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Derek McDonnell | | Derek McDonnell

Derek McDonnell

Published on 31 Jan. 2012

By Beatie Wolfe

“Sportsmen talk about being in the zone, when you’re not computing stuff rationally but rather automatically responding, and it is uncanny how often you pick out the right book that way.”
Derek McDonnell has, over the course of 25 years at Hordern House, established himself as a pre-eminent dealer in Australiana and the history of Pacific exploration. He and his partner Anne McCormick have produced a series of beautiful and scholarly catalogues, which have established a new bibliographical standard for their subjects, as well as publishing a series of essential bibliographies. He enjoys a global circle of colleague friends and is one of the most admired figures in the trade.

Ship shape

I slipped into bookselling, although I was always interested in books. I read classical Chinese at Oxford, and like many graduates found myself suddenly having to get a job: Sotheby’s oriental department turned me down, thank heavens. Blackwell’s was the only local book related job I could think of. I started there on £14 a week, in the main shop, and eventually moved to their antiquarian department in Ship Street, where I worked with my good friend John Manners. I was taught to catalogue by Phil Brown. Within a few weeks of working there I realised that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and I’ve been in the world of rare books ever since.

The graduate

I left Blackwell’s to go to Quaritch in 1975, when Nicholas Poole-Wilson and Milo Parmoor offered me a job: I absolutely adored it. I joined about the same time as Rick Watson – five years later we both became directors of the company on the same day. I found myself surrounded by really interesting people working at a very high level, and dealing in superb books. Quaritch is really the best university in the world. It was owned at that time by Milo Parmoor, who was an extraordinary man. His recent death is a great sadness. After a couple of years, with Milo’s encouragement, I started buying and building a stock of voyage books.

Voyage of discovery

There had been a gap at Quaritch for voyage and travel books in general, and Milo and Nicholas thought it would be wise to focus especially on Australiana – we used to get a lot of Australians coming to the shop, and there was never anything for them to see. Arthur Freeman was still at Quaritch then and he kept an interested eye on what I was doing and taught me a lot. I went out to Australia for the first time in 1978, and loved it. I really wasn’t very well informed at first, but Milo had suggested that I go out for a month, wander around so to speak, and see what happened. (When I asked him for more specific advice he told me of a very good restaurant in North Sydney.) Howard Radclyffe came with me, and we went to Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Perth. I took a catalogue of the stock I had been putting together, and after a few introductions, I started to meet and get to know most of the main collectors, and we ended up doing pretty good business in the major cities. Back at Quaritch I continued to specialise in voyage books and especially Australia and the Pacific, and focused on building up the voyage department for the next four or five years. The only reason I left Quaritch was to move to Australia and join Anne McCormick, my life partner, now my business partner too. She had started her own business in her very early 20s in Sydney, later joined by her first husband Tim, after having spent time in London where she discovered the joys of getting thrown out of Cecil Court for being too young to buy rare books (no names!). It was really pioneering for her to have started a rare book business in Sydney, and a really good one too which soon became a big draw for Australian collectors: she’s a very good example of a successful Australian independent businesswoman – an even rarer thing in those days.

Building a business

In 1985, after we had found a building big enough for us not to get in each other’s way all the time, Anne and I put our businesses together. The building was actually called Hordern House, so we kept the name for the business. We have been dealing there for 23 years, and now have a team of seven people. We have a wide general stock but we specialise in voyages and the Pacific, with Australiana as our core subject, including natural history, illustrated books, children’s books, colonial art – everything to do with our part of the world. We also publish books related to voyages – the literature of travel, including facsimiles of rare originals, and related bibliography like the Hawaiian National Bibliography – and we recently finished publishing a huge encyclopaedia of exploration in four enormous volumes, which we commissioned from a brilliant Englishman, Ray Howgego. It’s the largest single-author work in the English language, and has had fabulous reviews, including being a Spectator ‘Book of the Year’ – cool stuff for an Aussie publisher. In specialising in voyages we’ve dealt much more widely than just within Australia; we do a lot of business in Europe and America, and we’ve handled quite a lot of collections from America. Collectors of voyage books are quite familiar with the Carlsmith collection that we first sold in the mid-1980s, the FE Ellis collection in the 1990s, and the David Parsons collection of Pacific voyage books that we are still handling. We published a two volume catalogue of the Parsons collection, and we’ve just published a super-duper catalogue of Captain Cook material: it’s the collection formed by Bob Parks in Detroit, an amazing collection. Cook is a truly global interest and we are selling books from the catalogue, and the catalogue itself, all around the world.

