Shelf Fulfillment

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Month: January, 2012

Rick Gekoski and Me – A Review

by Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

The news that Rick Gekoski is to give the first of the new series of seminars on book-collecting  ( prompts a reprise of this review by John Windle of San Francisco ( originally published in ABMR a few years ago.  Many thanks to John for permission to use it.  

John Windle

John Windle

I have often wondered what might be the unifying factor that links the tribe of rare booksellers worldwide, if there is one.  From the titans of the trade to the smallest bedroom dealer, I believe there’s a common thread that links us all, which I would dearly love to identify. Perhaps it’s a cloaking mechanism, that somehow we have all learned to hide from whatever we fear most by surrounding ourselves with books; perhaps it’s a stubborn streak that won’t conform to the 9-5 routine and can’t abide commuting in a gray suit on the 7:38 from Stamford; less likely is a financial motive, though the thrill of a bargain purchase or a high-ticket sale is addictively exciting and carries a frisson of wickedness with it as if you’ve committed daylight robbery and gotten away with it.

Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders

William and Victoria Dailey once created a game called “The Heartbreak of Bookselling”.  Akin to “Snakes and Ladders”, you moved through a series of actions dictated by the dice – Bought a book at auction way below my bid, Yay – Turns out it lacks a plate, Groan – Get a huge order from a new customer, Yay – He returns the most expensive item after negotiating a big discount, Groan – Item then ordered by an Italian collector, Yay – Book lost in the Italian mail system (so-called) and your insurance company won’t cover it, Groan.  It’s such a roller-coaster ride this bookselling game and every time I buy a pricey book I lie awake at night wondering why on earth I paid so much, who do I think I am paying such prices, and every time I sell said pricey book I lie awake at night wishing I’d priced it what I originally was going to before I lost my nerve, and then around 3:30 a.m. a nagging memory surfaces that the purchaser doesn’t always pay promptly and what if the money gets held up just when I was under the gun to pay down my line of credit, Oh God my spouse is going to kill me, but maybe he’ll pay if I ask him nicely – or will that cause him to change his mind and send it back, Oh God what if his check bounces, didn’t someone on the chatline mention this guy was no good, I should have asked him for a credit card but then I’ll sweat blood for months wondering if there’ll be a charge-back and anyway I resent the 4% it costs plus the monthly charges, so I get up and stagger off to the laptop in my home office and bingo! There’s an order for a decent book at a decent profit from an old customer who’s safe and I start to feel better as I scroll through my inbox and see with a start that has located a Blake book so rare that even  Bob has never seen it, but what if it’s already sold and the vendor is in Northumberland wherever the heck that is, what time is it there anyway,  I can call right now but wait, it’s way too much money and what if Bob’s picked up a copy since I last checked his wants list, well heck, he isn’t the only customer on the planet and I can afford it sort of now that I got that other order so I call and some grumpy English dealer says yes he has it and prices are net to all on internet orders and I bite my lip and just manage to refrain from screaming at him about trade courtesy and common decency and how the pound’s killing us right now anyway and I ask him to send it by air data post with no value declared so he sends it FedEx collect fully insured and it costs $350 plus brokerage fees and sits in customs for a week because he didn’t put my phone number on the package, and when it arrives it’s nowhere near as nice as I’d hoped so I call Bob with my heart in my mouth and no, he doesn’t have it but like a wimp I already told him a price that included a whopping 10% markup so I can’t even make a decent profit but at least I’m not stuck with owning it at that price since, as we all know, great collectors are few and far between and thanks to the internet the competition for their dough has gotten wicked and it’s such a trick to find the right book at the right price at the right time for the right customer that even as experienced a rare bookman as Nicolas Barker once called dealing in rare books a version of the Indian rope trick the final economics of which he could never understand. 

Nabokov's Butterfly

Nabokov's Butterfly

Rick Gekoski
Rick Gekoski

All of which leads me to recommend wholeheartedly a new book about book dealing by Rick Gekoski called “Nabokov’s Butterfly and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books” which appeared in England under the title of “Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books” late last year and is in its third printing there. Full disclosure: Rick and I once partnered a book together that was too good not to sell itself at once, so of course it didn’t, and it languished on my shelves for a couple of years, starred in a catalogue (illustrated), was shown at umpteen book fairs, languished in Rick’s care in London ditto, came back to me for seconds and even failed to sell at a Bonham’s auction on a reserve that might have just got us our money back, only to sell recently at full price with a good chance that by the time you read this (I’m writing just after Christmas) we might have (a) been paid and (b) split the proceeds, events which do not always follow hard upon each other’s heels in our trade, sad to say.  

