Ken Spelman can’t have been the only person who, walking the ash-strewn streets of post-war London, longed for air.
As well as the wish, Spelman had the wherewithal. His experience serving customers of the calibre of James Joyce at one of London’s most well-to-do bookshops stood him in good stead for future undertakings in the literary line; and his frugal nature was presumably reflected in his account at the bank.
With confidence unavailable to many in the teeming, shell-shocked city, bracing itself to ration and rebuild, Spelman placed a newspaper advert. ‘Wanted’ it read, ‘Small Country Bookshop.’ It could have read, ‘Wanted: New Life.’
The life Spelman found was in York, in 1948, when it could hardly be called the country. Spelman’s family had its roots in Norfolk, among the flat expanses of East Anglia’s farms and horizons, only occasionally disturbed by villages or church spires. A landscape painting in the Norfolk Museum Collection, by Colin Self, ‘Large Harvest Field with Two Hay Bales at Happisburgh, Norfolk,’ is two-thirds deep blue sky; the paint that forms the field below has real straw mixed in. The Collection paid for the purchase using the Kenneth Spelman Bequest Fund, presumably in accordance with his preferences, intentions and tastes.
York in 1948 did not look like that painting. And the shop Spelman chose – on Micklegate, the great road from London, along which monarchs had passed and rebels had died – could only afford country views if Spelman bought them on canvas and displayed them in the narrow rooms and corridors.
Behind the shop, beyond the end of the yard, was the old railway station; a city wall’s width beyond that was the new railway station; and beyond that, like a bale of black straw unbound and let fall apart, were the tangled iron lines of railway works as large as the town itself, each line a train, each train an engine, each engine a belly, belching thick coal smoke that the Vale winds blew across the city, and across Spelman’s skies.
Nevertheless, it was beneath Micklegate’s railway skies that Ken Spelman made not just his living, but his life. It wasn’t the country, but the building at 70-72 Micklegate had been a double-fronted bookshop before it was divided; at Spelman’s hand, the small half-shop began to sell books again at a steady rate, while Spelman dwelt on the floors above. It was a frugal kind of living, and his old bath and little kitchen are still there in the upstairs rooms.
Frugal did not mean without luxury. Spelman would only drive a Rolls Royce, and you can find traces of his life in log books; on 14th April 1958, Mr Kenneth Spelman paid £530 for chassis no. GRC28, a 1934 Rolls Royce Special Touring Saloon built to the specifications of The Right Honourable Lord Glentanor of Glen Tanor, Aboyne, Aberdeenshire, who instructed that it be suitable for “Touring at relatively high speed.” The bodywork was black, the interior upholstery was red leather; it was an essay in polish and sculpture. Such a car would only increase in value, which was in Spelman’s interest, and lay behind his preference for Rolls Royces. You could also, Spelman said, fit a lot of books in a Rolls Royce.
We don’t know if life on Micklegate was the life Spelman was looking for when he advertised to leave London, but it was his life for twenty-four years. And then, in 1972, it wasn’t. Spelman retired, moved to Norfolk, and never came back to York.
“He drew a line under it,” says Tony Fothergill, who owns Ken Spelman Books today. “The business had changed so much from when he started. He felt he had got his lifetime out of it. He loved gardening, so he went back to Norfolk, bought a house, and spent the rest of his life gardening.”
It’s as if Micklegate had been a stop-off point, the bookshop on the way from the city to the country; a stop-off that lasted twenty-four years and defined Ken Spelman’s life. And Ken Spelman’s wasn’t the only life to be changed by the shop at 70-72 Micklegate.
Ken Spelman would recognise his bookshop today. Certainly he would remember the old shop sign he commissioned, that now leans among the books in the window display; perhaps he would be happy to find his bath and kitchen upstairs. His frugal nature might not let him approve of the shop doubling in size, adopting again its old other half next door, but that would only be the first of many changes he would have to get used to. Business had changed a great deal in the quarter-century that Spelman had the shop; it has changed even more in the three-and-a-half decades since Tony Fothergill began working there as a shop assistant.
“Books have a kind of generational interest,” says Tony. “When I first came here the biggest section in the shop was for books about railways. Now there are probably about three shelves, because nobody is interested in railways anymore; that link to people brought up on steam trains has gone, and no one wants to collect books on diesels.
“Cookery and gardening used to be huge sections. Now people use an iPad for those things. If you’re cooking you’ll look something up on the internet; you don’t have shelves of cookery books anymore. People’s leisure time has changed, so they don’t spend all weekend gardening; they get their garden right, then go and do other things. These things evolve with the generations, and other things take their place.”
