Book Collecting for Fun and Profit by Bill McBride. An American perspective (1).

Mr McBride, an American dealer based in Hartford, Connecticut, published his pocket-sized guide to book collecting and dealing for  $9.95 in 1997, but twenty six years later, things in the second hand book world haven’t changed that much, except perhaps that the Internet now plays a much bigger part in the whole business.

This Jot is a commentary on what McBride has to say on collecting and dealing from an American standpoint, though it should be emphasised that throughout the Western world there is very little difference in how collectors and dealers regard books today compared with how such a book maven as Slater ( see previous Jots) saw the business back in 1892.

Let’s start with McBride’s first piece of advice.

Rule One: buy what you like.

‘ Books can be proven to be good investments, but the wisdom to know what to buy seems clearest only in hindsight: “ twenty-five years ago, if you had bought such-and-such a book, it would be worth a hundred times its original price.”. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to pick the ones that will perform that well out of the millions of new books published in English, world-wide.’

‘ Almost impossible’, perhaps, but not impossible. McBride is talking about new books. But if the author in question  is an established figure with a world-wide reputation (perhaps he or she is a Nobel prize winner) the possibility of that author’s latest novel or collection not rising in value is a no-brainer. If you had bought, for example, a first edition of Philip Larkin’s High Window when it appeared in 1974 you could put your house on it rising in value considerably within twenty years, even if you didn’t know that it would be the poet’s final collection.

But new novelists? Yes, ‘almost impossible ‘.In the same year (1997) that McBride’s guide appeared someone called J. K. Rowling brought out Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone , following its rejection by a number of leading publishers of children’s fiction. Each year literally thousands of new books for children are published in the UK. No-one could have predicted that Ms Rowling’s book would turn out to be the international sensation that it became. Bloomsbury obviously had faith in their new author, but not faith enough to bring out more than a smallish edition. The book received mainly rave reviews for the originality of its plot and characterisation. The edition sold out and a new edition was reprinted. Fans of the book couldn’t wait for the next Harry Potter story and they didn’t have to wait long. Readers who had bought the debut novel  because they liked stories about schoolboys defying their parents and adults and getting mixed up in magic in a special school for magicians found, twenty years later, that their  pocket money had bought a book worth many thousands of pounds. They had bought what they liked and had ended up with a good ‘investment ‘. 

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Ransome on review copies, book stalls and bookshops

Jot 101 Ransome on book reviews Wych Street 1901We have seen ( previous Jot) how, in his first book, Bohemia in London, the young Arthur Ransome was happy to confess his bibliophilia. He seemed to love second hand books more than brand new ones, but he hated the practice of selling unwanted books ( whether new or second hand, he doesn’t say) given as gifts ending up on bookseller’s shelves. Certain people feel no guilt about doing this; they assume, wrongly, that they will never be found out, but if the gift is inscribed there is a reasonable chance that the bibliophile who gifted the book will discover it in some bookshop or bookstall eventually.


What is far more reprehensible, however, is the sense of betrayal felt by someone who having taken into their home a friend, colleague or relation down on their luck, discovers that this lodger has been stealing books from their shelves to sell to book dealers. This wouldn’t have happened to the impoverished young Ransome, of course, but it did happen to the comparatively well-off Geoffrey Grigson while editor of New Verse.Grigson, like Ransome in his time, would’ve been sent dozens of books to review each week, most of which he would have sold to second hand booksellers. Other books for review he would have kept for his own collection, particularly those published by fellow poets he particularly admired, such as Auden, MacNeice and Wyndham Lewis. Grigson also held regular parties for his New Versecontributors at his home in Keats Grove, and it is more than likely that on these occasions he would have asked some of his guests to sign the review copies he had retained for his own use. It is equally, likely, of course, that a grateful guest would have presented a signed copy of his book to Grigson.


Whatever the circumstances, Grigson must have assembled a decent collection of books, including ‘modern firsts’ at Keats Grove.  And it was at Keats Grove that Grigson and his American wife Frances first met the young Ruthven Todd, ‘an unemployable, persistent, rather squalid-looking tall, grey oddity ‘ who wrote poetry and  turned out to be a book thief. At one point he actually showed Grigson a copy of MacNeice’s Blind Fireworksinscribed by the poet to his wife. This could only have come from the library of MacNeice himself. Anyway, a few years later Grigson and his wife moved to Wildwood Terrace, not far from the Old Bush and Bush, and it was here that Todd turned up again, this time to take up the offer of bed and board for 10 shillings a week. Unfortunately, Todd couldn’t even afford this negligible sum, so he took to stealing from Grigson’s bookshelves.  The whole sorry story, as Grigson tells it in Recollections,is distinctly farcical:


