Hay Fever and UK Book Fairs


The Bookdealer in an editorial to the 1998 mid summer London bookfairs commented on the "hierarchical structure for the passage of rare, unusual and antiquarian books, often through several dealers' hands to a summit largely occupied by ABA members. Without a healthy head the entire body of the trade is weakened". This British structure is perhaps not as clearly reflected in bookfairs and the bibliophilic "rites of passage" in Australia. My holiday travels in 1998 from the Eleventh Hay on Wye Literary Festival and the cheapest remainder shop in that town to the exalted and glittering pinnacle of the Thirty - Fourth International Antiquarian Bookfair, held for the first time in the large, open and somewhat desolate spaces of Olympia, from June 4-7 clearly exemplified the above trend.

To begin at the beginning. The Hay on Wye Literary Festival is now billed as the world's largest literary Festival. Adelaide and Melbourne may well quibble at this term but Hay on Wye is certainly the most rural. Cows and sheep feed in the nearby fields next to the various tents in which hundreds of authors talk and sign books over a ten day period. According to local report £ 4 million pounds were banked in the first five days of the festival and the local secondhand bookshops and did more business during the Festival then they did during the whole of one month. Apparently 45,000 people attended but this must have included the people who booked multiple sessions.

The concept of Hay on Wye as a world bookshop centre, "the town of books" (38 bookshops at last count) owes its foundation to Richard Booth in 1961 with a shop in the Old Fire Station. Booth is now something of a pale shadow because of illness and the financial downturn of his once famous bookselling strength. When I met him in the early 1970's he owned much of the secondhand bookshop retail space in town and was a successful global businessman with a Rolls Royce parked outside the Castle. Booth alleges that the Lion Street shop has "a stock of more secondhand books than any second hand bookshop in the world" but on a simple shop size this seems unlikely. As the Independent on Sunday wrote in May "He no longer lives in the castle, which was partially destroyed by a fire in 1978 and has never been fully restored. In 1982 he was forced to sell the bookshop he had created in the town's disused cinema to Leon Morelli, an entrepreneur who was attracted to Hay by Booth's pioneering work but who became the King's rival. Their squabbles still fill the letters page of the local paper from time to time."

The general quality of stock in Hay is very mixed. Some bookshops are simply remainder shops, while others have quality stock. The genre specialist shops are perhaps the best eg. in crime, maps, children's material although an excellent shop specialising in poetry closed down for good in the week of the 1998 Hay Festival. Their Australian section was interesting with Geoffrey Dutton's first book Night Flight and Sunrise (1944) for £ 10 and an inscribed first edition of Alistair Kershaw's Excellent Stranger (1946) for the same price. Cheap 1930's first editions of Roy Campbell's poems would have delighted South African buyers but one wonders this poetry market was too specialised for the general "punter". Prices generally at Hay were well below subsequent London book fair prices.

The Old Cinema Bookshop (formerly owned by Booth) offers the combination of a large "warehouse" stock with the speciality expertise of a Francis Edwards antiquarian shop. The Old Cinema Bookshop (OCB) also ships books overseas which surprisingly (given the number of Hay's international clientele) several others refused to do. This author will be grateful to the OCB, as one specialist shop, run by Derek Addyman, told me that they didn't ship books but that the Old Cinema Bookshop would willingly do so on their own behalf. This seemed highly unlikely and a request for a written note to this effect was said to be unnecessary. I received an "we're all mates" spiel. On arrival at the Old Cinema Books increduility was evident at this attitude but since I'd bought material at the Old Cinema bookshop they kindly added them to a pile of books to be shipped. Be warned.

Buying and shipping books in and from the UK is not cheap given the £ /$ ratio. The cost of shipping books is far higher from the UK than the USA. Outside of bookshops British Post Office staff quoted and charged (till I learnt better) a range of £ 1.75 to £ 8.50 for two books of roughly the same size for surface mail to Australia, irrespective of purchasing packing as well. US post office offer bags and ready made boxes for private individuals so, apart from the cost of buying books in English pounds given the dollar decline, the sending of books can be cumbersome and expensive in UK, particularly when you get stuck in a line of pensioners cashing their Giros.

