Introducing Keel Row Books
Our newest featured bookseller is Keel Row Books.
Keel Row Books is an antiquarian and second-hand bookshop in historic North Shields, close to the mouth of the River Tyne in the north of England. Large and rambling, the shop is located in a Georgian house that was once home to Tynemouth parish church’s sexton. It became a bookshop in 1981, and the current owners Anthony Smithson and Alice Laverty have run this busy shop since 2006.
Anthony is a long-standing member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (PBFA) and exhibits at book fairs up and down the country. In 2011 he joined the ABA and in 2014 was elected to the ABA Council. A twice graduate of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar Anthony thought the Colorado course so inspiring and useful to the trade he and Alice set up a UK equivalent in 2014 (the York Antiquarian Book Seminar, YABS for short!). YABS is a not-for-profit educational seminar for booksellers and has been generously supported by the two main bookselling trade associations, the ABA and the PBFA as well as AbeBooks who provide two scholarships on the course annually.
We caught up with Anthony for a quick Q&A about the world of book selling.
AbeBooks: How did you become a professional book seller?
Anthony Smithson: I made a deliberate decision to become a bookseller back in 1990, at the sprightly age of 19. My weekends at the time were spent tracking down and hanging out in every second-hand bookshop I could get to within a day’s journey from my home in the North East of England. Also by that time I’d realised that the degree in Sociology I was to study at Sheffield University would qualify me to be either a social worker or, God forbid, a sociology lecturer, and I wanted to be neither. It occurred to me that starting in the profession so early (if I treated the first four years as the equivalent of an apprenticeship) I would hopefully be in a job, debt free, and I would be stealing a march on other members of the trade who perhaps came into the profession later in life. Mostly, though, bookselling was so appealing because it offered a far more catholic education than any degree course could offer.
So I deliberately chose books, rather than them choosing me as is often the case. I’ve always considered bookselling less of an occupation and more of a vocation. I badgered Bob Cook, the previous owner of the Keel Row into giving me a job shifting books around for two days a week. Back then the shop had the nickname of the ‘hard hat bookshop’ since this crumbling Georgian house was crammed to the rafters in every room. It was the kind of disorganised provincial shop that pretty much doesn’t exist anymore. I wasn’t so much interested in the wages as I was intent on picking up the rudiments of the trade, even if that was by osmosis alone. Within two years I had opened a small bookshop in an antiques market in city centre Newcastle. The late Brian Mills, one of the mainstays of the Newcastle book trade, was one of the first through the door the day that I opened. As a young man I soon found the shop stifling so closed and began to trade from a bookstall at Tynemouth Station weekend antiques market. This wrought iron Victorian railway station was once the jewel in the crown of the East Coast mainline and my stand in the centre of the station was an absolute pleasure to run, and boy did it have footfall. I still exhibit my books at the station’s quarterly Sunday book fairs.By the late 1990s I decided to broaden my horizons and stepped on a plane to New Zealand. I`d initially intended to be abroad for six months but stayed away for three years. I circumnavigated New Zealand’s South Island on two separate occasions, buying books as I went. The second time around my camper van became so full that I slept on a bed of books! Whilst travelling I met my wife (and partner in the business) Alice, an interior architect whose MA thesis in library design was to come in very useful upon our return. The progression to where we are now has been gradual but in retrospect purposeful. Sometimes the flow of books just seems to carry one along. With two children now and ten years of shop trading behind us we’ve settled into our niche.
Abe: What do you love most about selling books?
AS: What’s not to love! I enjoy the friendly and eclectic customers who call in on a daily basis, each one of them seemingly more enthusiastic, passionate and knowledgable about their collecting field than the last. I love the opportunity to handle wonderful objects every day. Every now and then I get to handle something really special, of real lasting cultural significance. To paraphrase Philip Larkin, a book with “magical value”, one of those books that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Honestly though I’d do it without those high spots, the job is endlessly fascinating, there’s no such thing as a mundane book!
Abe: What is the most prized item in your inventory? Why?
AS: “Prized” to me has to mean the item, regardless of value, that I would least like to sell. The item that would give me the greatest pang of regret as it went out the door. Hmm, I suppose that would currently have to be a broadside we have banning the playing of football in Alnwick town centre in 1827. I enjoy provincial ephemera immensely, a broadside or handbill can illuminate a local historical event or incident that can otherwise be completely unrecorded, unlike a book, a bill or broadside can be likely as not unique. They’re just great social history. This notice bans the annual Shrove Tuesday game “in consequence of the danger arising from playing Foot-ball in the streets”. The townsfolk were eventually successful in their attempts to have the game removed from the town (too much damage was being caused to shop fronts from packs of wild lads running amok!) as the Duke of Northumberland presented a nearby field for the playing of the game. The match is still played every year at Alnwick, as it has been reputedly for over 700 years. In the old days, the game was reputedly played with a Scotsman’s head! As a subject (unlike some other sports) football material has continued to rise in value and early football material is now rare indeed. This broadside is early, rare, ephemeral, a super subject and it tells a great story. It was a pleasure to research. I also really appreciate the printers sense of layout and typography. Meant to have been pasted up in Alnwick town centre the thing just shouldn’t have survived. Yet here it is!
Abe: What’s the one book you covet most? Why?
AS: Well, we’d all like to come across a Shakespeare quarto, Romeo and Juliet perhaps!? Being more realistic though I’ve always hankered after a signed copy (in the fragile dust-jacket of course) of Graham Greene’s Rumour at Nightfall. Its just one of those legendarily unobtainable books. It was only his third novel and Greene hated it so much he later suppressed it. If not that then a copy of the Newcastle author Joseph Crawhall’s Ye Loving Ballad of Lorde Bateman, 1860. Its the only one of Crawhall’s books that we’ve not had, hardly surprising as there were only 15 copies printed.
AS: Not odd in and of itself but odd in terms of a fortunate stroke of serendipity the memorable day I came across it. Just after we reopened the shop in 2006 a lady brought in a small pile of Darwin firsts and reprints, inevitably the firsts were all his later titles from the late 1870’s and early 1880’s. My bookbinder happened to be sat in the shop at the time and quipped “hey, imagine if one of them was signed”. “Hah!, that will be the day!” I replied, just as I was opening one of the volumes. And right there between the black front endpapers, tucked in for safe keeping, was a sheet of laid paper with the words “Charles Darwin, Down House, 1878” written in a big bold hand…
Abe: What’s your most memorable moment as a professional book seller?
AS: The one that always springs to mind is bidding at auction on behalf of Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books. I was asked to represent them at a Yorkshire saleroom when the library of Enid Blyton’s daughter, Gillian Baverstock, came up for sale. As well as her substantial library there were 15 of Enid Blyton’s original annotated typescripts. Booksellers from far and wide attended the sale, it was a real bun fight. The typescripts however were the most fought over. I’m pleased to say that we managed to secure the 13 that Seven Stories were after, but not before a significant sum was spent with all the eyes of the press and television crews upon us.
Abe: And of course, what’s your favourite book?
AS: I read so much all day I really enjoy a non-taxing classic crime or historical novel. I’ll confess a soft spot for the Flashman titles, they’re hugely entertaining, uproariously funny and a history lessen to boot.