‘…a bookseller whose shop I frequented in Cecil Court..…told me he had just bought ten shillings’ worth of books in one of which was a letter addressed to me. I was in that shop again some weeks later: the bookseller had bought more books—always ten shillings’ worth or thereabouts—from the same seller, in one of which this time was my signature, and the seller was—Ruthven Todd. Between us we kept the arrangement going for some time. Ruthven bought the books to Cecil Court, the bookseller paid him the required ten shillings. Ruthven with scrupulous regularity paid the ten shillings to me wife, and I went down to Cecil Court, and retrieved the books, for ten shillings… We never taxed the Innocent Thief with his theft, this generous creature who seldom came to see us without some present, paid for God knows how, for the children . Continue reading

Arthur Ransome on second hand books


Years before he achieved fame as the author of Swallows and AmazonsArthur Ransome published his first book, Bohemia in London(1907), which is now very sought after, copies Jot 101 Bohemia in London coverin  collectable condition fetching £500 or more.

At the time he was working as a poorly paid journalist, but as Bohemia strongly suggests, he was spending most of his salary gathering material for this book by mingling with Bohemian types of all kinds mainly in pubs in and around Chelsea, where he lived. He was also buying second hand books. One of the opening anecdotes of his chapter on bookshops and bookstalls concerns the copy of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy that he acquired for 8/- from a book dealer in central London. At the time he had just  a few shillings  in his pocket and was planning to visit a restaurant on the way home to his digs. He ended up spending everything he had on him which meant carrying the two heavy volumes under his arms, going hungry that evening and having to walk home, rather than taking an omnibus or Underground train. Ransome also doesn’t give many details about the edition of the Anatomy, but we can be fairly sure that at 8/- it wasn’t a very early edition and certainly not a first.

The appeal of such an old fashioned tome to someone with an addiction to such treasures reminds us of Lamb’s essay entitled ‘ Old China ‘ in which his sister Mary, in the guise of Bridget, recalls the acquisition of a folio Beaumont and Fletcher that her brother  had ‘ dragged home late at night  from Barker’s in Covent-garden ‘ to their home in Colebrooke Row, Islington in the early 1800s.

‘ Do you remember how we eyed it for weeks before we could make up our minds to the purchase, and had not come to a determination  till it was near ten o’clock f the Saturday night, when you set off from Islington, fearing you should be too late —and when the old bookseller with some grumbling opened his shop and by the twinkling taper ( for he was setting bedwards ) lighted out the relic from his dusty treasures—when you lugged it home, wishing it were twice as cumbersome —and when you presented it to me —and when you were exploring the perfectness of it ( collating you called it )—and while I was repairing some of the loose leaves with paste, which you patience would not suffer to be left till day-break—was there no pleasure in being a poor man ?’   Continue reading

Walter Jerrold as book collector

Autolycus of bookstalls 001We at Jot 101 had not imagined the travel writer and biographer Walter Jerrold ( 1865 – 1929 ) to be a frequenter of second-hand bookstalls, but there he is as an unabashed collector of ‘unconsidered trifles ‘ in  Autolycus of the Bookstalls (1902), a collection of articles on book-collecting that first appeared in The Pall Mall GazetteDaily News, the New Age, and Londoner.

But as we already knew him as a biographer of Charles Lamb we should have known better, and indeed he mentions Lamb several times in his book. Jerrold’s range as a bibliophile was wider than Lamb’s, but he seems to have been particularly drawn to writers of the Romantic period. He wrote about collecting Thomas Hood, Cobbett, Coleridge, Southey, and Rev Sydney Smith, while also mentioning books on Oliver Cromwell and Ruskin. In addition, he appears to have rather liked association copies of all dates, and boasted that he had ‘snapped up ‘volumes bearing the signatures of Cardinal Manning, George Eliot, Sydney Smith and Thomas Noon Talfourd at ‘Metropolitan stalls’ in recent years. Jerrold was also tickled at the idea of buying books that had been displayed in the windows of very unliterary shops—in one particular instance an ‘ oil and colourman’s shop in the Seven Dials’, where a first of Ruskin’s Political Economy of Art and a Tennyson signed by George Eliot rubbed shoulders with ‘ soap, soda, pickles and jam ‘. Finding literary treasures in unlikely stores was probably more common in Jerrold’s time than it is now, although your Jotter does recall his first entry into collecting back in 1968, when he found an odd volume of the fifth edition of Johnson’s Dictionary and a battered early edition of Gay’s Fables, complete with nice copper plates, in the window of a car mechanic’s shop opposite Sketty Library in Swansea, along with spanners and a grease gun. After negotiating with the mechanic he secured the two tomes for just 2/6 ( 12p ).

