With many independent bookshops closing, sellers and buyers now flock to second-hand fairs. Stephen McClarence peels back the dust jacket at one Yorkshire event. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
In a brief break from browsing, John Fawcett is telling me about his fascination for Beatrix Potter books. He has just bought two more to add to his collection of them, which he reckons may run to 400. The two new ones are The Tale of Tuppenny and Jeannot Lapin. Not heard of that one, I say. “Benjamin Bunny in French,” he says.
Surrounded by fellow collectors, all busily delving and peering and rummaging at Ilkley Book Fair, he mentions that he also collects other books published by Frederick Warne & Co.
“Do you have the Rutley Seashore?” bookseller Louise Harrison, the fair’s manager, asks him. “No!” he says, with lightly concealed excitement. She goes to fetch it. We’ll come back to the Rutley Seashore and Benjamin Bunny, but first a bit of context.
Next weekend sees the annual York National Book Fair – Britain’s biggest antiquarian book fair – once again taking over the Knavesmire Suite at the city’s racecourse. More than 200 booksellers will be touting their wares, though with all due dignity and decorum: these are not rowdy events.
The books on offer – ranging in price from a few pounds to tens of thousands – will be variously described as antiquarian, rare and secondhand (“used” isn’t a favoured word), and maps and prints will also be on sale. Organised by the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, the fair generally pulls in 2,000 visitors from across the country, with those arriving by train ferried there by a free shuttle bus from near York railway station.
It’s a sort of jamboree – a reunion – for the book trade, which is going through testing times. Janette Ray, the fair’s publicity manager, reckons Britain now has fewer than 300 second-hand bookshops – that’s shops run as businesses rather than charity bookshops.
Attitudes to books have changed. When Colin Tatman announced last month that he was selling his long-established Beverley Old Book Shop, he told The Yorkshire Post that young people don’t value books as much as previous generations did. “They come in and say all sorts of nice things as if we were a museum and then walk out without buying anything,” he said.
Online trade, often coupled with high rents and rates, has seen off thousands of shops. It leaves many dealers working from home and selling by post – which is why Janette Ray, whose York bookshop specialises in art and architecture, thinks fairs are so important.
“Buying books on the internet only works if you already know what you want,” she says. “Fairs give people a chance to see and feel books, to experience them.” And, she adds, there’s always the serendipity of finding a book you never expected to come across or even didn’t know existed.
Which brings us back to John Fawcett, from Ripon, and the Rutley Seashore. This is collectors’ shorthand for Along the Seashore by Cecily M Rutley, a 1950s guide to shoreline nature with gulls on its chalk-cliffed dust jacket.
John unhesitatingly buys it from Louise Harrison for around £20. It will join the 500-600 Observer’s Books and the 300-400 Beatrix Potters in his collection (different editions).
Why Beatrix Potter? What’s the fascination of Squirrel Nutkin and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle? What’s the pulling power of Jemima Puddle-Duck, Pigling Bland and the Flopsy Bunnies?
“I read the stories myself when I was a child and read them to my sons,” he says. “I like to have books around me; I like to sit and look at them; I like the smell of them. I went to an auction at Northallerton and bid up to £500 for some Peter Rabbits, but I stopped at that.” He adds that a first edition of The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan, another Potter title, went for £300, then puts the Rutley Seashore in his bag and moves on to another stall.
Louise Harrison runs TP Books in nearby Addingham. She specialises in children’s books (plenty of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series here), detective fiction and female authors and has been managing the two-day Ilkley fair for eight years.
“It could be said to be the York fair in miniature,” she says. “We don’t charge an entrance fee here, to encourage people. Book fairs may be intimidating if you’ve never been before, and we want people to realise it’s a very pleasant way to spend two hours.”
And the name of her business? What’s TP stand for? “Truffle Pigs. If you’re looking for children’s books, you often have to scramble around on the floor.”
Four dozen booksellers, a third of them from Yorkshire, have packed Ilkley’s balconied Winter Garden and adjoining King’s Hall, its stage arch dotted with white Yorkshire roses (plaster ones) and its boxes fronted by carvings of Shakespeare, Milton, Scott and other, less recognisable, authors.
There’s a convivial atmosphere, a sense of dealers off the leash, away from catalogues with their codified book descriptions (“A good, tight, clean copy... light spotting to title... a little rubbed and faded... the spine just a touch sunned... some fox marks... text lightly age-toned... a little distressed”).
There are specialists here in mountaineering, police history, HE Bates and Rupert annuals and there’s what may be Britain’s oldest second-hand bookshop – Halewood & Sons from Preston, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
Some dealers cater for highly specific interests. The artfully named Idle Booksellers, based in Idle, near Bradford, have brought Tales of Bolton Methodist Church, the programme for the 1929 Bradford Hospital Gala, and Jaggermen’s Bridges on Packhorse Trails (published by the Sledgehammer Engineering Press).
They also have a small selection of the thousands of books they stock by and about the Wakefield-born Victorian novelist George Gissing. “Most of the people who buy books by him are readers rather than collectors,” says co-owner Ros Stinton. And the Idle Booksellers name? “It amuses people and they remember it.”
As does the Haunted Bookshop, which Sarah Key runs in Cambridge. “We have a lady ghost who, I have to say, hasn’t been seen for quite some time; the last sighting was about 25 years ago,” she says. “But it gets customers in.”
Her specialisms include “quirky titles and anything we deem interesting”. Hence A Holiday for Honk and Me and My Pussies, a 1924 children’s book. “That wouldn’t get published today,” she says.
Nothing I see in Ilkley, however, quite matches the title of a book I once saw at a book fair: The Potato – A Compilation From Every Available Source (by Eugene H Grubb). Though A to Z of British Bus Bodies and GEM Skues: The Way of a Man with a Trout by T Donald Overfield run it close.
And the appeal of book fairs? “It’s good to get away from your shop and computer screen and get out into the real world,” says Sarah Key. “You meet people you know and you may meet customers you’ve never met.” It’s the pleasure of putting a face to a credit card number.
As for the big York fair... Phil Woolley, from the Black Cat Bookshop in Leicester, reckons it’s “a fantastic gathering of like-minded people”. So what do dealers do when they meet up? Gossip? “Inevitably. When people in a similar industry get together you talk about deals you’ve done... and customers.”
One he particularly recalls is ‘The Ghost Man’. “He’d turn up at fairs and suddenly loom up at the side of you and say: ‘Have you anything ghostly?’ I haven’t seen him lately though. I think he may have passed over to the other side. He’s possibly a ghost himself now.” Though clearly not at the Haunted Bookshop.
York National Book Fair (www.yorkbookfair.com) will be held at York Racecourse’s Knavesmire Suite on Friday, September 15 (12 noon to 7pm) and Saturday, September 16 (10am to 5pm).