Hawaiin topic

Our first main coup as Hordern House was getting the Carlsmith library, a paramount father-and-son collection. It’s a wonderful two generation collection of books dealing with Hawaii and Pacific voyages in general, originally formed by the leading attorney in Honolulu and continued by his son into the 1970s. This was the first collection that allowed us to publish a major specialist catalogue. The books were sold individually for a couple of million dollars, a lot of money in 1985. We like big numbers in the book trade, don’t we?

Little epiphany

I remember once flying from Sydney to San Francisco, carrying in my briefcase a little manuscript album with actual pieces of Tapa cloth collected by Cook’s voyages from the Hawaiian natives: I had one of those great moments of illumination as I realised I was flying directly above the Hawaiian islands, holding this now very valuable collection of Tapa cloth created by Hawaiian natives and collected by people in ships 27,000 feet below me and 200 years earlier. I find it incredible to think that we should now be dealing in objects like that. I think all book collecting is to do with the book standing as an icon for something. If you’re a doctor and you own Harvey’s book on circulation of the blood, you’re as close as you can get to the scientific discovery. In voyage books, it’s the same. You are as close as you can get to that moment of actual discovery, which is why I find the books about Cook’s voyages so thrilling to work with. You read the original accounts by the sailors involved and the initial moments of discovery, and the books stand as iconic for the events themselves.

Perks of work

We’ve done the same thing for so long that we’ve built up a solid network of contacts, in Australia and the South Pacific of course, but also in England, continental Europe, and America. We buy from private collectors, dealers and a number of people who inhabit the world in between, who aren’t quite dealers, but are more than collectors. We have good sources in the Pacific Islands; I say that to be a tease really. Hawaii is a favourite place though: I suppose we’ve been there 30 or 40 times now and have a lot of friends there. It’s great to be able to buy and sell books in such a glorious bit of the world, where drinks have umbrellas in them.

Familiar faces

There are many examples of dealers who operate with a single good client, or a small handful. As a seven-person business we have to be much wider than that. Our business is definitely old-fashioned, in the sense that we’re a visitable bookshop that publishes catalogues in the old-fashioned way: we send out catalogues and mail to a lot of people, though nowadays we send as much as we can electronically. From time to time we might have, out of 1,000+ customers, a few dozen especially active ones that we keenly hunt out books for. We look after quite a few institutional customers too, who are there for keeps. It’s really a great pleasure getting to know individual customers and helping to build their collections. David Parsons is a very good case in point; I’ve come to know David very well over the 15 years we’ve dealt with him and we’ve sold him a lot of really great books. When we sold his collection of Pacific Voyages for him, we were revisiting some of the books for the third or fourth time. We can take a real pride in handling collections we have helped to form. It’s a pleasure when material comes home again, and we know exactly what we are dealing in.

Turkish delight

Specialist collectors have a great deal to teach dealers, just as dealers have a great deal to teach collectors. The whole process is a huge learning curve, and there is more mutual learning going on than in surely any other business. The only design flaw is that you only get all the knowledge when you’ve become quite rickety. Rick Watson and I would have been counted as young Turks at one time but as I joked to Rick not so long ago, ‘The young Turks have become the old Turks.’ But we’re more knowledgeable as a result. Over the years the various friendships that have grown up with colleagues in the trade who deal in similar material mean that you develop a particular way of understanding each other and develop a sort of shorthand, often now by email. Out here at the edge of the world I value my friendships with distant colleagues, some of them among my oldest friends now.