We ask what’s popular with Ken Spelman’s customers now, and Tony answers with a confident laugh. “Not books!”
And he means it. And, as a bookseller, it doesn’t worry him, because he saw it coming.
“We were ahead of the game I think, because we could sense how things were moving,” says Tony. “We didn’t move away from books, but about ten years ago we moved heavily into manuscripts, documents, journals, artefacts – unique material.
“A lot of our customers are big libraries, and they began to look for unique items because they could make a much stronger case for buying them. It’s no longer a case of waiting for another copy to come along; they either get it, or they don’t get it.
“A lot of the big libraries are part of teaching institutions, and they have to answer to finance boards. It became harder to justify spending their budget on fifty books, when those books have just sat on the shelf and no one has come and looked at them.
“But if they can say, we bought this big archive of material that two students have used for PhDs, and these objects that have gone out to be exhibited, it demonstrates activity, and that the budget should be refreshed, which means the library stays open.
“And that has led to a big change in the book trade, to dealing in photographs, original drawings, even costumes – things that are literary artefacts.”
The premium on the unique has changed bookselling from a steady trade to readers, to a hunt, much more competitive than it used to be. And more fun. Stumble across something truly unique and the prices it will fetch are exceptional; Tony showed us a catalogue from a seller in London, where an illustrated map of Middle Earth, annotated by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, is offered for £60,000 and is “not underpriced – they’ve had at least ten orders.” It will also grab attention; in the week we visited Tony, newspapers were reporting the discovery of unseen manuscripts by a young Charlotte Bronte, stuffed among the pages of a book owned by her mother; exciting the interest of people who never finished reading Jane Eyre at school, but who love to hear about history being brought within their reach. If they can find it, or afford it.
“There is a real sense that you never know when the next nice thing is going to come along,” says Tony. “I’ve done the Chelsea Antiquarian Book Fair for donkey’s years, and I used to come back with three or four boxes of good new stock. The last few fairs I’ve come back with half a dozen things. Everyone is looking at what you’ve bought, and wishing they’d bought it, and it’s fun. I like the serendipity of it. You just never know.”
Aside from book fairs, Tony answers calls from across the country to go and investigate houses about to be cleared or boxes discovered in attics.
“The last month, where have I been? Two and a half tonnes in Glasgow… four hundred boxes in Durham… the Lake District twice… Stamford tomorrow, then Chipping Norton…
“In the old days you only got calls from the places where you advertised in the Yellow Pages. So from here we’d go as far as Scarborough, Malton, Leeds. But now people are accessing information nationally, and there are far fewer bookshops to access. Go north from here and you’ll probably get to Edinburgh before you hit another bookshop like ours; south it’s Cambridge.
“When people are looking to sell big quantities of books they go to bookshops, because they still have an emotional attachment. They don’t want to feel like their library is going off to an industrial estate, on to a conveyor belt, barcoded and straight on Amazon.
“Once you drop having a shop and just go online, the phone stops ringing, because people like to know their books are going back to a bookshop. They like to feel they are doing their best with what’s left of a memory of something. That’s really important. And I think that’s why bookshops are surviving.”
When dealing with two-and-a-half tonnes of books in Glasgow, bookselling, or rather book buying, is the science of not-buying, and knowing what will not sell.
“We tend to work in quantities, but sometimes it can just be a shelf. You don’t know until you get there. You learn to never turn down calls, because how somebody describes a collection could be totally different to what it actually is.
“A lot of things that we used to be able to sell, there’s no point buying anymore, because you can buy it on Amazon for a penny. They’re good books, perfectly fine, and you can fill up your bookshop with them so it looks like it’s doing great, but you’re just filling your shop with books that nobody wants.
“Even at book fairs I might put my hand on something and think, that’s a nice copy. But then you have to think again: I haven’t sold a copy of that for ten years. Nobody has asked for it in ten years. You have to be really ruthless. So much of it now is knowing what not to buy.”
Mentioning Amazon is like ringing the bell of the traditional bookseller’s doom, but Tony is at ease with the impact of the internet.
“Things always evolve, and people always say it’s the end of the trade,” he says. “When book fairs started people said that would kill the trade, then when the internet came they said that would kill the trade. It just redefines it. It makes it into a different beast.
“When Amazon and AbeBooks started, this was the first trade that was doing online selling, years before anything else did. Booksellers looked at what they were selling online through AbeBooks, and their sales charts showed this big uptick. People thought, this is mad, why have a shop anymore? Why don’t we just jump in with that?
