Published on 22 July 2010
An Interview with Barbara Grigor-Taylor
“The only difficulty I've ever had in my life is keeping up with myself.” Barbara Grigor-Taylor is a trans-oceanic sailor, mountaineer and travel bookseller of inter Continental experience. She is no armchair traveller, and little has fallen into her lap. It has been a hard but exhilarating career with some daunting ups and downs which Barbara has negotiated with the agility of a mountaineer. “If someone puts a brick wall in front of me, I'll go over it.”
Barbara is an American-born British subject. She spent most of her childhood in the Far East, before reading East Asian Studies at Berkeley. By good chance, she lodged with John Howell's widow in the Berkeley Hills and picked up a Saturday job in their Post Street shop.
“I started out marking auction prices in catalogues. When Warren Howell bought the Phillips Collection of Hawaiiana, he let me catalogue it and I found myself working on oil paintings about which I knew absolutely nothing. But it was my break, and I really made the Pacific my subject.”
The collection was eventually sold to Cornell University. Barbara left Howell's in 1961 to move to New York, which she hated. “I was a twenty-one year old Californian girl and didn't take to sharing a basement flat an 87th and Lexington in mid-winter with six girls. I remember waking up one morning, staring at the lingerie hanging from the pipes, and thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’”
After a brief period back in Post Street, Barbara bought a share in a yacht with four friends and pushed off into the Pacific. Eighteen months later, the yacht fetched up in Auckland, where it so happened that St. John's Theological Seminary needed a temporary librarian. Barbara got the job and totally reorganised the place.
“It was an early nineteenth-century library, largely untouched, and made up of bequests from early missionaries. I took all the books off the shelves, stuck them in cartons with insect powder, closed them up and took a two-week holiday while the bugs died.” “After St. John's, I did some cataloguing for Cordy's, which was at that time the only book auction house in Auckland. Eventually I ran my own business from a shop in the Queen's Arcade for about six years when I began to run out of books in New Zealand. By that time I was married with a daughter.
In 1971, Barbara sold the business and returned to the States to work with Edwin Wolf at the Library Company in Philadelphia. “It was a great privilege to work with Ed, and I think we are the only dealers ever to have worked at the Library Company. Ed was re-assessing the value of the books for Federal funding. The Government was giving money for cataloguing and refurbishing to public libraries and institutions, and the size of the grants was to be based an the value of the collections.”
“I took it upon myself to catalogue all the folio atlases. They were on the top shelves and no one else wanted to get them down. We consulted many dealers' catalogues, and Ben Weinreb's were particularly useful for all the architectural and engineering books that the Philadelphia settlers had studied to build their City.
Then it was time to cross another ocean. In 1973, Barbara moved with her family to London and took the job of manager in a bookshop in Hampstead High Street. There was one small problem in that the shop already had a manager, whom the directors had forgotten to fire in the general excitement of advertising the position and appointing Barbara.
“The shop belonged to a group of property people who presumably thought it would be fun to own an antiquarian bookshop. Thev bought the company name of Jabez Elliott from Henry Bristow of Ringwood, who is no fool and hung on to all his customers, knowledge and so on.
“I had been there one week when the real manager walked in. They hadn't told me that young David Bristow was not only a company director but also the shop manager. It was all a bit of a mess and obviously wasn’t going to work out. At about that time, I went to the opening Party for Ian Hodgkins’ shop in Connaught Street and met Paul Minet. He was about to open a travel bookshop in Princes Arcade. Peter and Margaret Eaton had also considered the premises before moving to Holland Park Avenue. I don't think they would have managed in the Arcade - it was a small person's shop. Paul was really too tall for it, but I fitted in quite well.
It was an auspicious start to a long business involvement with Paul Minet and his various London shops. By May 1976, Barbara was ready for another challenge, on dry land this time. With some financial backing, she bought the shop in Princes Arcade and scarcely left the helm for the next fourteen years.
“I remember my backer saying ’We are not buying a shop, we're buying you.’ I was very ill at the time with an old stomach problem which I needed to get fixed. At the height of my illness, I had Paul and the backers sitting round my bed saying, ‘Who's going to buy the life insurance in case she keels over?’ After my operation, I signed the largest cheque of my life in a spidery hand with all sorts of garbage wired up to my left arm. The hospital forgot to ask if I was left-handed.”
