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A Bird of Passage

April, 2012
By Anthony Marshall

I was pleased with the sign. It was home-made but looked rather professional. The real estate agents had quoted me around $550 for a truly professional sign, but I was  happy to have confected my own for around $55. It wasn’t difficult. I went along to an  instant printing shop where the assistant helped me with the lay-out and type face, and then printed off the words onto an A0 sheet which she laminated. Back home, I tacked the notice carefully onto a piece of chipboard, about 4 feet  x 3 feet. Yes, it looked pretty damn good. Weatherproof too. How simple was that?

A lot simpler than getting the sign into position, as it turned out. Up early on Saturday morning, balancing precariously on the top of a small step ladder, I tried to hoist the sign onto the front of my bookshop verandah and secure it with wire to the wrought ironwork. Chipboard is heavier than you think, especially a 3 x 4 feet chunk, one-inch thick. Sweating and wobbling, I made several futile attempts to lift the board into at least an interim position. A man passing by jumped off his bicycle: “Can I give you a hand?” he said. My first reaction was to tell him to push off and mind his own business. While I was turning this churlish thought over in my mind, he propped up his bike and said: “ Seventy per cent of serious injuries to men aged over sixty are caused by falls from ladders.”  Who was this smartarse? Before I could think of an appropriate riposte, he had seized the sign from my aching fingers and placed it on the ground. “What we want, for a start, is a bigger ladder. And some thicker wire. We don’t want this thing falling on people’s heads do we?”

How very Australian! How typical of the helpful, cheerful, bossy Aussie busy-body with the “can-do” gene. In no time at all we had the sign safely in place. I went across the street to admire it:  FOR  SALE  (upper case, Times New Roman, huge point, no idea how big, red ink), BOOKSHOP (upper case, same font, black ink),  www.alices.com.au (lower case, red ink). Rather succinct. If people wanted detail, they could find it on the website. No clutter, multum in parvo,  less is more; this sign  was so demure, it fairly shouted at you. Nobody could drive down, or up, Rathdowne Street and not notice it.

 “Let me at least buy you a coffee,” I said to my good Samaritan.

“Thanks all the same,” he said, “but I’ve got to get going. Best of luck selling your shop.” And he pedaled off.

Ah, the kindness of strangers. And the unkindness of strangers. How many times in the next few months did I hear this comment, or something like it, as passers-by spotted the sign: “Bookshop for sale? In this economic climate? Bookshops are finished. Everyone knows that. He’s either a madman, or else an incurable optimist!”  “Ha!” I felt like saying, many times. “Of course I’m an optimist. I must be, for God’s sake.  I’ve been a bookseller for 34 years.” But I didn’t. There is sometimes a certain dignity in silence.

Every man and his dog knew for certain why my bookshop was up for sale. Angus and Robertson, one of the iconic companies in Australian bookselling and publishing, had recently gone broke and had closed down all its stores; the Borders empire, likewise. Bookshops in Melbourne were going down like ninepins. Even secondhand stores. My near neighbors, Basilisk Bookshop in Fitzroy, the three Book Affair stores, in Fitzroy, Carlton and Collingwood: all were either gone or going; so, obviously, it was just a matter of time before Alice’s too went belly up. “Closing down, are you? Giving up the unequal struggle? Who would blame you?” And so on. If I gently remonstrated and said: “No, I’m not closing down. I’m selling the business. I want the shop to continue. I’m retiring. I’m going to live in Germany” the answer was nearly always a version of: “Oh yeah? Tell that to the Marines.” And I don’t blame people.  Booksellers don’t retire, that’s one of the joys of bookselling. Booksellers just potter on until they drop. Everyone knows that.

I knew it myself. I always imagined that I would continue in this business, in this bookstore even, until death or debility overtook me. And it would have to be a  serious debility.  Like Miss Billingham, I would never let a footling debility such as blindness keep me from bookselling. Miss Billingham? A character from a novel by Dickens? No, she was a real person. For many years she kept a distinguished secondhand bookshop in Northampton, England. I have dived into my Sheppard’s Directory for 1978-80 for confirmation: “J.S. Billingham, 79 St. Giles Street, Northampton. Prop. Miss A.F.Billingham. Est. 1896. Shop. Early closing Thursdays. About 60,000 volumes. General sec. and antiq. books. Cata. occasionally. A.B.A.” From this I deduce that it was Miss Billingham’s father who founded the shop, and that she succeeded him. I know, from talking to people who knew her, that in later years her sight deteriorated until she became completely blind. Nothing daunted, she continued to run the shop, with the aid of sighted assistants. People who went to the shop said she could recognize practically every book she handled simply by its feel. There was no question of retiring from business for this remarkable bookseller. She died in harness, at a great age, in about 1980.

