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Twenty Years After: An Adventure in Underland
I can’t claim credit for hatching the idea. It came, like so many of my good ideas, from a customer. Picture me in my bookshop—a quaint two-storey medieval building with low ceilings and a treacherous staircase—in Northgate, Oakham, in the county of Rutland, in the East Midlands, England. It is late September,1985. The swallows have fled for warmer climes, a storm is raging outside and I am desultorily boxing up stock for the market at Kettering where for the past seven or eight years I have sold books once a week from a canvas-covered stall. The weather in Kettering, they say, comes directly from Siberia. And they call the biting nor’easter (there is no other wind in Kettering) the “lazy wind”. “Why lazy?” asks the novice. “Because it’s too lazy to go around you. It goes straight through you.” At this point in my life I wear a bushy beard—it’s a good windbreak. More equinoctial gales are forecast for next day. And winter is a-coming in. I lean heavily on my desk, pondering.
I hear the tread of a customer—the afternoon’s only customer—descending the stairs. He deposits a large armful of books on the counter, good books too. Poetry and literary criticism, history and philosophy. We get talking. I am astonished to learn that he is an Australian. I thought that Australians were interested in only two things: beer and cricket. I tell him as much. “Well, you have to understand,” he says, “I’m from Melbourne.”
This means nothing to me. For me, as for most English people with no family in Australia, Australia is a fog, a distant blur, a terra almost completely incognita. I doubt whether at this point in my life I could situate Sydney correctly on the map, let alone Melbourne or Canberra or Brisbane. The only connection I have with Australia is a mulga-wood napkin ring, presented to me by my grandparents on their return from a tour of Australia in the mid-fifties. There are two photos in a family album which commemorate this tour. In one my grandmother is shown embracing a koala – neither looks particularly thrilled with the experience. In the other my grandfather is posing with a shotgun in one hand and a dead kangaroo under one foot. He is grinning sheepishly, as well he might, since the photo is certainly posed. Pop (I’m told) never fired a gun in his life and was generally unimpressed by those who did. I guess the kangaroo was road kill and Pop was talked into posing as The Great White Cliché.
It turns out that my Australian customer, Bruce, is a T.V. producer working temporarily in London.
“Any regrets about giving up teaching?” he asks.
“Only one” I say. “I wish I’d done a teacher exchange. Like my friend Peter Cannings, who went to Sydney for a year and taught at Knox Grammar School. He loved it. Yes, a year in Australia would have been fun. An adventure. But it’s too late now. Self-employed booksellers aren’t like teachers: we can’t just up and go.”
“Why not?” says Bruce. “I mean, it could be a bit risky but then, isn’t everything? Everything that’s worth doing, that is.”
“But I don’t know any booksellers in Australia.”
“I do,” says Bruce. “I could give you some names and addresses. What do you say?”
I think I said “Well, maybe.” In any case I kept the piece of paper on which he’d jotted down names and addresses. And gradually Bruce’s idea, once planted, became my idea. Why shouldn’t I do a bookshop exchange? I would swap lives with an Australian bookseller for a whole year. He would come to England with his family, live in my house, drive my car and manage my bookshop while I would go to Australia and do the same there. At the end of the year, we would all return to Go. Maybe it would be risky but one thing was certain: it would be a great adventure.
Rather less than a year later, in August 1986, I’m at Melbourne Airport shaking hands with Lloyd Holyoak, proprietor of Roycroft Booksellers. In the next 48 hours he gives us a whirlwind tour of his world, before leaving with his wife and daughter for ours. There’s too much to take everything in properly but it’s good to set eyes on each other. At 53, he’s 17 years older than me and has made his way—and his money—in other businesses before turning to bookselling. His handshake is firm and his shrewd blue eyes have a faint twinkle: I have the impression that things will be O.K. Not that I really doubted it. Such correspondence as we have had has been straightforward and business-like. Except for one cajoling phrase that I slipped into my first letter: “I really hope that you’ll do this exchange. After all: life is not a rehearsal.” (This tickled Lloyd, who appreciates a good apothegm). We have spoken a few times by phone, briefly and to the point, as men do. (Not all men. Ed.) As far as I recall the only glitch occurred when, mistaking the time zone difference, I once phoned Lloyd at 3 o’clock in the morning (his morning). He was somewhat terse: “Do you know what time it is?”