The Bloomsbury Book Fairs, run by HD Book Fairs, (the first rung of the hierarchical ladder!) were held in the Royal National Hotel in Woborn Place (round the corner from the Hotel Russell) with three overlapping fairs from Saturday 30 May to Tuesday 2nd June. Free admission, more relaxed dress style and cheaper prices categorised the Fairs. The last day discounting of stock (frowned upon at Australian book fairs) did seem to pay dividends as one dealer slashed his prices by 80% on the last afternoon - his stock soon moved! Book Fairs Ltd ran the London Book Fair at the Bonnington Hotel 2-3 June (claustrophobic and small but free entry) and the 'Annual International Book Fair' at the Olympia Hilton (4-5 June), the latter close to Olympia to catch the ABA spin off.

The PBFA (Provincial Book Fair Association) had two fairs at the Hotel Russell, Bloomsbury from May 31 to July 3. Entry was by catalogue (£ 5) which basically provided a list of dealers, their location, and their stock speciality and index and one or two of their highlights ranging from the Dandy monster Comic 1939 (for 1940) at £ 875 to a copy of Sir Thomas Stamford's The History of Java (london, 1817), lacking the map of Java and damage to final pages of volume two!

Australasian, New Zealand and the Pacific were specifically mentioned in the index to the catalogue by Peter Baring; Antipodean Books; Reed Lion Books; J and S.L. Bonham and Square Edge Bookshop, the latter offering the first edition of Katherine Mansfield's Prelude (Hogarth Press, 1918) for £ 430. The Second Fair at the Russell was very crowded and dealers seemed to be doing good business. As usual the 'Fawlty Towers' syndrome was evident in some dealers. One potential buyer of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient at £ 90! was rudely told "Can't you see that it's sold because it's on the bottom shelf" but there was no indication that it was sold nor that the bottom shelf was to be untouched. It still seems remarkable to me that two people were willing to pay over $200 Australian for this item. Another salutary warning came from a first edition dealer to his offsider - "stay till 7.30 (the fair closed at 7pm) as any punters left will nick the books". A sad indictment of our times?

Barry Humphries opened the Olympia "glittering pinnacle" ABA Fair, although many of the 146 booksellers (from eleven countries) remained rooted to their stalls and ignored Humphries. Humphries provided the printed introduction to the Book Fair catalogue and said it would become a collectors item because of a number of misprints in his Introduction (which he kindly corrected in my copy). One dealer said there was no chance to proofread entries so there are a number of errors in their final catalogue.

Humphries departed from the set text of his introduction (of which more below) to say that his original inspiration for book collecting was started when he bought books in his youth in a Melbourne bookshop. Then as now one's life could be fraught with danger as "you never know where an old book had been". Bookdealers were transmogrified into "askers" as after are asking a price they often doubled it. Humphries could see "askers of distinction" in the Olympia audience. In the glittering Olympia surrounds he said even his mother would have approved of "askers"!

He had an ambition to be a second hand book dealer but he could never sell a book for more than he paid for it. He was "God's gift to the rare book trade", often buying items at four time more their real value. "Booksellers' eyes lit up quicker than their computer screens" when he walked in their shops! Booksellers, however, were much to be praised - they were "gifted vagabonds", although Humphries doubted they would be able to find any other!

In the printed introduction Humphries wrote "Of course, to the collector all books are worthy of inspection: even the most tragically despoiled and degraded volumes which have long ceased to be read and are now meretricious decoration; props in some fumid tavern or trendy restaurant purveying 'British nosh' to the video generation. One always hopes to discover a long-sought title to liberate from some unlikely gulag of neglect and obscurity. A rare opuscule to re-unite in one's hospitable shelves with its brethren by the same forgotten author. Soon we may be satisfied to experience the search and the thrill of discovery by means of a virtual reality machine. It will be sufficient, perhaps, to don a wet suit and plug into the antiquarian bookshop of our dreams. Inserting my 'Wants list' software, my brain caressed by artfully programmed electrodes, I will at last reach up - or believe myself to be so doing - and pluck from a dusty shelf that long-desired copy of Biddle-Cope's At Century's Ebb, or Francis Jacox's intriguing compendium Bible Music. With what ecstasy might I then discover Beckford's impossible Epitaphs, or in a 20p bin, Bernard Cape's elusive collection of tales Bag and Baggage and Murray Gilchrist's The Stone Dragon, Marmaduke Pickthall's rare first novel All Fools or Edward Heron-Allen's The Princess Daphne". A wonderful choice to open the first Fair at Olympia.