“But back then there were only 800 people selling on AbeBooks. Now there are 35,000. The huge wash of stock when American dealers came online, undercutting the prices, meant people were marooned with these stocks of books they couldn’t shift, and loads of them went out of business.”
As well as adapting stock, Tony adapted Ken Spelman Books’ methods of doing business; expensively produced catalogues that would crawl through the mails were replaced by overhead-free pdfs that could be emailed instantly and forwarded to potential new customers; Tony added an email newsletter, highlighting ten or so items that might grab someone’s attention to an artefact they never knew they wanted.
“Customers much prefer it,” says Tony. “The mailing list has trebled since we moved to pdfs, and it has transformed the way we sell to libraries. At a place like Yale University, you used to send one copy to a library, but there are probably fifty libraries scattered across that campus, and they can be miles from each other. Now one librarian can bounce it to another by email and you end up getting contact from someone you didn’t know before.
“I keep the email newsletters to about ten items because that doesn’t intrude on anybody; even on a phone they can quickly scroll through it. It’s a good discipline for me, to put ten items out that I haven’t catalogued; the catalogues are quite thematic, and these are a good way to show people that we get other stuff coming through – and that we’re interested in buying different things. So it’s two-way.”
Communication is key to the book trade now. Telling people what you want and what you’ve got, and finding out what people want, and how to get it for them.
“It’s nice getting things through to the right people,” says Tony. “You can find something that has been lying dormant in a house for a hundred years, and bring it out, bring it to life.” Tony’s biggest customer is Yale – “They did a catalogue of recent acquisitions, and as I flicked through, about 75% was stuff I’d sold them. I thought, ‘Oh god, I wish I hadn’t sold that, I’d like that back!'” – but outside of the institutions are the individual collectors looking for the unusual and, admittedly, the status.
“At the very top end there are the big firms in America, where Johnny Depp will call in and spend half a million dollars because he needs to buy four books for his new girlfriend. Which he does. Those shops basically have to have the books that people have heard of: first editions of all the James Bonds, A Christmas Carol, Pride and Prejudice. At that level of collecting it’s about getting something nobody else has got; and some of it is about a trophy.
“Even in the modern first editions market, if a book is a bit scruffy you can’t sell it at all. If it’s a fine copy you can sell it, but at the top end they want more; a fine copy with the author’s signature, or dedicated to someone noteworthy. It’s all about the extra things that make that copy the copy someone wants: you don’t have a choice, this is the copy you want. That’s the way things are going.”
The counter at Ken Spelman Books might not be the busy centre of trade it was back when it kept Spelman himself in mint Rolls Royces, but change is not the same as decline.
“The book trade is in fair shape. The York National Bookfair has 220 dealers every year, there are more than a hundred down at Chelsea, so there are a lot of people making a living out of it: they’ll always complain that they’re not making a living, but they are. You’ve just got to be working on so many more platforms.
“The old idea people have, that it must be nice being a bookseller because you just stand behind a counter reading all day; they have no idea.”
“In 1979 I was going to Oxford, to do a Masters in English and French literature,” Tony told us, as he leaned on a chair in the upper front room above the shopfront. His desk has a keyboard on it, in front of two large monitors; a shelf houses a complete-looking set of Guy De Maupassant, and others incomplete looking piles of mysterious, leather bound volumes, their spines giving nothing away.
“I’d been at college in York. I had the place at Oxford, but I didn’t have the funding, so I was kicking my heels, doing odd jobs.”
In that post-college limbo in 1979, it must have seemed the most natural thing in the world to accept the offer of a job at Ken Spelman Books, and let Oxford wait.
“I started as a shop assistant, and then managed the shop, and then went into partnership with Peter Miller, who owned it when I started. We were in partnership together from 1984 to 2012, when he retired, and I took it over.
“I never went to Oxford in the end. I enjoyed it here, and you get a bit of distance between doing your degree and what you’re doing. I didn’t want to take the risk of going down to Oxford and maybe not getting a job or anything. I got on very well with Peter, who had taken over from Spelman, and it was really like an old-fashioned apprenticeship, which is unusual. Unless you’re related to the people who own the shop and go into the family business, it’s unusual to spend all your time being unfit to do anything else.”
It’s even more unusual that the job, in 1979, was being offered to someone else.
“A girl I was at college with had applied for a job here, but then she got a job in London and left. The letter came to my flatmate who showed it to me, and I took it down to the shop and said, ‘I’m not who you were expecting, and I’m not a woman, but would you give me an interview?’
“And that’s what changed my life.”
First published in TCT