Jerrold favoured ‘ Booksellers’ Row ( aka Holywell Street, off the Strand ), a disreputable  area cleared for the construction of Aldwych c 1900, from where he moved to ‘ that newer Booksellers’ Row which has sprung up in Charing Cross Road ‘, itself a product of slum clearance a little earlier. He also ( in passing ) mentions the stalls in Farringdon Street, for so many decades dominated by the Jeffrey family (see earlier blog in Bookride) , and Aldgate, in addition to the New Cut opposite Waterloo station. The two latter sites went many years ago and following the demise of George Jeffrey, the Farringdon bookstalls, where a lucky punter a few decades ago bought an early sixteenth century scribal copy of a work by Sir Thomas More for a few pounds, folded within a year or so. Today the only surviving ‘Booksellers’ Row ‘ is in Charing Cross Road. Continue reading

An Onitsha Market pamphlet


Onitsha Market pamphlets appear to be a niche collecting area.There are some amusing examples in semi pidgin English about how to court and pick up girls, also  well written political and economic booklets. They are also referred to as African Market literature… There are quite a few at abebooks including a collection  of 30 at $2000 with Harper’s in the Hampton’s NY (‘…most of it characterized by sensational, and even slightly prurient, content, rustic production values, and a disarmingly naive, to an American reader’s eyes at least, approach to its subject matter.’) Brittanica defines them thus: ‘ A 20th-century genre of sentimental, moralistic novellas and pamphlets produced by a semiliterate school of writers (students, fledgling journalists, and taxi drivers) and sold at the bustling Onitsha market in eastern Nigeria.’
There is a good book on the subject An African Popular Literature: A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets by Emmanuel N. Obiechina. Here is our catalogue description of one just found–

The Complete Story And Trial Of Adolf Hitler by J C Andrue.

8vo. pp 36. Marked up throughout in red pen, probably by the author. Appears to be for a future edition, almost all the notes are to do with typography and appearance (indents, italics, bold, type sizes etc.,)  

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A Century of Best Sellers


Florence Barclay

Part two—the obscure and the one-hit wonders

Part one dealt with the ‘big names’. Now, we are looking at the lesser fry who nonetheless were best-sellers between 1830 and 1930

G.W.M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of the Courts of London (8 vols, 1848 – 55).

Occasionally to be found in second hand bookshops, but rarely bought. In 1924 the TLSpronounced Reynolds as ‘ by far the greatest and the most fertile of a large crowd of authors who, in their fiction in penny weekly numbers and sixpenny monthly parts, reached a class of the early Victorian community untouched by both Dickens and Thackeray’.

Reynolds’ books were devoured by servants, seamstresses and mechanics, and according to the same TLS reviewer, ‘the circulation must have run into millions’.


Mrs Henry Wood, East Lynne (1861)

Mrs Wood, though not exactly obscure, belongs in the category of popular and bad. A bit like pot noodles. The critic H. W. Garrod found himself crying while reading a copy of East Lynne  in a railway carriage. When asked by a fellow passenger what the matter was he replied that he was crying because the book was so bad. By 1900 sales had passed the half million mark. Says it all, really.


Mrs Walton, Christie’s Old Organ(1875)

A religious rather than a lewd tale, now sought after as a result of featuring in the hilarious Bizarre Books.


Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Melboune n.d, but c1888).

A legendary rarity in the annals of book publishing. It first appeared in Australia, but the publisher soon transferred his business to London and formed The Hansom Cab Publishing Company. The first Melbourne edition of 5,000 copies sold in a week; the first London edition of 25,000 went in three days. All traces of the first edition have vanished, according to Desmond Flower, which seems extraordinary. The earliest known copy, which is marked 100,000, was issued by The Hansom Cab Publishing Company, n.d. The book is still sought after. See Continue reading

Authors most in demand

Screenshot 2018-10-18 12.32.43With a bookshop in Charing Cross Road , in the centre of London, it occurred to us to find out which authors are most asked for and  sell the quickest. So we asked around. The answers are in  three tiers.

