Advice for Book Collectors; Three British Booksellers Remembered
- Dust-jackets: I think most collectors will agree with me that dust-jackets are integral to books and as such are worth preserving. That is best done by covering them with 1.5 mil archival polyester, without a paper backing, from Kapco, a company dealing in library supplies (www.kapco.com or 1-800-791-8965). The cost for a 14 inch x 300 feet roll is about $45 (with a $50 minimum order which can be waived). The procedure is this: remove the dust-jacket and cut a length of the polyester to match it. Insert the dust-jacket into the pre-creased edge, then, using a bone folder, fold and crease the other edge to fit, beginning in the middle and working outwards in both directions.
- Tape: If a dust-jacket is torn, I do nothing except flatten any pieces that are bent. Once the jacket is in the polyester cover the tear becomes nearly invisible. If you must use tape, please choose one that is archival. Kapco has various options which are said to be acid-free. However, I doubt that any tape would not yellow or become brittle over time.
- Mold and Mildew: These are the banes of book collectors. Mold and mildew are varieties of fungus which live off organic matter such as leather, paper and cloth. The signs are unusual stains, white, black or grey spots, and/or an ‘old book’ odor. Excess humidity is what causes it to develop, so the solution is to be sure your books are well ventilated. And they should not be stored in enclosed places: closets, unheated basements, garages, the attic, trunks, cardboard boxes. It is good to dust the tops of books regularly. If you do notice mold or mildew on the cover of a book use a fine brush or soft cloth, or a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner. If the mold or mildew is on the pages, slide a piece of waxed paper under the page to be treated and use the brush to remove as much of it as possible, then gently rub with a cloth moistened with denatured alcohol. If a musty odor remains, try sprinkling baking soda in a sealed container or plastic bag and place the book inside for a couple of hours.
- Drying a book: If the book gets wet there are several things you can do. One is to interleave absorbent paper towels between the pages, then press the book under a weight. This should be done several times. Then stand the book up and spread the leaves, allowing air to circulate. A fan or hair dryer may be helpful, although you should be careful not to overdo this because rapid drying may cause the boards and pages to warp. Exposure to sunlight may also be good, although again do this cautiously because it may cause fading. Another technique you may try is to sprinkle corn starch between the pages and let it sit in a plastic bag for several hours, afterwards using a brush to sweep the starch off.
- Tools and supplies: Helpful to any collector are some basic bookbinder's supplies and equipment. I mentioned above the bone folder. It, and much else besides, can be purchased from Ernest Schaefer (1-908-964-1280 or earnestschaferinc.com). For glue I like the Jade #403—8 oz., for about $10, from Talas (talasonline.com). It can be used, for example, to insert plates that have become detached. The procedure for this is quite simple: with a fine brush run a thin line of the glue along the appropriate edge and position the plate; then close the book and pile some heavy books on it till the glue is dry which should not take long.
- Online bookselling: Every one of us has enjoyed browsing the stacks of bookshops and speaking with the knowledgeable, if sometimes eccentric, bookseller. But nowadays most bookselling is done online which is efficient because it allows us to access the inventory of countless dealers all over the world. Two of the online services which consolidate the stocks of many booksellers are ABE and Alibris. I have used both but became disenchanted with each of them. Alibris, in particular, drove me to distraction. They are owned by a private equity firm, and perhaps as a consequence extracted up to 40% of each of my sales through a usurious combination of small fees, charges, commissions, and failing to reimburse fully for shipping. Some years ago when they raised their monthly fee 50%, I decided to leave. Needless to say, I do not recommend them. Instead, please try Biblio.com which is a collective of many booksellers. Biblio has a nice website, and nearly every book can be found there. My stock is shown, although to cover the commission I have to pay, prices there are slightly higher than here at the website.
- Support your local bookseller: If you use Amazon to buy books and thereby gain convenience and savings, this is understandable. But keep in mind that Amazon itself has no books, only a slick website. It is in fact a broker, and as such it keeps for itself a good portion of each sale. The books you order are actually owned and supplied by independent booksellers. But having to pay Amazon's commissions and charges, and endure their predatory practices, means it is very difficult for many of them to make a living. In fact some can not survive, and you may have noticed that shops you once relied on are no longer there. Yet a few, like myself, stubbornly continue despite everything, albeit without Amazon. Please support us if you possibly can.
