When bookselling was charmingly eccentric
David Batterham, an old bookseller now "working from home" in West London, reflects on a life among his colourful colleagues.Booksellers are often rather odd. This is not surprising as we have all managed to escape from more regular forms of work. It is also a trade for which there are no rules. It can be carried on from a shop in Bond Street, or from a barrow, or a car boot. Some booksellers get their books from sales or from clearing houses. Others, like myself, simply buy them from other booksellers.
Before I sold books I sold wallpaper, and before that I worked for a firm that imported spray-guns. I became a bookseller by chance. I met Richard Booth at a party and he offered me a job. Richard was certainly odd. He later became celebrated for inventing the concept of "book towns", and more particularly for the publicity stunt of declaring himself "the King of Hay".
Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border became the first book town as Richard's flair for publicity attracted more and more booksellers until there was hardly room for any other businesses. At the time I joined him, Richard spent most of the time travelling the country in his maroon Rolls-Royce buying books from the people who had responded to the flyers with which we blanketed the country. I remained in the Castle, where I was in charge of selling the books. Richard gave me a few tips and left me to it. The few booksellers who made the long journey to Hay must have done very well, as I had no experience at all.
After a few months Richard gave me the sack, for selling the books too cheap. But by then I could see how I could make a living without returning to paid employment. I set up as a bookseller on my own account and have been at it ever since. This was in the late 1960s. It was also at around this time that I met the painter Howard Hodgkin and his then wife, Julia, and often stayed with them in their Mill in the West Country. It was as a sort of thank-you that I started writing the letters which now comprise my book. Howard was also partly responsible for my connection with Paris. In 1972, he had an exhibition in a gallery in the Rue de Seine, and I joined him and other friends there for the private view. While I was there, I discovered that there were a great many bookshops in Paris - all full of the kind of books I never saw in London: 19th century trade catalogues, fashion magazines, illustrated journals, wonderful 1920s pattern books. I was soon returning to Paris every couple of months.
Bypassing the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, I was moving in a living museum of eccentrics. Many of the older booksellers had lived through the war. M Parrot for example told me how he had survived on cheap reading books during the dark days of the war, but could not help adding: "and there were some good Jewish libraries coming on the market". After a while I made longer journeys into other parts of France, and later to Spain and Portugal. Wonderfully strange people everywhere. I tracked down Rinus Clomp near the Belgian border with Holland. He lived in a house which he appeared to have built himself inside an old barn. He had a stall in the Waterlooplein in Amsterdam, and seemed to get his books from a network of children and bin men. His wife kept chickens which she fed on the trailer - loads of stale bread Rinus brought back each weekend from bakers’ shops in Amsterdam. In Barecelona, I met Mr Savall, whose shop was only open from 3-8 on Saturdays. He was a lawyer, and bookselling was a hobby. He invited me to his home in Sarria - the Hampstead of Barcelona - where he had another, secret shop, behind his house, which opened on to an unvisited alley. Jekyll & Hyde! I seemed to be the only customer he had brought there, and I spent several thousand pounds on exotic bargains.
These and other adventures I related in letters to Howard. It was not a correspondence, as I never had any replies. I might have kept a diary, but it suited me to have a sort of listener in mind as I wrote. I knew Howard had kept the letters and, a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that they might contain a series of vignettes of bookshops and booksellers which could be distilled into a book, a sort of "Brief Lives". I had always had it in mind to "write a book when I grow up" - and here would be a book already written! I got the letters back. They were not as neat as I had hoped. Not just bookshops; there were hotels too, and odd memories and anecdotes, reflections on our lives and friends and families.
I made a selection from the letters and showed it to a few friends, one of whom suggested I show it to George Ramsden of Stone Trough books in York. He proposed an edition of 350 copies, if "sine qua non" I could persuade Howard to write a foreword and allow the use of one of his pictures for the cover. This irritating implication, that my correspondent and his cover were more important than my text, was my first introduction to the world of publishing and the difficulty of persuading people to buy a book! A publishing friend told me that for a book of this type the readership would be limited to "friends of the author". I have managed to extend this to "booksellers who know the author".
Perhaps some readers of BookBrunch can be added to the list - you don't have to go on my recommendation alone. Alan Bennett in his LRB Diary enjoyed "a gallery of eccentrics with Batterham himself the most notable… lucky Hodgkin to have received these letters".
Among Booksellers.Tales Told in Letters to Howard Hodgkin is published by Stone Trough Books (paperback, £9.95).