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The History of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association (A.B.A.) Part 2

This short survey of the British ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLERS' ASSOCIATION consists of the account of its first half-century prepared by Dudley Massey for the fiftieth anniversary in 1956 (slightly revised) with a continuation to the present year by Martin Hamlyn. It was published in the ILAB Newsletter 36.
Published on 16 June 2011

By Dudley Massey and Martin Hamlyn

Part II: 1956-1984

At this point - except for a tributory bow towards all those, named or not, who had set and kept the ABA in motion, and a passage on the then imminent fiftieth anniversary and tenth Congress - Dudley Massey's account concludes. To the far from dauntless continuator its coverage seems considerable and its evidence of determined burrowing in files and minutes impressive.

Perhaps some general reflections emerge. Thus the naming of names may be invidious, but a history without names is lifeless. Dedicated individuals, even mild eccentrics like Mr. Karslake, Pied Piper impersonations and all, are essential. No doubt there would have been an ABA without him - but how much later? Even he, it seems, had to persist for some years before lift-off - yet once in orbit, the ABA found it had over a hundred members from the start. Later we see Lionel Robinson successfully pushing through a 180 % rise in subscription only a year after one of 50 %, not in the inflation-happy seventies but in 1937, "for the dignity of the Association" - and the browser through that year's archives is struck by an eye catching boost to the layout and general style of ABA literature. On the international scene Percy Muir, an utterly opposite type of bookseller to the Robinson brothers, emerges among the great pioneers; while Dudley's own contribution, over a long span of years, does not emerge but should not be forgotten. But as he said these are examples, illustrative but not exclusive.

1912 Stationers' Hall Exhibition and other Milestones

Though innovations go on, some features of ABA existence were - interestingly - present almost from the start. Informal international links existed from 1906. So did the slightly imprecise relationship with The Clique. So did Annual Dinners, fifty or sixty years ago increasing regularly in popularity (in contrast to the less than ecstatic response some recent social sub-committees have met with) - and boasting a noteworthy array of speakers and guests. Are there fewer bookishly-inclined public figures today? Or does only nostalgia suggest that ABA occasions graced by the presence of, say, Sir James Frazer, Sir Israel Gollancz, the renowned "gloomy" Dean Inge, and bevies of writers such as A. E. Coppard, A.J. Cronin, Clemence Dane, Walter de la Mare, Rose Macaulay, A. G. MacDonell, St. John Ervine, Pett Ridge, May Sinclair, L. A. G. Strong, Frank Swinnerton, Hugh Walpole, and Rebecca West, were more sparkling than to day's functions?

As for image-building, the young ABA was not backward in promoting itself and must have gained lustre from the 1912 Stationers' Hall exhibition, with its catalogue of two hundred pages and twelve hundred items, chronological, fully indexed, and beginning with fifteen Caxtons. True, members' stocks were a shade richer then, but the co-operative organisation required, six years after the ABA's inception, was something of a triumph.

There was a Benevolent Fund, and a paid Secretary (1920); by 1930 membership was 358, much as to-day - it dropped slightly in the slump and steeply in the 1939-45 war, to grow again steadily and reach 376 by 1971.

The London Book Fair

But to the second half-century. The tenth Congress (London 1956), on the threshold of which Dudley Massey's account left us, passed off with flying colours with the ebullient Peter Murray Hill at the head of ABA affairs. But a year later this popular president, a splendid ambassador for the trade (not least among American librarians whose impact on the rare book world was growing ever more significant) died aged only 49 (November 1957). The next year his widow Phyllis Calvert formally opened one of the most epoch-making of all ABA ventures. If we except new-book or publishers' fairs (like the long-established German events) and one-off occasions like the Sunday Times fair in 1938 with an antiquarian section, the modest operation at the National Book League in 1958 was the very first of the profusion of antiquarian and second-hand fairs now held almost continuously, it seems, all over the world, and forming a sizeable part of some dealers' yearly activities. Organised by a band of enthusiasts chaired by Alan Thomas, the twenty-eight participants started what became an international snowball. Growth was slow but steady enough.

Though under ABA auspices and for ABA members, the fairs were self-financing. ABA funds were not limitless - indeed a deficit had reappeared by 1959 which led to a subscription rise from three to five guineas after a nine years' freeze - and the fairs involved the exhibitors only (as these changed from year to year, problems obviously arose). It is astonishing to recall that the first fairs ran for ten days or so, involving two Saturdays, although this was soon cut to a week; informal talks by guest speakers were arranged for each week-day afternoon, though not overpatronised except by captive audiences of exhibitors and assistants. As to results, the second (1959) fair grossed £ 20,000 ; by 1963 two floors instead of one were needed at Albemarle Street; and by 1966 the total of £ 50,000 was passed.

ABA Touring Exhibitions

During the second fair (May 1959) an expensive (it caused a notable dent in the accounts) but successful event was the reception for the visiting Grolier Club, at the Savoy in the closing weeks of Alan Thomas's presidency. In the same year was mooted an important enterprise which ran for several years; the ABA Touring Exhibition, brainchild of Harry Pratley, who as President gave the whole of a Newsletter (February 1960) to an article, "The Need for Publicity", describing his plan. It illustrated "the whole pageant of the printed book" and had sixty exhibits, from a Caxton leaf to Erich Gill proofs. Great efforts of patient persuasion must have gone into its assembling. Its success was remarkable - by 1961 ninety-three librarians had shown interest. With an informative catalogue, it started on its travels in July 1961, and was shown in libraries all over the country until dismantled in 1965, when it seemed only right that lenders should have their exhibits back. Letters showing genuinely enthusiastic acclaim were received from many quarters: It was a most imaginative and valuable experiment.