Bearing in mind that one of the themes at the Fair was 'fin de siecle,' there were several important items relating to Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. This year is the centenary of the death of Beardsley. Amongst the highlights were proofs of all three suppressed Beardsley plates from Salome by Oscar Wilde (1894) offered by Barrie Marks, the price being £ 16,500. Maggs Bros showed an ink and wash drawing The Lady at the Dressing Table, signed with Beardsley's monogram (£ 35,000). Simon Finch Rare Books Ltd exhibited a two page illustrated letter from Beardsley complete with self caricatures sketches and a poem (£ 16,000).

Other major items included Topographie (1642-1736) by M Zeiller & M Merian, consisting of 31 titles bound in 18 volumes with over 2000 engraved views, maps and plans of the continent of Europe. This item offered by Bruce Marshall Rare Books, was one of the largest illustrated engraved topographical works and priced at £ 45000. Donald Heald of New York displayed Audubon's Birds of America (New York, 1856), the second octave edition and the first with coloured backgrounds, was on sale for £ 20,000; while the "greatest Camellia book", Laurent Berlese's Iconographie du Genre Camellia (Paris 1839-43) was available at £ 36,000, with Robert John Thornton's The New Illustrations of the Sexual System of Linnaeus...the Temple of Flora (London, 1794-1807), the greatest English botanical colour plate books, at £ 120,000.

Adrian Harrington of Kensington in London offered a composite collection of editions relating to Captain Cook include John Hawkesworth's Account, Cook's Voyages (1777 and 1784) and the 1784 Atlas for £ 18,750; a signed first edition of Goldfinger by Ian Fleming (London, 1959) at £ 3,750 and Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population (London, 1798) at £ 47,500. The stock of the Heritage Bookshop from Los Angeles covered a wide range of stock and prices. Highlights included Agricola's De re metallica (First edition, Basle 1556, $25,000US); an autographed second edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1866, $8,000US); the first edition of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (Chicago, 1918, $3,500); an inscribed 1957 Elvis Presley photograph $2,000; a two page autograph manuscript of Leo Tolstoy $2,000 and a gem of modern calligraphy by Alberto Sangorski of W.C. Bryant's Selected Poems (London, ?1914) at $35,000 US - the former Doheny Collection copy.

First editions bounded up the cyclical chain. I tracked several Hay on Wye bookdealer signings to the Hotel Russell in one week with consequent rise in price. At Olympia Peter Stern of Boston offered Eric Ambler's Uncommon Danger (London, 1937) for £ 4,500; one of only four presentation sets of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbevilles at £ 45,000; George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (london, 1937, £ 15000) and the first edition of Tolkien's The Hobbit (London, 1937) £ 12,000.

Paul Minet, the veteran English bookdealer, who founded the then Antiquarian Book Monthly Review has written "not only did this fair contain more exhibitors than any previous ABA Fair, it attracted many more customers and also took more money, although details are not available as I write (but I have seen enough figures to be fairly sure of my facts)."

Book fairs are alive and well in the UK. We surely need more in Australia. The Canberra Antiquarian Book Fair seems to be imploding due to administrative uncertainties. From a situation four year ago when dealers were turned away this July's Festival was down to ten, although Nick Dawes of Grants Bookshop apparently reported good business - there weren't too many in his categories to vie with him! Better and more niche marketing in advance, eg. sports memorabilia to sporting groups even in depressed times would surely attract the numbers if not the UK prices? When do we get hay fever down under?

Updated:  20 March 2013/ Responsible Officer:  University Librarian/ Page Contact:  Library Systems & Web Coordinator