It is almost certain that Paul Minet, also a member of the A.B.A. in England, knew, or at least knew of, Miss Billingham. I should dearly like to ask him about her. Alas, I cannot: because, as you surely know, Paul died in February. How I will miss him, already do miss him and his engaging, lively, thought-provoking articles about books and bookselling, so full of insights and insider knowledge. Throughout my bookselling life, I have regarded Paul, both as writer and publisher, as the master of English book trade journalism. Paul could be relied on to write entertainingly and authoritatively on almost any aspect of the English book trade.  His style was like the man: straightforward, energetic, charming, sometimes  provocative, often mischievous. How I have enjoyed re-reading recently his memoir Late Booking.  

I was fortunate to meet him, and his wife Sheila, a number of times. First, as guests of John Huckans, editor of this magazine, and his wife Raquel, who invited us out to dinner in a smart London restaurant; and later, more casually, when I visited the Minets a few times at their home in Ticehurst, Sussex., which happens to be only twenty minutes’drive from my mother’s house in Kent. We discovered many shared interests and acquaintances, and one nice coincidence: Paul was educated at Hurstpierpoint College, which is where, some years later, I took up my first teaching post. Books were so much Paul’s passion and his life that he never retired. His handsome bookshop and café in Ticehurst he kept going almost to the end: and to the very end, he retained ownership of, and interest in, his large bookshop in Rochester, which, generously – and typically – he bequeathed  to its staff.

In December 2011,  the trade lost George Whitman, the ancient bookman who presided at Shakespeare and Co in Paris. He was 98 (curiously, Amy Gale in her excellent article about him in the last edition of BSM omitted to tell us his age). Incidentally, I’m told that his shop had nothing whatever to do with Sylvia Beach’s shop. George knew a good thing when he saw it, and, when it was going begging, he simply appropriated the name. In and around Melbourne, we have a few career booksellers of great age, who show few signs of giving up completely: Ken Hince, on the far side of 80, still runs the Euroa Bookshop; Jack Bradstreet, who turned 90 last year, still trades quietly at Moir Street Books and praise be! Muriel Craddock, 99 in the shade, can still be seen on occasion presiding at Kay Craddock’s Bookshop, where – may I tease you, Muriel? – she has been a fixture and fitting for nearly half a century.

Fixtures and fittings, plant and equipment; stock; goodwill. If you are retiring and are intent on selling your business, these are things that you have to put a price on.  How much do you charge for it all, for a whole bookshop?  I kept the advice of a friendly colleague firmly in mind: “Remember, Anthony. You’re not selling a bookshop. You’re selling a dream. A bookshop is worthless. But a dream is priceless!”  Being a practical bookseller, not afraid of putting a price on things, I thought I should still come up with a figure in dollars. A price which would value my business at a convenient point somewhere between worthless and priceless.

For fixtures and fittings, it was not so hard.  Bookcases, furniture, a CCTV system, ladders, computers and other fittings are things which have an ascertainable market value. My 70 solid pine bookcases for instance would cost at least $100 each to replace, and probably a lot more. Having done my sums, I reckoned that $10,000 for the fixtures and fittings in my shop was a fair figure.

The question of goodwill was a bit more tricky. Surely valuable goodwill must attach to a profitable bookshop established for twenty-five years? Not necessarily. Some accountants maintain that goodwill marches out the door along with the owner. Well, I beg to differ. I aimed to get something for goodwill. The customer base, the data base, lots of intangibles.  It’s arbitrary, but $50,000 was a nice round figure: it worked out at $2,000 per year. Was that unreasonable? I would soon find out.