Finally, Lloyd and Jill and Rachel depart for their flight. The four of us—that is to say me, my wife Cecile and our two children John (9) and Julia (7)—are left in sole charge of a house, a garden, two Holden cars and a friendly sheepdog called Bo. Not to mention 25 acres of rolling bushland in the Melbourne outer suburb of Kangaroo Ground. It sounds picturesque and it is. And the parrots—the rosellas, the cockatoos and the galahs—which flit through the gum trees are not, as we first thought, escapees from the zoo but actually live here. All this is ours, for a whole twelve months? A kookaburra gives a loud cackle. I feel like joining in!
But there is work to be done. The bookshop is in Main Street, Eltham, about ten minutes’ drive from Kangaroo Ground. The street is a busy thoroughfare. A woman was run over and killed almost outside the bookshop a few weeks before our arrival. A far cry from sleepy Northgate in Oakham. The shop itself—how can I put this tactfully?—the shop is a hole. Almost literally. A hole in the wall anyway. A tiny frontage (the result of one good-size shop having been split down the middle) discloses a deep dark and dingy interior—a sort of book-lined tunnel. There are books everywhere—double-banked on the floor, piled high from top shelf to ceiling—all flanking a narrow walkway down the middle. And out the back, there is an unlovely dunny (a toilet shared with the neighbours) and a gravelled yard which slopes steeply the wrong way to the shop’s back door. Lloyd has warned me that the shop is subject to flooding in heavy rain, so the drains need to be watched carefully. As does the roof which tends to leak. The one bright spot in this dump is Barbara Longshaw. Dear Barbara! She is Lloyd’s assistant, who “comes with the shop.” She is full of fun and good sense. A mature lady, she is the counterpart of Angela Winn, who “comes with” my shop in England. Both are treasures. Without them, the adventure would have been infinitely more difficult. Barbara, it turns out, will hold the fort whenever we want to go away for week-ends, odd days in the week or for more extended jaunts. There is something to be said for being self-employed, after all!
Getting to grips with the shop stock was not as daunting as I had feared. Of the inventory of some 15,000 books, the great majority were familiar, or moderately familiar. Historically Australia has imported the bulk of its books from the U.K. and very few from the U.S. and elsewhere. It is only in the last fifteen years or so that the cosy relationship between U.K. publishers and the Australian book market has been given a sharp jolt, resulting in a torrent of American imports or locally produced editions of American books. Of Australian books and authors I knew almost nothing. I was lucky to be able to do some rapid homework thanks to a number of good reference books which were hot off of the press: The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (Melbourne 1985), Guide to Fine and Rare Australasian Books (Wagga Wagga 1986) and Australian Book Auction Records 1983-85 (Canberra 1986). A steady flow of booksellers’ catalogues, many of them specializing in Australiana, came my way too. In the short time available, I got to know enough about Australian life and letters to be able to bluff my way through most of the simpler checkpoints.
More demanding was the preparation and production of catalogues, something which in my own business I did not do at all. Lloyd left me hints and guidelines but in the end selection, description and sometimes even pricing was down to me. By temperament, I am not a catalogue bookseller. I’ll take a face-to-face transaction over a postal sale any day. But I enjoyed the novelty of “selling” catalogued books, rising (or not) to the challenge of writing up rather humdrum books in such a way as to make them seem desirable. A not negligible skill. I initiated one innovation: a page of cataloguer’s editorial, which I see now was an early dodge to see my bookselling thoughts in print. And rather smugly I corrected one error which had lain undetected in the undergrowth of Lloyd’s catalogue preamble: “Marks and defects are not noted when they are not obstrusive.” (It occurs to me that “obstrusive”—an artful telescoping of “abstruse” and “obtrusive”—deserves currency in its own right. Do we not all know obstrusive people and their obstrusive arguments?). I made some fine blunders of my own. Notably, I catalogued a children’s book illustrated by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite at $25.00 when the going rate was about $250.00. I smelled a rat when we received about 50 orders for this item. Lloyd confirmed the size and pungency of the rat when he received his copy of the catalogue, but he was very sporting about it. “So long as we made a good profit on it!” he said. (We did.) The trouble with printed catalogues is that when you do mess up, the mess is there for all to see, forever.