Rick has been a tolerant and good-natured partner so I confess to some prejudice on his behalf when I picked up his new and rather nicely printed book.  Oh, you want to know what the book we partnered was?  I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you so just use your imagination.  Peter, Rick’s colleague in his business, who can put the kibosh on a modern first at fifty feet without breaking a sweat, memorably said of our treasure: “If they don’t buy it while they’re still laughing, it won’t sell”, and for years he was right damn his eyes.  Anyway, back to Rick’s book for which he engagingly chose a simple theme – the purchase and sale of twenty modern first editions with attendant details of general interest.  

Tamara Ustinov

Tamara Ustinov

Rick is a friendly, shaggy-haired fellow who reminds me of Peter Ustinov (whose gorgeous daughter Tamara I was at kindergarten with but that’s another story– Julie Christie was there too – I was a magnet for beautiful women from an early age); in fact, Rick and I have a number of things in common but in reverse such as his D.Phil at Oxford and my Ph.D at Berkeley (a.b.d); his running books round the English trade whilst I was flogging Rackhams and press books to Duschnes and Howell; he’s a Yank living in England and I’m a Brit living in America;

Julie Christie

Julie Christie

but one thing I don’t have in common with Rick is an inventory of, and, more importantly, (for the books can always be had), great customers for milestones of twentieth-century literature.

When I worked at Quaritch in London in the 1960s I was placed, after an apprenticeship in the basement sweeping, packing, and dusting, as the junior assistant in the department of modern first editions, which in those days was books after 1700.  Twentieth-century books were virtually ignored though they came and went in profusion, and the dust-jacket fetish had not yet reared its ugly head.  How well I recall picking up several boxes of books from the Mews house of a customer one gray London day and, as I was loading them up, said collector popped his head out of the upstairs window shouting “I don’t suppose you want the bloody dust-jackets do you? I couldn’t bear to throw them away”. Back I went muttering under my breath and there they all were, lying flat in library drawers absolutely mint and unfaded, unlike the books.  I wonder how many of those books have since been rejected by the modern firsts pundits as “married copies.”  

Tolkien's Gown

Tolkien's Gown

Rick writes of “Lolita”, that seductive book in its green wrappers with the funny “point” about the price sticker, but not any “Lolita”, oh no, try Graham Greene’s copy inscribed to him by Nabokov, he whose influence had played such an important role in getting the book published; and with a disarming honesty Rick tells us how much he paid for it (£4,000 which Greene thought too much and tried to take less), how much he sold it for (£9,000), to whom (Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist and the nicest man with a ponytail I ever met), and most delightfully not complaining like most dealers (e.g. me) of selling it too cheaply but instead, coining a phrase new to me but utterly indicative of Rick’s style, of having “under-owned” it.  How often we sell too quickly and regret not the loss of any potential increase in price but the sheer joy of pausing at an idle moment and suddenly remembering that a certain book is right there on the shelf or in the safe, letting us feel a warm glow to know that for this little shard of time it rests more or less safely with us.

His chapter on Tolkien and “The Hobbit” gave the British edition its (much better) title “Tolkien’s Gown …” for Rick had acquired the professor’s black academic garb in an entertaining way and sold it through his second catalogue for £550 to an American which led to a hilarious conversation with Julian Barnes who wanted to know if Rick would like to have Gertrude Stein’s bra or D. H. Lawrence’s  underpants.  I myself have bought and sold Edith Sitwell’s stockings, Lawrence of Arabia’s boots, and a pair of earrings made from lions’ fangs given by Rudyard Kipling to his wife.  I am frequently amazed  at how creative we booksellers are in our buying and selling and how uncreative we are in recording our trade and recognizing our geniuses.  I wonder why we don’t we have an annual dinner where awards are given for Most Interesting Single Item, Catalogue,  Best Illustration, Most Ambitious Price, Bargain of the Year, Greatest Book Fair Display, Best New Dealer, perhaps a special lifetime achievement award – our  very own Oscars, which could be called Rosies after the Doctor, or perhaps Bernies after Mr. Quaritch or until recently Mr. Shapero.  