Finally there was the value of the inventory.  I have approximately 16,500 books in stock, half of them paperbacks. At retail prices, there’s a lot of value here. But in my tax returns, the stock is valued at cost, at around $20,000. For insurance purposes, the stock is valued at $50,000. Both figures are conservative, I can’t help thinking. No let’s be honest they are both hellishly low. But then, I never intended to be selling the business, now or ever. In the end I decided on a price midway between the “at cost” and the “insurance” valuations: $33.000. Which, conveniently, values my complete stock at $2 per book. Or, put another way, paperbacks at $1 and hardbacks at $3 each. It doesn’t seem much, when I’ve got plenty of books here at $50 and  $100 and some at $500. Surely I could liquidate the stock in a 50% off sale and get a lot more for it? Maybe so, but I’m trying to do something different here. I’m offering my stock as a job lot, and it needs to be priced as a job lot. Sure, there are some nuggets in there, but – let’s get real – there’s a certain amount of dross too. What do we booksellers say? 20% per cent of our stock does 80% of the business. Well then. A lot of this stock has sat for years on the shelves, like royalty, looking dignified but achieving nothing. Time to cash it in.

My publicity campaign was modest or – I should say – tightly focused. After putting up the big sign on the shop front, I restricted myself to advertising on a few internet sites (including my own home page) and in one newspaper. I was mildly amused to see that in the “Businesses For Sale” section of The Age my “Bookshop For Sale” ad was sandwiched between “Bakery For Sale” and “Brothel For Sale”. A simple alphabetical coincidence, no doubt, but I couldn’t help thinking that, in these three ads, three important human appetites are neatly covered .

The response to it all was pretty good. A certain number of phone calls came from people who were simply business voyeurs.  “What’s your turnover, then?” “What’s your net profit margin?” “What’s the rent?” I also got a number of calls from business agents, offering their services to sell my business for me, for a consideration. I politely declined their offers. “But give me six months,” I would say. “ If I haven’t sold it by then, then maybe you can work your magic. But I’ll see if I can work my own magic first. One thing is certain: my magic will work out a lot cheaper than yours.” Agents have their uses no doubt, but I couldn’t really imagine what an agent would do that I couldn’t. And I still can’t.

I had a few calls from colleagues in the trade, wanting to know what was going on, or simply wanting to wish me well. Some passed on handy tips, and some promised to spread the word. All helpful stuff. Word-of-mouth is always the best advertising. Most interest in the business came from the sort of people who I always imagined would be interested: fed-up academics, stressed-out managers, recently retired couples, all apparently cashed up but with no experience in the book trade. And from young people, often with experience in the book trade, but apparently no cash. I even had an e-mail from a bloke in England who had seen the advertisement on my website. So many dreamers. All fired up with a passion for books and bookshops. And there was a special sub-category of dreamer: the caring parent who was looking to buy the business as a sort of sheltered workshop for otherwise unemployable offspring. “My son’s just done his Masters in English Literature. He’s 28 and a bit lost, career-wise. But he just loves books. Your shop sounds just the thing for him.”  A collision with the harsh economic realities of secondhand bookselling brought most of these dreams to an abrupt close: others took a bit longer to fizzle out. But each week brought a new crop of inquiries.

It was a stressful time. Not so much from all these would-be booksellers, but from my customers. From the distraught:  “Oh my God, you’re closing! This is terrible!” to the reproachful: “Oh God, I just love your bookshop. How could you?!” Having uttered these ululations, they look round for a while, then walk out. The formula is simple, mathematically elegant even: the volume of customer wailing is in exactly inverse proportion to the amount of cash spent by the customer in the bookshop. I swear that a dozen of these stricken “regulars” who are going to miss me I have never seen in my life in all the twenty years I’ve been here. A number have even asked me if I am the new owner. The real regulars, my hardened book buyers, merely grunt a few words of solidarity. They know that no bookseller, no human being, is indispensable. If this remains a bookshop, and there are books to be bought, then they will be back, often. Oh, my precious ones.

A new level of fearfulness strikes some of my customers.

“What if you can’t sell it as a bookshop? What then?”

It’s a reasonable question. And naturally I’ve considered it, and I have a Plan B to fall back on.

“I’ll liquidate the stock, and the fixtures and fittings. And then it won’t be a bookshop any more. It will be something else.”