Traditionally, Lloyd prefaced each Roycroft Booksellers catalogue with a quotation from the business’s eponymous fount: the Roycrofter par excellence, Elbert Hubbard. I confess that hitherto I had lived—perfectly happily—in total ignorance of Hubbard and the Roycrofters. Over the next few months, as I combed through The Notebook of E.H. and The Philosophy of E.H., in search of something quotable, I got to know Elbert Hubbard pretty well. Too well, perhaps. I did not have the heart to feature such purple (and obtuse) remarks as this one: “When you accept a present, you have dissolved the pearl of independence in the vinegar of obligation.” But I was sorely tempted to. (Elbert, if you mean to say “bribe” when you say “present”, why not say it?). In short, I found I had little time for the author of Message to Garcia and much other nonsense. And I am generally unimpressed by the books put out by the Roycroft Press: “meretricious” is one word which springs to mind (“crappy” is another, but I am trying to be kind here.) The world was spared further outpourings from Hubbard when he went down with the Lusitania in 1911. Hubbard was clearly one of Lloyd’s heroes, but he failed to become one of mine.
A greater challenge than learning to catalogue was learning to deal with the ephemera which played a big part in Lloyd’s business. Temperamentally I am no ephemerist. Books, not scraps of paper, are what interest me. So, reluctantly, I did a crash course in postcards, cigarette cards, swap cards and beer labels. And I grappled with the iconography of an entirely unfamiliar football code called “Australian Rules”—popularly known as “footy”. I freely concede that ephemera is (are?) big business. I did my best and I represented Roycroft Booksellers, fairly successfully, at a few collectors’ fairs. But my heart was never in it. Card and label collectors do not engage me the way readers and book collectors do. No doubt the feeling is mutual. One good thing: ephemera are a lot lighter than books. You can pack most of your stock into a couple of dainty suitcases. Occasionally, as I tripped home from a postcard fair, I would think of Lloyd lugging home a mountain of books from Kettering market. Was this really a fair exchange!
Selling unfamiliar stock was one thing: buying was much harder. One of my regular duties was to visit Ainger’s Auction Rooms, so every Tuesday I would leave Kangaroo Ground at about 7 a.m. and fight my way through the peak hour traffic to the inner suburb of Richmond. I would spend half-an-hour or so checking out the books and ephemera on offer. Generally the offerings weren’t much chop, but Lloyd assured me that occasionally, just occasionally, some real gems turned up. Complete libraries – deceased estates – collectables. All at bargain prices. It was just a matter of persistence. If you kept going week in week out (said Lloyd) sooner or later you’d hit pay dirt. (“Rule 2 for Roycrofters: The Success of Perseverance.” E. Hubbard). I did score a few lucky hits, but the Holy Grail—whatever it was—eluded me. Not that I cared that much. So long as I could get a leisurely cooked breakfast at the Copper Kettle and be back at Ainger’s for 9 a.m. when the auction started. And some days, I confess it, the mouldy old books and cards on offer never appealed to me half so much as a plateful of crisp eggs and bacon…
I didn’t think that Roycroft Booksellers was exactly short of stock. Apart from the stuff in the shop, there was a whole shed full of back-up stock in Kangaroo Ground. All neatly boxed and stacked according to some ingenious system which I have forgotten. It was hard to know where to find space to store any new purchases. But new purchases kept rolling in. Notably from Lloyd’s scouts who had been primed to keep me regularly furnished with new stock. Most memorable of the scouts was Dave Garlick, who looked like a spiv and who had a speech impediment . “Look here, I got you some beaut p…p… p…” Dave would wrestle with his plosives for minutes on end, refusing to surrender. Sweat would break out on his dark brow, the veins in his neck would knot and throb. Finally the phrase would tumble out in a rush: “I got you some beaut postcards this week.” We would chaffer and bargain. “I think Mr. Holyoak would’ve offered me a bit more than that.” “That’s O.K. Dave. Keep them till he gets home. Unless you want to phone him?” I liked Dave—he was a decent bloke. Naturally a few vendors-and prospective vendors—were more suspicious. What could a greenhorn like me know about Australiana? And footy cards? But in general people were kind. Of course I made mistakes whilst buying—some to the advantage of the business, some not. But I didn’t lose any sleep over them. As Elbert says: “The greatest mistake you can make is to be continually fearing that you will make one.”
