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An Interview with an Antiquarian Bookseller: The Caretaker

By guest blogger
Sheila Markham

Sheila MarkhamThe article you are about to read is a great treat for anyone with a passion for books and an interest in the art of bookselling. The UK based author Sheila Markham has undertaken a demanding but rewarding project of offering a deeper insight into the lives of people behind the counter of selected second-hand and antiquarian bookstores. A series of her interviews with these booksellers started appearing in a booktrade magazine The Bookdealer in 1991 and in 2004 a selection of 50 among them was published in a book entitled A Book of Booksellers: conversations with the antiquarian book trade. This collection presents an exclusive behind-the-scenes testimonial of the dramatic transformations the booktrade has undergone since the early 1990s. Through their ambitions, successes, struggles, dreams and tons of experience in bookselling, we get to know a whole assemblage of unique and peculiar individuals with a shared love of books as a common link.The piece she has selected for our series of articles on independent bookselling is with Sabrina Izzard of Hall's Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, a long-established independent bookshop selling antiquarian and secondhand books.


Nobody grows up saying that they want to be an antiquarian bookseller. It is not one of the established career options. My father was a journalist and my mother was Molly Izzard, whose books included A Private Life, in which she recounts her experiences as the wife of a foreign correspondent, trying to raise a family of four children in some of the trouble spots of the world. My oldest brother was born in Delhi when my father was reporting on the partition of India, and I was born in Egypt just before the Suez Crisis. In 1958, we returned to this country and settled in Tunbridge Wells.

Hall's Bookshop Turnbridge WellsI spent quite a lot of my childhood at home due to ill health, and passed the time reading a huge amount. I was omnivorous in my tastes, though I always had a special interest in travel books. As a family, we were very travel-oriented and my father, who was by that stage working on adventure films, would pack us into his Land Rover and we would go off somewhere. Hall’s Bookshop was an important part of my life from an early age. It was my Saturday afternoon outing to walk down into the town and buy books from Harry Pratley at Hall’s. The shop is in Chapel Place behind the Church of King Charles the Martyr, and is an institution in Tunbridge Wells. Reuben Hall had opened it in 1898 in 18 Chapel Place on the site of Knight’s Lending Library.

In 1919 Harry Pratley began his apprenticeship at Hall’s at the age of fourteen on seven shillings a week. In 1922 he was ‘sold’ with the business to Charles Avery, a friend of Hall’s who had a small bookshop in Maidstone. Harry completed his apprenticeship and, when Mr Avery died in 1936, was able to buy the business on the very generous terms offered to him by the family. An important tradition had begun of passing the shop on to those who had worked in it. In 1938 Hall’s moved to its present location in 20 and 22 Chapel Place, where many devoted customers helped him to put up the shelves. Nothing has been changed in the appearance of the shop since that date. Elizabeth Bateman became Harry’s assistant in 1955, and in turn took over the business in 1967, which she ran until her death in 1983.

My first experience of secondhand bookselling was with John Thornton in the mid-1970s. He was dealing in antiques at the time, and had The Chair Shop in Tunbridge Wells, which also had a room of secondhand books. I worked for John for around seven years, and during that time the book side of his business expanded to fill eight rooms. While John was out buying furniture, and at the same time picking up lots of books, I would spend my time in the shop, where I met all the dealers. Mr Howlett, the famous ‘runner’, was a regular visitor and the most wonderful person. He had had a bookshop in pre-War Bromley, where Richmal Crompton had been one of his customers. When I knew him, he was living nearby in Hildenborough, where his wife was kept busy fostering Nigerian babies for the GLC.

Elizabeth Bateman would visit John Thornton’s shop almost every day. I used to put aside books that I thought would be suitable for Hall’s. It was a very convenient arrangement for her - John found fantastic material on his private calls, and Elizabeth was not a driver. She was also in very poor health. One day she asked if I would come and work at Hall’s. I started in 1981 on a pitiful salary, and I was only able to manage because I was living with my mother. All the books were priced in pounds, shillings and pence – Elizabeth having refused to go decimal. There were piles of books hidden under brown paper, slowly accumulating, because Elizabeth was not well enough to price them. She would rather not sell a book than make a mistake. Failure of any kind was not tolerated, and the power of her personality was such that some of her assistants were terrified of her. But essentially she was a very kind person, and felt a tremendous sense of responsibility toward the shop.

Elizabeth had recruited me with the view of training me to take over the bookshop. She had expected to have another four years of active bookselling instead of which she died within eighteen months of my joining Hall’s. I was given the chance, much sooner than I might have expected, to buy the business. I bought it for £10,000, which I paid off within the first eighteen months. In the early days I deliberately copied Elizabeth’s handwriting when pricing books, so that customers might not notice the change of ownership. However word got around that Elizabeth had died, and the shop was extremely busy – no doubt some people thought that the ‘apprentice’ was bound to make mistakes, but most people came to show their support for the shop.

Turnbridge Wells BookshopWhen Harry Pratley heard that I was taking over Hall’s, he immediately sent me a cheque for £1,000. However the ABA demanded the return of our membership plaque, which upset Harry terribly, as a former President of the Association. Actually it was one of the best things that could have happened – it made me feel determined to make it on my own. Harry used to come in to the shop every week and we would discuss what I had bought since his last visit. He kept bringing in good books for me to put in the window and sell. I resisted doing this because I was afraid that these sales would distort the true picture of how the shop was doing. It was essential for the business to be able to survive on what I was able to buy and sell. I can honestly say that I did not relax for the first ten years.


