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Bookseller Q&A: Colophon Books, PBFA

Glorious books – some of Barlow’s collection

Today’s Bookseller Q&A comes from Staffordfshire. Mike Barlow is the owner of Colophon Books, PBFA in Leek. He has been selling books since the mid-1970s, and during that time has sold to major libraries around the globe, university collections, as well as serious private collectors, and has sold 1st editions of The Hobbit, a letter by George Washington, and a missing part 5 of a Mendelsohn symphony. He also spent two decades as a valuer for 4 auction houses, fighting temptation, and is now a member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (PBFA). Barlow joined the AbeBooks bookseller ranks in early 2015, and no longer has a storefront, but sells online. Read on to learn more about Colophon Books, and to hear one of the best “Found in Books” stories we’ve ever heard.

AbeBooks: How did you become a professional bookseller?
Mike Barlow: In 1975 I walked into a shop in Finsbury Park in London, and bought 800 books on a whim for £50, all in tea-chests, after asking to look at  5 old-looking books on a top shelf I couldn’t reach without a chair or ladder. I sold about 45 books later that day from the collection for £120 to the author Iain Sinclair who was a bookseller in those days and I had bought off him several times. I began shortly afterwards selling books on Camden Lock and Camden Passage in Islington 2 days every week. I earned enough from the purchases I was making from Bob the bric-a-brac dealer in Finsbury Park to open a cafe/bookshop a few months later in Lincolnshire. I bought 3 quite large lots of books through him in the space of about 6 weeks. He was a house clearance man from the old war-time London days and sold anything under the business name of “The Stroud Green Bedding Company”. He didn’t sell beds or bedding and he wasn’t in Stroud Green. But his father had been till the Germans bombed his shop so he moved to Finsbury Park. He sold me the books in quick succession and as he liked me and wanted me to do well, he let me have them at very low prices like the £50 lot. To be fair I was taking the gamble as I knew so little, but did the maths and it seemed a good deal for me. He was getting books and other antiques out of a storage depot just around the corner from his shop. The second lot I bought, the depot employees had found these old wooden crates bricked up behind a wall (alcoves) since the 1st war in 1914 and they had just knocked a wall down and there they were. I was very lucky and as a gambler I took chances where others would have dithered. To be fair, at the time I knew enough about books only to want to read most of the literature and to try to ask a profit when it came to offer them out for sale, but little else. I remember selling a copy of Ulysses in the blue wrappers 1922 and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in wrappers 1855 for an offer of £120. The Whitman is a book I have never seen again in any sort of original wrapper state. …What do they say about a little knowledge is dangerous?

The Pawky Pawk’s Book of Beasts

Abe: What is the most prized item in your inventory? Why?
MB: I have an illustrated manuscript called “The Pawky Pawk’s Book of Beasts” by a young girl aged about 9-10 called Joyce Mary Williams and perhaps with input from her brother Peter aged about 6 (aka Jimmy Smite – illustrator or co-writer). They were the son and daughter of a publisher Geoffrey Williams of Williams and Norgate Ltd. A London ouse no longer in business. It has never been published, it comes with other ephemera, photographs and school-day drawings and notes. It says a lot about the children, the period and the place. And it is unique. I have owned it since the 1980’s and it is for sale at present on Abebooks.

I also have a run of 1st world war period children’s annuals bought from a lady in Ingoldmells in Lincolnshire many years ago. And whom I befriended by her answering an advert I had placed in a local paper for buying books. Not because they are particularly valuable, But because as a spinster these were her mother’s and as she had no family herself she didn’t know what to do with them as they were taking her to a home for the elderly and she had nowhere to keep them and she was so distraught when I left as they were all she possessed of her mothers and she had looked after this lady all her life until she had passed away, She begged me to have them and I said well OK if she insisted! I would hang onto them for her for a few weeks until she made her mind up about what she wanted to do. Sadly later that week she died in tragic circumstances to awful to mention here. I have never been able to sell them due to this and the fact I never paid her and she had no one and died intestate. I felt responsible enough to never want to split them and probably never will. I feel so sad each time I see the books and the circumstances of how I got hold of them.

Abe: What do you love most about selling books?
MB: The history of it all. I can feel the previous lives, the hands that held things on the older material, the places they once resided in the world as it had been at that time. the fact they had lain in situ until I saw them perhaps for years and years or a century or two. The climate or situation in which they were bought originally . But mostly random association I have with with perhaps, in many cases, the only thing the original owner left of themselves on the planet to say “I existed” with their signature or bookplate being their legacy ass it were. That’s what I like about the things that come through my hands. I don’t understand the desire for no inscriptions, never will really. Unsightly scrawls yes, but a name or neat dedication how wrong can that be?

The Pawky Pawk’s Book of Beasts

Abe: What’s the one book you covet most? Why?
MB: I would love to own or find a Shakespeare manuscript or even a letter proving beyond doubt who and what he was and to settle the matter of authorship.