Half-way through the year I decided to address the over-stock problem. We’d have a sale, I told Barbara. “About time too,” she said. It was a great success. With 50% off all books priced at 20% or less and 25% off all the others, over a couple of weeks we moved a lot of stock—including plenty of dross in the cheaper price range. News of the sale filtered back to Lloyd in the U.K. “He’s not very happy about it,” said Barbara. “He doesn’t approve of sales. He’s never had one and apparently he never will. He thinks you probably should have consulted him first.”
Probably I should. But for me it was a simple managerial decision. And our agreement was that—short of selling up—each of us should manage the other’s business as though it was his own. So that’s what I did. “Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.” (E. Hubbard). It was fun to be able to write and sign cheques on behalf of Roycroft Booksellers, but it was also a responsibility—one of many—which I took seriously. I will not tire you with the financial mechanics or the domestic details of the exchange. Suffice to say that in every sphere we had no signed contract or written agreement. On the strength of a handshake, all parties were trusted to act in good faith. And we did. It all worked out just fine. For all I know, it was a world first. Was this the first—or indeed the only—international bookshop exchange ever attempted? If so, it makes me wonder if we missed a golden opportunity. Perhaps we ought to have signed up with Bruce and Channel 9 and got their cameras in to film the experience. It would have been an early exercise in reality T.V. A precursor of such programs as “Big Brother”, “Supernanny” and “House Swap” for which commercial television now shows such an appetite. Would not “International Bookshop Swap” have led us to fame, glory and riches?
* My year in Australia led me to other things, notably to a close acquaintance with Australian books and literature. My friend Peter Cannings—a literate economist (yes, they do exist)—challenged me to read his Ten Best Australian Books during my year away. I did so—with great profit. I list them here for your profit too.
It was Peter too who encouraged me in this adventure. “You’ll like Australia,” he said. “What’s more, they’ll like you.” “How do you know?” I said. “Well, ” he said. “You’re not up yourself”. “To be up yourself” is a fine Aussie locution which means to be overfull of your own importance. (As I write, we are mourning the premature death of a true-blue Australian, Steve Irwin, “The Crocodile Hunter,” who—for all his fame and fortune—was a good man and emphatically not “up himself”) I certainly liked Australia enough to want to return there, permanently. As for an Australian judgment on me, who knows? It would be interesting to have Lloyd Holyoak’s account of our bookshop swap. I suspect, however, that he would prefer to maintain a dignified silence. For me, it was a life-changing adventure. Twenty years on, I’m beginning to feel that I am ready for another. So if anyone knows a bookseller somewhere in America….?
POSTSCRIPT: After returning to the U.K. Anthony and family applied to migrate to Australia. With the help and support of Lloyd Holyoak their application was successful and in January 1988 they settled permanently in Melbourne. In 1992 Anthony was divorced, bought Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton, an inner suburb of Melbourne and in 1998 married an Australian, Susan Anderson.