That was the start of Cavendish Rare Books. It was the most exciting shop in a perfect location between the Houses of Parliament, the St. James's clubs, Albany and the London Library. -I could have sold old boots out of the window there, if they were nicely polished and displayed. But as time went by, I started to face questions like "What happens when the rent goes up? How can I do serious deals in a shop with no privacy? Is it reasonable to expect someone to write out a cheque for, say, £io,000 in full view of passers-by?"
“And then along came the offer of a directorship at Sotheran's. It sounded ideal - a shop, well-departmentalised, in the same patch, and my customers would love going there. And I could concentrate on the serious travel people, without the distractions of Princes Arcade. But the whole thing was badly handled and I lasted nine months.” “The staff couldn’t accept me at Robert Kirkman's desk, doing the job he had done for the last twenty-four years, but not doing it his way. Neither did I get any support from the directors, who had originally asked me to come in to change things. Well, I tried and then they said, ‘Oh, we wanted you to change things, but not really to change things.’”
Barbara emerged from Sotheran's with no shop, no company, no stock, and no mailing list. She invited her former staff from Cavendish Rare Books to lunch and apologised to them. “They worked so hard for me and I threw it all away. Nowadays I go round bookfairs and people say ‘What ever happened to Cavendish Rare Books?’ And I answer, ‘It's me.’ Then they look at my card and ask, ‘Grigor-Taylor. Are you trade then?’” The last three years have been tough. First of all I tried working from my home in Greenwich, where I saw at most six customers in eighteen months. Now I'm in a first-floor office in Frith Street, getting more work done than ever before. In fact, I can actually do my own cataloguing, which I adore.
“I suppose I have taken the first step to growing older by exchanging a car that could take twenty cartons of books for a TVR Taimar into which I can only fit four. This is the only way to stop me from shifting great quantities. I'm trying to become a dignified middle-aged woman.” “It's very difficult to be a woman in this trade for a number of reasons. A man's book-collecting is probably one of the most private things about him, which he may not even share with his wife and family. I may get to know some of his most intimate thoughts and it seems essential to me to have a modest demeanour. Of course there's a lot of prejudice against women in the trade, but I've just been too busy to notice. I remember arguing prices with a great runner, Richard Cameron, who turned round one day and called me a hard woman. Somehow it's all right to be a hard man - perhaps it's even a compliment. But don't expect me to be a push-over.”
“Gabriel Byrne is another great runner who used to come into Cavendish Rare Books. I reckon he made thousands a week, buying books till the car was full and staying in £5 bed-and-breakfasts. This chain of buying and selling seems to have almost disappeared today and I miss it because I don't like encroaching on somebody else's patch.” “At the moment it's very sad being a travel specialist because I can’t afford one major quarto travel book in the sale rooms. Of course I would like to make a lot of money because that would give me the wherewithal to expand. But I'm thrilled to see people returning to anthropology and good archaeology which are still undervalued. I remember my mother saying while I was still at college, ‘Books? How are you going to make a living selling books? Why don’t you get your library degree?’ Well, I didn't and I wouldn’t, because I'm a confirmed retailer.”
The office in Frith Street was a wonderful but short-lived success. Two outstanding travel and mountaineering libraries were followed by another recession. I had already weathered two, but the third proved unlucky. Moving the business to the States, I spent the next five years between New York and South Carolina, covering bookfairs from Connecticut to Florida and having a thoroughly delightful and profitable time, dashing around in a little red pick-up truck. The humid, hurricane conditions in Charleston, however, are not book-friendly.
In 1999 had the opportunity to act as agent for an American collector and build a travel and mountaineering library for him on the West Coast. With his shelves now full, I’m happy to be back in London.
Barbara Grigor-Taylor of Cavendish Rare Books is well-known for rare and fine travel books, especially: Polar Regions, Asia, Maritime, Pacific, Mountaineering.
The interview was first published in Sheila Markham, A Book of Booksellers. Conversations with the Antiquarian Book Trade 1991-2003. Sheila Markham Rare Books and Oak Knoll Press 2007, pp. 36-40. Thank you very much to Sheila Markham for the permission to publish the text on this website. For more information about Sheila Markham and the book see www.sheila-markham.com and www.oakknoll.com.