In an earlier Jot we discussed the prison ordeal suffered by the prolific novelist Rupert Croft-Cooke for homosexual activity with two sailors, comparing it to the conviction of British hero and computer genius Dr Alan Turing for a similar offence at about the same time. We are now going to look at Croft-Cooke’s brief period as a second hand bookseller between the wars.
Working in a second hand bookshop is, for obvious reasons, a popular means of earning a crust for struggling writers. George Orwell is probably the best-known bookshop assistant, but there are others, including Brian Aldiss, whose debut publication, The Brightfount Diaries, was a fictionalised account of his days working in an Oxford antiquarian bookshop. However, more than a few writers actually ran bookshops themselves, including an American novelist. Another was the diminutive film director and actor- turned thriller writer Brian Forbes, who owned a rather glamorous bookshop in Virginia Water, just a mile or so from his distinctly swanky home near Wentworh golf course.
Some of these bookshop owners/writers began as collectors and, as in the case of Forbes, earned enough from their other occupations, both past and present, to continue their collecting activity. However, it seemed that Croft-Cooke was never a book collector in the classic sense when in 1928, at the age of 24, before he had established himself as a novelist, he decided to open a shop with his brother in Rochester High Street.
After, rather bravely, considering his inexperience, publishing a catalogue of ‘360 items, many of them priced at no more than half-a-crown’, and some others priced way below the market value , he began the interminable round of auctions in and around north Kent. His aim, as he explained in his memoirs of this period, The last of Spring(1964) was to be accepted and indeed respected as a serious member of the ‘ book trade ‘, rather than as a wanabee writer who just dabbled as a way of financing his real passion. There is a wonderful passage in these memoirs that paints a colourful picture of just how the ‘trade’ operated back then, and essentially still does. Second hand bookselling has hardly changed at all in the intervening years, the main difference now being that the Internet has enabled dealers to sell and to bid from the comfort of their own homes.
Croft-Cooke goes on to reveal just how significant a factor in the book trade the ‘Ring ‘ was back then. This scheme, whereby a group of dealers in the saleroom would agree amongst themselves not to bid against one another for a certain valuable mixed lot, but to assign one member the task of acquiring the lot at the lowest price possible. Later, the various members of the Ring would hold their own private auction in a café or pub by which means each dealer would end up with the items they wanted. Such a scheme, which denied the vendor an opportunity of getting the highest price through competitive bidding at an open sale , was, and still is regarded as unethical, though hard to prove. Croft-Cooke, however, expresses sympathy for dealers trying to make a decent living, however deviously, rather than with the vendor, who of course could also be a struggling dealer.
More of Croft-Cooke’s adventures in the fascinating world of rare books in a future Jot.