Harry Pratley died on 5 May 1987, and the residue of his fine collection of books – he had given most of them away – was sold by Sotheby’s in a three-day sale in January 1988. I spent £1,000 in each day’s sale, as I felt that I needed to be seen to be there and buying books. The following year the local branch manager of Lloyds Bank, which owned the premises of Hall’s Bookshop, came round in person to deliver some very bad news. The bank owned the entire block in which the shop is situated, and they had plans to redevelop it. We were on very friendly terms – indeed he had lent me the money to buy the business. He explained that the decision had been made by the bank’s property people and that, while he personally was on my side, there was nothing he could do to help. When a local journalist heard that Hall’s Bookshop was under threat, he launched a publicity campaign which quite simply snowballed.

There was a public outcry, at first local, then national and finally international. Local people moved their bank accounts away from Lloyds. Tunbridge Wells Borough Council threatened to do the same. Finally a television crew wanted to come down, and I think it was at that stage that Lloyds Bank took an enlightened attitude and relented. The bookshop is so much part of the life of the town, as the publicity storm had so forcefully demonstrated.

In his time Harry Pratley had done an enormous amount to promote good will in the community. He was a prominent figure in the Rotary Club and a great supporter of local charities. The shop always took and continues to take advertising space in the newsletters and publications of the various local clubs, societies and places of worship, and we also display their announcements in the shop. As another gesture of good will, Harry never charged for valuations, and I have followed his example.

Hall's BookshopI rely almost entirely upon local connections for my stock. When people tell me that the shop is well stocked, I reply that it is thanks to my customers who sell me their books. It surprises me that a lot of book dealers do not like buying from the general public. The nicest part of the job for me is going out on house calls. There is something fascinating about going through someone’s collection of books, and the glimpses that it offers into their life and interests. Buying privately is all about establishing a relationship of trust. I have learnt that it is important to accept the offer of tea or coffee, and to take a little time for everyone to relax. It does not always work. On one occasion I had to deal with an eccentric old lady who wanted her books valued, but would not let me in the house. She kept me standing at the back door, and showed me one book at a time.

It is very rare to go out on a completely wasted house call, although I have been known to suggest that they contact the local dump, which always prompts the response, ‘ we couldn’t possibly throw books away’. I try to explain that there is nothing unique about their books, or indeed most books, and that they will not destroy civilisation by throwing them away – to which they sometimes respond that they would rather give them to me than dump them. I have learnt to say thank you and take them.


I depend entirely on part-time assistants to run the shop, because I cannot afford to pay a full-time salary. My best assistants tend to come in, aged fifteen or sixteen, looking for a Saturday job. I have learnt not to employ ex-librarians – they always want to impose order, when the shop requires greater flexibility. I usually hang on to my assistants until they have been through university, and perhaps for a little longer while they are looking for a full-time job. Customers are very indulgent with them if they do not know everything, as long as they show interest in their work. Harry taught me never to be frightened to ask if you do not know something – the customers will teach you, because they are steeped in their subject and like talking about it. Hall’s is a very good training ground and a number of bookmen have begun their careers here. Tony Smith of Heywood Hill worked at Hall’s until John Saumarez Smith spotted his talent and pinched him!

Hall's Bookshop outsideIf customers ask us to look for a specific title, we record it in our book and let them know if a copy comes in. We have never advertised for books wanted. Actually I am more likely nowadays to suggest that they ask a grandchild to look for it on the Internet. I am aware of a small number of people buying books from us in order to put them on the Internet. In many cases I think that they misjudge the effort required in packing and processing an order, when you consider what they can add on to my perfectly good price. Sometimes people offer me a book and show me a list of eBay prices for it, completely unaware of the effect of condition, binding or even edition on the value of a book. There is also the trap of being guided by Internet prices if there is only one copy listed. My mother’s book, A Private Life, turned up at the local Oxfam shop priced at £49.50. It is not disloyal of me to say that it certainly is not worth that much. At the same time there was a single copy on ABE, and it was priced at £55. The Internet has a lot to answer for in some of the mad pricing that one comes across.

In the old days, customers would come in to the shop, and you would acknowledge them and then carry on with what you were doing. Nowadays there are so few secondhand bookshops that you have to assume that it might be their first visit to such an establishment. I will now approach them, if they are new to the shop, and offer my assistance. This pro-active method seems to be working. A lot of young people have no affinity with books, referring to them as ‘so last century’. I am sure that books will survive, but the next few years will be critical.

Hall’s is a unique shop and it should have a future. It is firmly based in a town which has been extremely loyal to it, and the fundamentals of how the business is run are sound. When we were threatened with closure, I wondered if it would be possible to make a go of it in another location, but there is something about Hall’s that simply can not be reproduced elsewhere. The shop is all-absorbing and intellectually stimulating – a lifestyle rather than an occupation. I think of myself as the caretaker. I did not create it; I just took over the responsibility for running it. The rent review came up recently and I committed myself to another three years, by which time I shall have given thirty years of my life to the shop. It is easy to stay on too long – you start to get stale, your information is out of date, your health deteriorates. Hall’s deserves to be passed on in good shape. It has the potential to be the last bookshop standing.

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This article first appeared in the Bookdealer magazine in December 2008, © Sheila Markham

Several other interviews from this collection can be read online at Sheila's website - www.sheila-markham.com
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Images used:
All images in this article belong to Sheila Markham's private collection
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More articles from this series:
An Insight into the Current State of Independent Bookselling – An Introduction

Independent Bookstores in Danger of Extinction – Who is to Blame?

Independent Booksellers and the Fixed Book Price: a Horror Story?

Chain Bookstores: The Rise, Struggle and Downfall?

Independent Booksellers: What Can Be Done to Help?

Literaturhaus: Books, Words and Much Much More
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Back to the full list of Articles

1 comment:

Nobius said...

Great article. Definitely adding Ms. Markham's book to my wish list.