- Alasdair Steven: We all have our favorite booksellers. For me one of them was the Scot Alasdair Steven. He was raised and educated in Dundee and early on developed a love for books. An interest in Fabian Socialism led him to join the Peace Pledge Union, eventually becoming its Scottish secretary in the late 1930s. During the War he refused to fight and as a conscientious objector worked at a farm for the duration while also living as part of a like-minded community of pacifists. When that period came to an end, he decided to take up bookselling, but since he had no capital he took a very idiosyncratic approach to the trade: he put on his kilt, loaded up a bicycle with bags of books, and rode from croft to croft in the Highlands selling when he could. He stayed overnight sometimes in hostels or in barns, but more often than not, because of his charm and courtesy, he was invited in as a guest. When I met him in the 1970s he was living in Balechin House overlooking Loch Tay. The house had once been very grand, but most of it was destroyed in a fire and all that was left was the former kitchen area. It was still very impressive, with large rooms on the main floor and in the basement. He had filled them all with books, creating a kind of Aladdin's Cave. He loved Scottish history and literature. His knowledge was wide. He had a problem, though. He really did not like to part with his books. Fortunately, I was able to pry one or two out of him now and then. My several visits were memorable. Getting there was not all that easy because he was so isolated. There was no public transport, and I had no car. Sometimes I walked. I remember once it was night and for a change the Scottish sky was clear and the stars were overwhelming. Whatever the trouble, my visits were always a pleasure. However, I was disappointed never to have encountered the ghosts. Apparently Balechin was the most seriously haunted house in Scotland.
- Alex Frizzell: Alex Frizzell was born to an unwed mother in rural Scotland and raised by his grandparents near Howgate, Penicuik. In those days such a background was a burden, personally and socially. With prospects for the future unpromising Alex left school at age 15 and took menial jobs on a farm and at a paper mill. But then came the War and things changed dramatically for him. He enlisted in the Royal Air Force and was posted first to Egypt and then to Jerusalem. The poor Scottish boy, he told me, suddenly found himself in a world he could barely have imagined, with challenges and a new circle of friends. And he had discovered books. When off duty he spent his time in the YMCA library where he read. After the War he returned to Scotland and eventually opened a small bookshop on Bruntsfield Place with his wife Marion. They lived at the back of the shop in very close quarters. Later—and I am not sure when—they moved to West Linton, a lovely village about an hour south of Edinburgh. Their house, called Castlelaw, was set apart from the village down a long dirt track. It was filled with books which Alex loved to pull out and show me, especially the beautiful letterpress work from the great private press printers. And in that regard I was drawn to the small room just off the sitting room where two printing presses were installed: a magnificent Albion and a jobbing Arab treadle platen. When I first met him I knew nothing about printing. He offered to teach me how to do it, if I would first find a composing stick and choose something fairly simple to print. I fulfilled both requirements, and one afternoon sat with him as he showed me how to set and distribute type, then to print on the Arab. This two-hour lesson was the only training I ever had in the practice of letterpress. Over the years I would visit him and buy books. He issued catalogues, often of Scottish literature and history, and finely printed books. From him came a lovely 15-volume set of the complete works of Charles Dickens in quarter green calf which is one of my prized possessions.
- David Low: Another favorite bookseller was David Low. In the 1930s he had a shop on Cecil Court which is a small, pedestrian-only street leading off Charing Cross Road in Central London. He wrote an account of that and his other book-related experiences in a memoir called ‘with all faults’ (Amate Press: 1973). The title is a phrase that is sometimes used by booksellers to describe a particular copy which has so many things wrong that there is not much point in listing them all. So a book that is dog-eared, falling apart, with pages and plates missing is ‘with all faults’, or simply ‘waf’. When I got to know David, in the 1970s, he was living in the village of Emmington, not far from Oxford. Around the house there was the most splendid garden with a stunning herbaceous border. Visiting him was wonderful. He also had a wide knowledge and a house filled with books. His friends had included Graham Greene and Count Potocki of Montalk, so we were able to gossip about these quite different personalities. When I began as a bookseller myself, David kindly steered things my way and so helped me get going. I remember in particular he saw that I got a superb collection of printed engravings by the great British artist Eric Gill from which I kept and framed several of the duplicate items. He also introduced me to colleagues whom I met and esteemed as well. Often he would suggest some new avenues for me to explore, and in this way I became much more familiar with the literature about the English Public School. I still have a number of books on that subject, including correspondence with one of the authors which had been arranged by him. David and I wrote each other over many years. Sometimes he lamented the way bookselling was going. He had scant regard for dealers who did not know their subjects or could not catalogue properly, and I doubt he would have approved of the modern internet. For me it was a great privilege to have met these three booksellers. David, Alasdair, and Alex were all knowledgeable, considerate and generous with their advice. I try now to follow their guiding spirits.