1. Asked for a lot

Jane Austen, Beckett,The Bible, Brontes, Lewis Carroll, Angela Carter, Agatha Christie, Churchill, Aleister Crowley,  Roald  Dahl, Conan Doyle, Darwin,  Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Scott Fitzgerald, Ian Fleming, Heaney, Joyce, Kafka, Kerouac, Stephen King, CS Lewis, AA Milne, Orwell,  Beatrix Potter, Pratchett, Rackham,  Ayn Rand, JK Rowling, JD Salinger, Shakespeare,  Bram Stoker,Tolkien, V Woolf, Waugh,Wilde, Wodehouse

2 Quite a lot

Jeffrey Archer, Marcus Aurelius, L Frank Baum, Enid Blyton, William Burroughs, Byron, Cervantes,  Baron Corvo, T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, Neil Gaiman, Kenneth Grahame, Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, Hemingway,  I Ching, Keats, Kipling,  D.H. Lawrence, HP Lovecraft, Milton,  Nabokov,Sylvia Plath,  Pinter, Edgar Allan Poe, Anthony Powell, Rilke, Seneca, G B Shaw,  Dr Seuss, Mary Shelley (and PB), Tao Te Ching, Dylan Thomas, John Wyndham,

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Iris Murdoch as a book collector

IMG_5189Found – a receipt from the late booksellers Eric and Joan Stevens for books sold to the novelist Iris Murdoch in 1966. There is also a request in her hand  for anything by, or on, Pushkin. Iris Murdoch was very keen on Russian literature, especially Dostoyevsky, but she did not write about Pushkin – although her husband John Bayley wrote Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary which was published in 1971. This request may have been for him.

Her order is certainly eclectic- some religious, even mystical work, (Radhakrishnan and Swedenborg), a geezerish prison memoir, not at all her style – Frank Norman’s Bang to Rights and a book on the Samurai (‘Bushido’). Peter’s My Sister, My Spouse is about Lou Andreas Salome ‘A Biography of the Woman Who Inspired Freud’ (also Nietzsche and Rilke) – an important and much loved  writer and psychiatrist.  Penn’s  No Cross, No Crown is William Penn’s work on Primitive Christianity from 1669, probably not a first edition at 10 shillings, although the Stevens were always very reasonable in their pricing.

Other works ordered include  a Baedeker for the Rhine, possibly for a holiday. It its still fun to visit Europe with an old Baedeker. Schopenhauer is dealt with fairly well in her later work Metaphysics as a Guide  to Morals. Kropotkin fits in with her interest in Russian life and literature. Hale’s Famous Sea Fights is a mystery, possibly light reading or a present for a friend.

The Stevens’  had other famous writers as clients, including Anita Brookner and Geoffrey Hill, from whom they also bought many books. Iris Murdoch’s considerable library eventually went into the book trade, but not to Eric and Joan.

Bookfairs –the price of speaking out against them


Peddle book fair ban pic 001All collectors and dealers love book fairs, don’t they? Well, up to a point. They can be good places to see what other dealers are up to— what treasures they are selling and how well they are doing. And even if they don’t buy anything, fairs can be good places for collectors to value their own collections. On the down side, fairs can be intimidating for collectors who only want to chat to dealers about books. There is often a tangible sense that dealers are only interested in talking to you about books if you show an interest in buying one of their items.

However, 20 years ago, it would seem that alongside these perennial complaints about dealers there was something more sinister going on behind the scenes. A clipping from the Watford Observer dated August 15th 1997 told the story of a local dealer who had had the temerity to challenge the book fair establishment and had paid a high price for doing so. Vince Peddle, co-owner of the imaginatively named Peddle Books, and publisher of the info-sheet Book News, had recently published a front page article in this magazine complaining that the over abundance of fairs was putting some dealers out of business. Continue reading

Another bookshop goes bust …

Though this was in 1924. Here is a wry comment from the Summer 1924 number of Now & Then, on the preference for chocolates over books. Plus ca change.Charing cross road in the twenties

FOR twenty years in the middle of Charing Cross Road, London, there was a certain bookshop. It had a nice central position and thousands of people passed its doors daily. When it was first started it had a bold frontage with nice tall windows full of new books. A few years later the shop was cut in two, half of it continued to sell books, but the other half became an emporium for the sale of chocolates. It was not a very smart bookshop—its stock might have been wider in appeal and better displayed. Its attention to customers was however courteous, and willingness to get any book not in stock was invariably expressed. It performed a service and its proprietor continued to live. Now the bookshop, or rather the half-shop, has disappeared owing to its inability to pay increased rent. In place of the books in the window appears a bold announcement:

                                        DUGGAN’S DERBY SCHEME

                                       TICKETS TEN SHILLINGS EACH

                                           £25,000 IN CASH PRIZES!