New worlders

You find customers by being there and being visible. A number of people who have come to see us are surprised that we even exist, and didn’t realise it was possible to own rare books. Occasionally we will put on a lecture for a group of people or hold an exhibition, and there are always a couple of people who are simply surprised that the whole discipline actually exists, and I think that’s the best way to create new collectors. There is also a special attraction that applies to where we are down under and to our subject of voyages, particularly of the Captain Cook period, because it’s possible for people to own the real foundation stones for their own history. Now you can’t do that if you’re Belgian or English or Japanese, but you can do it if you’re a new worlder. An Australian collector can own all the books encompassing the country’s first settlement, what’s known as the First Fleet, while an American collector maybe can’t own everything to do with the Mayflower, but he can own very early material describing his country’s beginnings. Whereas in England you can’t privately own a Magna Carta, or Queen Boadicea’s memoirs. Nationalistic collecting is always satisfying.

Above board

Forgery has never been a problem in our area; it’s not actually economically feasible as an activity except when you’re dealing with single sheet items. You can’t fake a whole book. There are a few tricks you can pull, but we’re all wise to the tricks, so forgery has not affected our market.

Dry state

There has been a massive change from the democratisation of the internet, and everyone is very familiar with that change. It has sadly closed a lot of bookshops, and been the making of a lot of fringe-dwellers, who may or may not have any expertise. The trade has changed a lot in that one way. From another point of view, there has been more specialisation, people have occupied niches more than before. When we started in the business, I’m sure everyone in my age group would have had the same kind of experience. We used to hear the old guys say, ‘The material is drying up’, and we always used to think, ‘Oh, you sad old fogey,’ but we are now the fogeys and yes, the material really is drying up. Twenty years ago we might go to see an English dealer in the country and come back with five boxes full of books, whereas today you might come back with one book, or you might just have negotiated a half share in a book. The real battle now is to find the right books.

Keepers of the flame

Some of the doomsayers used to say that the digitisation of books, the easy availability of texts online, would be bad for our business, but it’s actually quite the opposite. All around the world you have libraries that are the great repositories of learning, and it is that learning that is the gold standard, the original materials which keep everyone honest. You can put up with Microsoft Encarta encyclopaedias that contain as many mistakes as they do facts, provided that the gold standard is there to check it all and prevent everything getting wobbly. The material that we remaining expert booksellers deal in is the real core material, and that is what you can trust. If you want to be really high falutin about it you can call us the people who look after the heritage, because we are actually making sure that it all survives on its long progress into the institutions where everything will be in the end.

Basic instinct

For the beginning bookseller: knowledge is everything. Follow your instincts into the area that beckons you, become as knowledgeable as you possibly can about the subject in a wider sense than just the books, and go for it. Buy and sell as many books as you can, handle as many books as you can, and keep your eyes open. The eye is incredibly important, and it definitely gets better as you get older. When you’ve seen ten million books then your eye is beginning to get properly ‘in’. I was thinking about this at the London book fair: you can visit a stand and eyeball all the spines and there is some unerring instinct that makes you pick out one book to see what’s inside it and reject 27 others, and it’s surprising how often you do pick the right one to look at. It’s a combination of instinct, intuition, and a lot of back-of-the-head knowledge built up without even noticing it. Sportsmen talk about being in the zone, when you’re not computing stuff rationally but rather automatically responding, and it is uncanny how often you pick out the right book that way. The best thing is when you can make decisions based on intuition and background knowledge without having to explain them.

If only

I think my only regrets are ever books that I didn’t buy. And a fantastic book that got lost in the mail. It was a unique 18th century American printing of an early Australian title, the only copy I had ever heard of. A friend mailed it to me from New York and it never arrived. I still vaguely hope it might appear again one day. Oh, and I regret that there aren’t any bargains anymore. Were there really ever any? Or are those great old book trade stories just great old stories?

The interview is published on the ABA website. It is presented here by permission of ABA President Laurence Worms.

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