Abe: What’s the oddest thing you’ve found in a book?
MB: A fried egg fell out of an 18th century scientific pamphlet owned by Lord Walpole, which one I am unsure? Probably Horace. It was bulging and discolouring the pages when I discovered it in Wolterton Hall Library in the 1980’s. It had a beautiful binding by Sangorski and Sutcliffe done in the late 19th century and it was on Halley’s Comet dated about 1678 or slightly later. The egg fell like a stone and it had a powder blue centre that as I opened the book carefully and curiously this ugly cold ancient thing, this horrid visual dead thing dropped out onto my shoe and then the carpet, it bounced once, the white shattered in a thousand pieces and the yolk sending up a cloud of blue spore like dust that covered my shoes trousers and Aubusson carpet at one and the same time. And as I realised I had discovered both his old breakfast and a new bookmark idea, I quickly tried to cover it all up before Lady Walpole came back in and had a fit at her carpet and my dishevelment. I often wonder what was it that disturbed him so quickly to place it in the book, or how eccentric one has to be to use the fully fledged fried egg as a book accessory page marker?

The Pawky Pawk’s Book of Beasts

Abe: What’s your most memorable moment as a professional bookseller?
MB: I went to an auction in Norfolk and bought an Edward Lear Book of Nonsense manuscript for £26 and sold it at Sotheby’s for £16,000 later that year (1981). It was a proper cataloged book auction too, with about 100+ dealers, so many had the chance to appraise it. I did see the very same album about 13 years later for sale at £225,000 in the ABA London Summer Fair. It was on an American dealer’s stand. But they do say your first profit is your best and he still had to sell it.

Abe: And of course, what’s your favourite book?
MB: My desire, if I have any left, would be to collect all the rare editions of Dickens’ in all their variant 1st edition formats. The paper covered monthly parts, the plates pristine in them all (rare to find any not foxed these days). The association copies he presented to friends, the rare ephemera that was all part of his publishing legacy in his own lifetime. And of course the George Cruikshank engravings. You could easily spend two lifetimes trying to get all the first impressions in the best condition.
I started a good collection once of Dickens books after buying the library of a man who died of rabies in 1940 after being bitten by a mad dog in Lincolns Inn, London. Where he was a barrister and had chambers. A Mr Edward J. Ward was his name.

He left his collection to a young girl who was his adopted child or “ward” I think she said she was, Olive Harris, she had been sent to Wisbech as a war child-refugee where she was fostered out, but she married and then stayed all her life in that town. Strangely apropos of nothing really, Wisbech Public Library own the Manuscript of Great Expectations and can be viewed on request, or used to be?

The Pawky Pawk’s Book of Beasts

Anyway the collection was battered and needed a lot of money spent on it after rescuing it from further neglect and lack of knowledge. It had been kept in plastic bags in the garage for at least 30 years and a few other related items an old burr walnut 19th century bookcase in the hallway that blocked the front door. (They never used front doors in Lincolnshire), where the remaining few had managed to survive in better health. The books included a trial issue of A Christmas Carol 1843 with powdered green endpaper instead of the ordinary finally published canary yellow and a title page in red and green and not blue and red as appeared in the 1st trade edition, I believe it was one of only 12 trial issues ever. A binder ruined the book by throwing away the endpapers and binding it in a thesis plain buckram. I think he must still have my fingermarks round his throat. The collection had all his major and minor books as firsts with variant issues and some extra illustrated, but mostly bound in half or full leather and not original cloth and this leather had split and was in many cases damaged. A few had been bound in presentation morocco by Sangorski or Hatchards and this saved them for me.

I remember asking had there been any magazines at any time as a lot of Dickens works came out monthly? She said “yes there was, but as we had to remove them back to Wisbech and we couldn’t take everything so we took the nice books”. I sighed I think? It was enough regret in that statement to bring a tear to a glass eye. I had to sell these books a few years later to pay bills probably and help buy the next “must have”. I do regret that.

That just goes with the many other regrets in life, but we survive and after all we are only the guardians, so I would have lost them and eventually they would have been sold, but is was another lucky find and purchase and these always linger in the memory all your life. The good buys, the ones that keep you going when you think you must give up and get a proper job in banking or politics

BUT! What was it a bookseller once said? If you cannot sell ALL your books you’ll never be a good bookseller! A successful man is one who makes a profit and moves on, you cannot do that keeping books back to hold onto for that rainy day.

I feel today so many other things have crowded books to the very margin of our needs and requirements as a society. And that for many booksellers today making any profit selling everything you buy or not is a lot, lot, harder than it has ever been, although in most centuries for many it was always hard, but people did at least know how to read.

Lastly! One interesting thing I noticed when looking at the 1500 or so Sotheby catalogues I bought from old Alfred Lenton’s private bookstock the old Leicester dealer from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, from his son in 2000. And all dated from the 1890’s-1970’s that the books that were being sold for little money from the early 20th century and mid-20th century in the 1970’s catalogues and a few 80’s catalogues had almost all but disappeared today. So perhaps those books that we think will be around forever, do eventually just stop appearing never to be found. The 18th century material, the scientific and esoteric pamphlets, the 3 deckers in cloth, the leather in perfect condition in boxes for £10-12 and shelves of magazines from the 1900’s that were hardly making a £5’er, where is it all?
I’m off to list some more books now as I try to every day. I have another 3-5000 items, so only another 10 years or so to go…..

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