by Paul Minet
The death of Alan Shelley from cancer at the age of 68 on November 18th at Chailey Hospice, near Lewes, is an occasion of great sadness to his family and to his many friends both within and without the rare book trade. He had resigned from the Presidency of the ABA only three weeks before on the grounds of ill health after a notably successful spell at a difficult time in the Association’s affairs.
Alan was born in May 1941 to a family chased from Vienna into exile by Hitler. He was educated at Marylebone Grammar School and worked for nearly twenty years both in the UK and Germany for Armstrong World Industries before making the jump into the uncertain field of old books. Not that he was new to the field – he had been an avid book collector since the age of 11 and used to spend his dinner hours and his dinner money in the bookshops of Bell Street, already something of a mecca for small book collectors. He later extended his range to Francis Edwards (then in Marylebone High Street), Charing Cross Road and provincial bookshops wherever he found himself. An early interest was geology, which also has its connection with Lewes, and he spent some holidays nearby. His interest was known amongst his colleagues and resulted in his being offered a major collection of old books through a teashop in East Anglia. The expenditure involved in this forced him to do book fairs and catalogues and it was only a matter of time before he became a full time bookseller.
It was about this time that I was introduced to him by mutual friends and I remember forming an instant impression that he had business abilities allied to his passionate interest in old books which should carry him far in this somewhat other-worldly field. After an abortive attempt to buy one bookshop in Lewes, he managed to buy the rather better quality Bow Windows Bookshop, then part of the Dawsons group, which was situated somewhat further up Lewes High Street. In 1984, therefore, Alan found himself and his wife Jenny, who fortunately shares his love of books, proprietors of Bow Windows, a rather up-market general bookshop with a good reputation in a slightly off-centre area of Lewes. The family, which included three children (David, Anna and Alicia), moved from a house in Buckinghamshire into the flat above the shop. For some years Robert Seville, one of the original staff, remained with them and more recently they have been assisted by Ric Latham. Jenny is an active partner in the business. To give up a lucrative and secure job and house at the age of forty-three has always struck me as a tribute to Alan’s deep love of books and the book trade. The journey from Vienna to what Drif termed a 'roast beef' English country bookseller was complete.
The next fifteen years were pretty hard graft, building a client base, producing catalogues, attending book fairs in several countries and always adding to a good quality stock. Alan’s aims were always high and to them he bought that keen business brain which might have yielded much greater returns in more conventional fields. The change of ownership had produced a short hiatus in Bow Windows’ membership of the ABA, but Alan was soon not only back in the fold but doing his bit on the Committee in many useful roles from 1990 onwards.
In an interview in 1999 he styled himself a maverick when confronted with some of the older, more entrenched members and he never minced his words, more particularly when faced with criticism of the PBFA, of which he was a member in good standing. He was lobbied for ABA president a decade ago but reckoned his business was not securely established enough to devote the time required to do the job properly. Eventually Alan and Jenny managed to move the shop into a much more prominent position in the town, near the Law Courts, whilst converting the old bookshop into a stylish house. Retail business flourished enough for Alan to accept election as Vice-President and then, in 2007, as President. I sat with him on committees for many years and he had a natural talent for compromise and a grasp of situations that commanded much respect. On a couple of personal matters, he expressed the committee’s sentiments in a way which left me very grateful.
Alan had a good eye for a book, even when he knew nothing of it, and his high standards as to condition helped greatly with his catalogues. He would take an instant risk on a book which his instinct recommended – none of the modern rushing to ABPC or the Internet for him. He said he had no plans to retire and was looking forward to an old age spent going down to his shop amongst his books in the town he loved.
Alan took life quite seriously, as when he hired a personal trainer while Vice-President and became very fit speed-walking round Lewes. He was a keen Downland climber and could talk quite cheerfully whilst others were labouring. His abiding interest in Japanese books spilled over into a penchant for Japanese food.
His loss at what nowadays seems a comparatively early age leaves the trade and the Association very much the poorer. We all feel for Jenny and their children.
(The article was first published in the ABA Newsletter 335 (December 2009), and is presented here by permission of the author and the ABA. Thank you very much.)