankruptcy, madness and mayhem. The lead indicator came in February 2009 with the great Bristol Book Barn free book debacle. Also a telling comment on library sales on this very site 3 days ago from a woman dealer, almost certainly Stateside (thanks Teresa) :'... book sales drive me crazy. I am always torn between going and not going though at the moment with the shop stuffed to the rafters and two storage lockers stuffed to the rafters and my house, well, dripping books out of the windows the offspring have threatened death and dismemberment if I go near any book sales.' It takes forbearance to stop buying books. One day at a time...

8. Lastly there are those riding the glut by listing 100s of thousands of cheap books and making money even on books listed at one penny (it's the postage--they like light books). These are mainly ISBN ( I Sell By Numbers) sellers who catalogue with a barcode reader and buy books by the pallet at breathtakingly low prices. These are held in vast warehouses ( the 'fulfillment' sheds are near Luton.) A long way from the rambling old second hand bookshop.