I would nominate Rick for Best Memoir, by a long shot, not falsely self-effacing or (worse) grandiosely rattling off the names of famous and wealthy customers and tedious details of huge auction purchases with other people’s money, but a real nuts and bolts account of buying, sweating, selling, sweating, and buying again with his own dough, the merry-go-round of our so-called business.  His chapters on Wilde, Kerouac, Salinger, Joyce, Lawrence (Tiny Edward, not Dirty Herbert), Plath, Waugh, Hemingway, Eliot, Orwell, Greene etc., all breathe new and fresh air into what have been very stagnant waters for way too long.  More surprising and equally delightful are his chapters on Rushdie, Rowling and Larkin with which he closes out a book far too short though I suppose I should be grateful as I began reading it at 9:00 p.m. while my better half was watching CSI, a TV show so grisly I can’t bear to be within earshot as even the sound effects gross me out though she, otherwise the gentlest and most loving of creatures, can’t bear to miss an episode – so I retired to bed with Rick and chastely enjoyed his company until 3:30 a.m. when I finished the last tale.  

My only criticism, and I have since re-read it to be sure it wasn’t some sleep-deprived euphoria that caused me to be so over the top about “Nabokov’s Butterfly a.k.a. Tolkien’s Gown” is that he only mentions two book dealers in the entire book and, to save you all worrying if you’re one of them, they are Ed Maggs and Glenn Horowitz (no comment, as I’m terrified of them both for utterly different reasons).  

Of all the bookshops

Of all the bookshops

Frankly I was crushed – we’re partners after all, Rick and me, Ricko as I call him, der Rickster when we’re joking around, Rikitikitavi, we’ve bought cheap and sold dear together, that should have got me a footnote if not a paragraph and frankly Rick, of all the bookshops in all the towns in all the world, I sure hope you’ll walk into mine someday soon so I can tell you how hurt I was – so hurt I had to make my review of your book all about me.  So it goes buddy, and you can laugh all the way to the bank; me, I’m working on my autobiography and you can bet I’m not sending a copy to you for review.



by beatiewolfe

London dealer Sam Fogg tells Beatie Wolfe the secrets of his success

Sam Fogg is probably the most glamorous and successful of the new generation of British dealers, dominating the market for manuscripts. He is renowned for his ‘eye’ and has brought to his field a fine appreciation of the arts of illumination and calligraphy, both Western and Asian. He has enlarged the traditional repertoire by dealing in various art objects and antiquities, from mediaeval reliquaries to beautiful Islamic bowls decorated with Kufic script – not to mention the occasional Old Master painting. His gallery on the corner of Cork and Clifford Street in London is a treasure trove, where you will often find dazzling, scholarly, museum-quality exhibitions.


I didn’t decide to become a bookseller; I fell into it by accident. In my early 20s I was determined to be an artist and that’s what I was until I reached about 25. Then I started helping a friend with a stall outdoors on the Portobello Road on Saturdays and, after a while, I got my own pitch. I happened to do better with the stall than I was doing at painting and I enjoyed it more than painting to a point. Then I started having children and so needed money, and I realised that I was doing more bookselling and less painting and I was actually enjoying it. The day I realised that, I stopped painting and just started focusing on bookselling.


I had my stall on the Portobello Road under the bridge for about 18 months. Then I was a runner for two or three years, running all kinds of books to people like Ian Hodgkins, Francis Edwards, Sims and Reed. I would go all over the Home Counties on buses visiting secondhand bookshops and then selling to people in London. I think that was the time I most enjoyed as a dealer. I went into partnership with Max Reed and John Sims in the early 80s and did art reference books for four years. And then I started on my own and began specialising in mediaeval manuscripts, although I’ve always tried to cover all kinds of books if possible, like most booksellers, just to have a crack at anything.