“What? Not another café, I hope.”

“Who knows? It might become a night club. Or a massage parlor. Or a tattoo shop. Or a Chinese takeaway. Something useful like that.”

They know I’m teasing. But only slightly. I think of my colleague, Paul Perry, who has a bookshop in Northcote. The estate agent had just announced a steep increase in the shop rent.

“It’s too much,” said Paul. I can hardly afford to pay the rent, as it is,”

“Secondhand books?” said the agent, shaking his head.. “Why don’t you sell stuff that people actually want?”

Other customers show concern for my after-life. My after-bookshop life, that is. “What will you do, over there in Germany, when you’re retired?” they want to know.

Such a Protestant work ethic sort of question! Do I have to do anything, in my retirement. Can’t I just be? Simply dream? Prepare calmly for my real (or unreal) afterlife? Withdraw from the world, like an anchorite or a sadhu, or sit in quiet contemplation under a baobab tree?

These are matters of a metaphysical or speculative nature, which I often feel are not apt for the circumstance. So I say: “I shall learn German. And I’ll read lots of books: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, for instance, and Finnegan’s Wake, and La Divina Commedia. All the hard stuff. And beautiful poetry, in English and French and German and Spanish and Italian.  And I shall sing in a choir, the Freiburger Oratorienchor, perhaps.  And I shall take piano lessons. And I’ll visit Paris and Florence and Barcelona and, in particular Staplehurst, often, because that’s where my mum lives. She turns 89 this year, by the way. I’ll go walking in the Black Forest and I’ll get a bicycle and perhaps ride along the Danube all the way to Vienna. And I may work a couple of days per week on an organic farm or market-garden. Because I’m a Capricorn, and it’s an earth sign and I love gardening. Oh, and I might do some writing. Write the Great Australian Novel, perhaps. How does that sound?”

“I think, if I were you, I’d simply take up golf.” 

“What will you miss most, about your bookshop?” Several people have asked me this. I can tell them easily what I won’t miss: being an unpaid, and unthanked, tax gatherer for the government, collecting the 10% GST (General Sales Tax) on every book I manage to sell. I won’t miss fielding calls from cold-callers in New Delhi or Calcutta, wanting to speak to the “business owner.” And I won’t miss the tyranny of keeping a shop, having to be here six days a week, or having to employ someone to be here when I’m not. I’ve done it for 34 years, quite long enough. It may seem ungrateful but the novelty has worn off. So no, I shan’t be opening another shop, in Germany, or anywhere.

What will I miss? Mixing with so many wonderful customers: the knowledgeable, the charming, the interesting, the amusing, the elegant, the beautiful. Lending a sympathetic ear to people who have no-one else to talk to: for the lonely, the depressed, the sad and for all those who “live lives of quiet desperation”. I shall miss the sound of children laughing, in the playground of the primary school just opposite.  But most of all, I shall miss the excitement of buying books. Being licensed to spend lots of money every week, every day almost, on books. With no need to feel guilty about it: because buying books is what booksellers do. Must do, to make a living.

What else will I miss? I shall miss Martin, who has assisted me so ably in the shop for six years or so. And Neddy, who has done nothing in the shop, except look decorative.  Neddy is Martin’s small dog, a chihuahua, who, when Martin is on duty spends a certain amount of time each day curled up on the shop counter or nestled about Martin’s person. People come from miles around to see Neddy, and, I daresay, Martin. They will both be much missed. Especially, no doubt, by the customer who, every time he spots Neddy in the shop, reminds Martin that Luciano Pavarotti once accidentally sat on a chihuahua and killed it.

A few weeks ago I struck a deal with someone for the sale of my business. And last week the contract  was signed. Settlement is on April 2 (April 1 being a Sunday, it was deemed inappropriate). On that day I will hand the shop over to the new owners, Joshua Green and Ellen Boyd Williams.  By a happy coincidence, Joshua is English, and a career bookseller from the East Midlands, which is where I began my life in bookselling. Most recently, he has been manager of Blackwell’s bookstores in Nottingham, Loughborough and Lincoln; before that, he worked  for Waterstones.. Both are rather distinguished names in the firmament of the English book trade. His partner, Ellen, is an Australian, from Melbourne: her mother lives not far from the bookshop. So Ellen will be coming home, while Joshua will be coming to a new country, and a new job. An adventure with which I can easily identify.