The chocolate shop continues.

   We have no doubt that Duggan’s takings and the receipts from the chocolates are considerably larger than was the turnover from the sale of books. Bread and Circuses in Ancient Rome—Chocolates and Spotting Winners in modern London—it’s the same old world! 




One foot in the grave at 44 !

12796501More heart-warming advice from Real Life Problems and their Solution (1938) by the cheery R Edynbry.

‘I am just forty-four years and beginning to feel that real middle age is just around the corner. I don’t mix much with other men and never talk over my symptoms with anybody. But I often speculate as to what may be in store for me in the way of health and sickness. I should be glad if you would tell me some general symptoms of middle age so that should experience them in the coming years I should not be taken by surprise.’

Changes take place so slowly in middle age that it is often difficult to compare conditions from one year to another. The trend of physical life is now downwards, however, gradually, and whether it will be hurried or delayed depends upon the constitution and manner of living. As a rule it becomes more difficult now to plan and carry out personal schemes, the success of which depends upon quick movement and energy. The healthy flush of youth shown in the complexion, gives place to a certain pallor, except when blood pressure gives a florid appearance. Greyness and some degree of baldness begin to show. There may be a bagginess under the eyes and wrinkles at the outer corners. Hearing may not be so keen as formerly and glasses are generally necessarily for reading small print.

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of middle age is the layer of abdominal fat and the general sagging of the body. Unless increasing care is paid to the diet, dyspepsia may give trouble, and various forms of nervous irritability draw attention to the fact that something is wrong. Worry about the physical or economic situation often causes insomnia at this time. The sex life needs careful regulation and all emotional strain should be avoided as far as possible. The sensible man—who should be his own doctor to some extent in middle age—should know that one of the secrets of health and happiness at this period lies in the simplification of one’s needs and demands. Less food and plainer food; less worry because of fewer ambitions and desires; less responsibility because nothing is undertaken without reasonable hope of accomplishment. [RR]


I once met…King Richard Booth of Hay

Actually, I’ve met him twice. The first was in 1970, not too long after the Book Town of Hay-on Wye had started up. I was 18 and had only been collecting second-hand books for two years and could hardly pass up the prospect of a place entirely devoted to them. Back then there were only three shops—the Castle, where Booth lived, the Old Fire Station and the Old Cinema. My first visit, I seem to recall, had been with my parents, who had driven me up from Swansea. After that first taste of Hay I was hooked. It was on the second visit, again a day trip from home, but one that involved three buses, that I met Booth.

I was an impoverished schoolboy back then and spent all my pocket money, baby-sitting money and newspaper round cash on books. Because of this I justified to myself my nefarious practice of taking a pencil stub into the Old Cinema and writing my own prices on the books. As I saw it, if the experts at the counter didn’t challenge my prices that was their problem. Most didn’t, but on this one occasion the man at the desk turned out to be Booth himself. I recognised his face from a photo in the local paper, but there was nothing I could do. He had my book in his hand (I think it was a seventeenth century pocket Bible) and he suddenly looked very puzzled at something on the flyleaf. I heard him mutter 'This doesn’t look right' and he scribbled over my price, replacing it with his own, which was only a couple of pounds more. I remember going bright red, but I duly paid up, still content with my purchase.

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Second-hand Bookstalls in Paris (1890s)

From Dickens's Dictionary of Paris. The book is anonymous but a note in an old bookseller's hand informs us that it was written (partly) by the son of Anthony Trollope. This edition  was published about 1896 and there are advertisements for hotels giving their phone numbers.The book is listed at the British Library as being by Charles Dickens jnr.,

The bookstalls by the Seine are still much in evidence and an occasional source of rare finds. The other stalls dotted around Paris have mostly gone but many lingered on into the 1960s and some may still be there.

The only mention of English books is a stall at Rue Daunou. This street was shortly to have other English language associations - as in 1911 (at number 5)  it became the site of Harry's New York Bar where famously James Bond went on his first visit to Paris aged 16. Ian Fleming writes (possibly this happened to him?) "..he followed the instructions in Harry's advertisement in the Continental Daily Mail, and told his taxi driver 'Sank Roo Doe Noo'...that had started one of the memorable evenings of his life, culminating in the loss, almost simultaneous, of his virginity and his notecase".

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