I dealt for two or three years in post war artists’ books, documentation of contemporary artists, multiples, etc, and I loved that. But it has always seemed obvious to me that the greatest books are mediaeval manuscripts. I think they are the most thrilling, beautiful and wonderful books. I like to cover what other people haven’t got. I don’t enjoy looking over my shoulder, thinking, ‘What does he have?’ ‘How much is he charging for that copy?’ ‘Is my copy worse or better?’ ‘What did this copy make in the last auction?’ With manuscripts you can make up your own mind whether they should be cheap or expensive. I do printed books as well, but mostly Asian printed books, Chinese printed books, and they are so rare that they’re like manuscripts. What one can rarely say about a European book, that it’s the only known copy or surviving text, can be said more often than not for a Chinese book.


I’ve tried creating new customers for books and manuscripts by finding clients for paintings and other works of art and then moving them onto manuscripts. But that’s quite difficult actually, as people who buy books are mostly not the same people who buy other works of art. I think the key to successful dealing is to try to become the best or one of the best for a particular kind of item so then the clients will find you. We put a lot of effort into our catalogues; we produce two or three a year and make them look as beautiful as we can. We get the best scholars we can find to write them and either focus on an area where people aren’t dealing or try to present it in a new way. This can bring us new clients but amazingly sometimes it doesn’t.


For ten years I besieged one of the great stately homes of England to get a collection of books. Every year I put several days of time into chasing down this collection; I made many trips and each year I got closer and closer. I thought it was mine but just at the moment when the hand goes to the mouth, it was snatched from my fingers by an English collector acting through a major London bookseller. That hurt. It took the wind out of my sails. So I made a little note to myself that I would never again invest ten years in trying to get something out of the English aristocracy because it hurts too much if you fail.


Five years ago I bought a page of a manuscript from a continental dealer. I was offered it at a very large price with seconds to make up my mind. It turned out to be a leaf that had gone missing from the Turin-Milan Hours, sometime in the 17th century. If you’re interested in mediaeval manuscripts, the Turin-Milan Hours is very important because it’s many people’s idea of the greatest mediaeval manuscript of all. Of course it’s a matter of taste, some people would choose the Trés Riches or the Golden Gospels, but the majority would choose the Turin-Milan. The artist who was in charge of producing the paintings was Jan van Eyck so it is one of the greatest manuscripts in the world and you would not count on finding a missing page. Of course it was only a page from a book but a page from a book that is far greater than most books.


They do forge manuscripts, they always have, but I think they’re easier to spot than other kinds of forgeries. There are so many things you have to get right: the paper, ink, appearance, patina, not to mention what is written on the manuscript, and that is very difficult. I don’t think I have ever been caught by a fake except perhaps one Chinese printed book, but they’ve been faking Chinese printed books for two thousand years so they’re just as good to have as the real ones. I did come very close to getting caught by a fake miniature once, though.


The amount of information, literature and published knowledge people have easy access to for buying and selling has increased so vastly, not just with the internet. When I started it was a case of instinct and what you had personally learned through talking to people and viewing books. That used to be very important and now obviously it is much less so. In the past you didn’t just need to know the necessary information, you needed to have it in your head or else it wasn’t much use to you.


As always the trade should be led by what people want. I think that the art market and the book trade tend to be full of sellers who deal in what they like or what they know about, which may indeed be what the public wants, but it may not be. Dealers can guide and modify what people want but it’s the clients who decide what’s desirable and so, in the end, it’s going to be led by them.


I’ve noticed from dealing in other areas that there is a particular vice that booksellers seem to have, which is to hang on to their mistakes, books that perhaps they shouldn’t have bought. What I’d say to a novice bookseller is if you can’t sell a book reasonably quickly than ditch it even if it means you lose money. As long as you have an open mind you can use the money to buy something else and make money on that. I see so many booksellers surrounded by stock that they are unable to sell and I ask myself why have they still got it, unless they have limitless capital of course. You’ve got to keep rolling the dice.

All I Want for Christmas …

by Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

All I actually wanted for Christmas was for the ABA Shelf Fulfillment Blog to be up and running.  And here it is – thank you to the Bibliodeviant.  Technical issues concerning the slotting together of numerous and disparate contributors are at least partially resolved – so here we go with the lighter or at least the less serious side of the rare book world.

You will read it all here – straight from the top shelf – and sometimes from the bottom one.  The latest news, the latest gossip, the nooks, crannies, dark corners and lighter thoughts.  Over to the team of contributors –with my best wishes.

Merry Christmas, one and all.  Laurence Worms, ABA President 2011.