I am pleased to know that my bookshop will be in the hands of a young couple who, it seems,  are passionate about books and bookshops, and who have a vision for, and confidence in, a future which emphatically includes books and bookshops in their traditional form. I say “a young couple.” I could have said “a very young couple”. Joshua is only 30. This is a surprise, but a welcome one. I imagined that I would be handing over the reins to much older people. Joshua and Ellen will surely bring fresh energy and ideas – and perhaps a younger customer demographic – to the shop.

“These new people, they won’t change anything, will they?” 

“Of course they will, “ I say. ‘They can’t be clones of me. I hope they’ll change lots of things. They’ll have new ideas, different tastes and their own way of doing things. Better ideas, better taste, better ways, even!” 

Some people remain unconvinced. The prospect of change, any change, is simply too appalling. They should take heart from something an old conservative character says in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “If you want things to stay the same, things are going to have to change.”

I have invited selected customers – ones who are unlikely to say “Goodbye and good riddance” – to inscribe a few words in my Keepsake Book. I have been touched by the compliments they have so generously handed out. Of course I know that, in making these remarks, as in lapidary inscriptions, no-one is actually “on oath.” Still, it is good to feel appreciated, to feel that one has been useful in a small way. Sometimes it feels as though I am reading, in anticipation, a part of my own obituary. My customers are endlessly surprising. Here is what one man wrote: “A welcome corner, a nook, a destiny. May good bookshops thrive forever. Remember, Gutenberg and his successors are reading over your shoulder. Forward, ever forward, with tradition in your saddlebags.”

I will stay on for a few weeks after April 2, as adviser, settler-in and general dogsbody to the new owners. I am booked to fly out to Frankfurt on 27 April, and thence to Freiburg, to start a new life and a new adventure. Some people ask: “Will you stay in Germany forever?” All I can say is: “I don’t know. Nothing is for ever.” I love this city. I know I will come back to Melbourne often, to see my friends and family. So I shall be a bird of passage, migrating each year between two hemispheres. My daughter said to me with some anguish: “Dad, you’re leaving for Germany. What about your grandchildren?” “What grandchildren?” I replied. “Let us not anticipate!”

My going will not be totally unremarked elsewhere. Perhaps it is just coincidence, but an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy is to be conferred on me, in April, on the day before settlement, by the University of Melbourne. “For outstanding services to Australian Literature and Bookselling.” This is an exaggeration. While I have given lectures and tutorials for almost fifteen years in the School of Librarianship and Bibliopoly, in a pro bono capacity, I can hardly call my services “outstanding”. The work is its own reward: besides, I get to chat to some very attractive students. Still, I’d like you to imagine me at Convocation, on the first of April, clad in my flowing red robes and floppy velvet hat, getting my Ph.D Honoris Causa. I do love dressing up! And if I can’t have a knighthood (one day, perhaps?) I’ll happily settle for a Ph.D hood.  And word has already leaked out. At the bank the other day, the young teller behind the counter called me “Dr. Marshall.” I could have kissed her (unfortunately there was bullet-proof glass in the way).

OK, so none of this last paragraph is true.  I made it all up (except for the bit about the bank). It was just my little1 April fantasy. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll knock off a real Ph.D at the University of Freiburg, in between writing articles for BSM. Yes, the editor says that, despite being bookshop-less, I can continue to contribute. “What about?” I asked . “You’ll think of something,” he said. Meanwhile, perhaps a little Ph.D in “Creative Writing.”? Or perhaps not. In these matters I am with Flannery O’Connor: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” 

A young student journalist came to interview me for a small assignment he was doing. He asked the usual questions. But at the end he surprised me. “In one sentence, what advice would you give to the people who are taking over your shop?” I didn’t stop to think, the answer simply popped out: “Follow your heart,” I said. Not a very businesslike sort of answer. But, as I have found, in a fairly long life, a not entirely useless one, either.

 Anthony Marshall (until April 2), was the owner of Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia.  He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and author of “Trafficking in Old Books”  and “Fossicking for Old Books.” (Melbourne, 2004).