1959 saw a change in methods of election to committee (an earlier modification in 1957 having apparently produced an unforeseen and unwanted situation); an Extraordinary General Meeting was involved and a postal ballot was introduced, rather than an vote at each AGM. There was an upheaval in the matter of ABA premises; the Fine Art Trade Guild, with whom we shared an office and secretary at Orange Street, themselves facing steep increases in overheads, confronted the Committee with an unmanageable rental. It was decided to give up the office and transfer the official address of the Association to the home of Will Clark our secretary - a not wholly satisfactory arrangement but one which persisted for over a decade. The same December (1959) a Christmas Party (perhaps a spin-off from the fairs) was held successfully at the NBL and with one exception has been an annual event since.

In 1960 the dinner of the still strong Northern branch (founded by Robert Gibb in 1950) coincided with Harold Halewood's golden jubilee year in the trade. These Northern dinners continued regularly through the sixties, with some sixty diners present in 1963. There continued to be occasional dinners in the provinces, as at Brighton in 1958 and 1964. Annual dinners in the sixties were well supported. Large firms (and at least one not so large) would book whole tables of staff and guests. In 1960 and 1961 the Savoy was filled to capacity (198, it is recorded); and something like two hundred attended the first dinner at Quaglino's, the venue from 1963 and for some years thereafter. Meanwhile the Touring Exhibition, as we have seen, upheld the ABA banner round the country, and the NBL fairs grew in impact and in due course were imitated (by 1965 the American Association was going on record as welcoming ABA exhibitors at fairs in the States).

The Bibliomites

The Bibliomites (Society of Antiquarian Booksellers' Employees), founded in 1950, and with a small ABA subvention, asked for lectures for assistants to be given by senior booksellers, and in 1962 such a series was provided by the ABA - in some sense a contribution to the training of young assistants. But there were no further public lectures as in 1951-2-3 nor further ABA Annuals (1952-3). It is perhaps no coincidence that the quarterly Book Handbook grew into the much larger Book Collector (a move encouraged by many members of the trade) in 1953, perhaps thus absorbing much of the limited demand for such publications - at least until Antiquarian Book Monthly Review tapped a rather different market from 1974.

ABA Miscellany

As we have seen, in 1945, in Charles Harris's presidency, a Newsletter was produced. By 1948 Nos. 1 to 11, letterpress printed, had appeared - in other words fairly frequently. Thereafter issues became less frequent. It was probably expensive - it appeared in cheaper form in 1951 but this did not ensure frequent issue. It reverted to letterpress, and by June 1963 No. 33 appeared, giving a frequency (apart from the first eleven numbers) of between one and two a year. This did not meet the original intention, which was to provide a regular vehicle for our own news independent of the weekly Clique (not controlled by the ABA). In 1964 reality was faced, the term "Newsletter" was admitted to be a misnomer, and the Newsletter metamorphosed into the ABA Miscellany, re-starting as No. 1, with some retrospective news, and such articles, reminiscences, short histories of firms, and anecdotes as could be prised out of contributors. Stanley Crowe took on the editorship from Harold Edwards (who had become president); like him, he strove manfully, but to generate material for more than just over one issue a year was still impossible. By 1975 No. 16 appeared and thereafter the Miscellany went into suspense.

In 1964 the book fair committee took the decision to engage a professional public relations firm, such limited advertising as the fair could afford being considered disappointing, and do-it-yourself efforts inadequate. Clark Nelson was the first firm engaged, and later Braban; for the 1971 (international) fair Heather McConnell Associates became our P.R. team and have remained so since. Another chance for publicity was offered by the June 1964 World Book Fair at Earls Court, an important "new books" event but with an antiquarian section, masterminded by G. E. Harris, then president, to which sixty members sent a wider and well presented range of exhibits which drew considerable notice.

The Sixties

A portent of future times was the formation of the Eastern Branch in November 1964. (One wonders what became of the Eastern Branch noted by Dudley Massey as having been set up in 1911, of which further record seems lost in the mists of time. Unless mythical, it would seem to deny priority to the Northern Branch as the first scion of the ABA tree.) The new branch (with George Porter as first chairman and Thomas Crowe secretary) in due course had its own dinners, meetings, regional lists of members and (need one add?) fairs. The year ended with a dinner at the House of Commons with 183 present, arranged thanks to the president's contacts with the then Speaker, Dr. Horace King.

The next year, as noted above, saw the end of the Touring Exhibition's travels it is recorded as having cost the ABA some £ 300 over several years, surely one of the cheapest publicity campaigns known. There was some public restiveness over the export of what was sometimes called "our heritage" (sometimes, it is true, from people with no clear idea of what our heritage was supposed to be), and restrictions on the export of manuscripts tended to increase; the ABA's watchdogs scored a useful concession in the ruling that when microfilms of manuscripts to be exported were required to be deposited, they could not be made use of for seven years, thus to some extent safeguarding the buyer's rights in his acquisition. 1965 also saw the death of Charles Porter of Cambridge, the last surviving founder member of the ABA and a last link with an already distant past.

From the middle sixties on rumblings became audible about the future of the book fair and its location. Success was bringing its own problems. By 1969 the estimated total sales topped £ 100,000, double those of 1966, though there was a dip back to £ 66,000 in 1970 when a degree of recession had followed the swinging sixties. Dissatisfaction however continued, not only as to fairs but as to the ABA's resources and capabilities in general.

When Will Clark retired in 1968, our secretary since he succeeded Mrs. Alice Brown twenty years earlier, and Joyce Custard (afterwards Shannon) took over, in Stanley Crowe's presidency, the ABA had to be officially transferred from Will Clark's to her address. In a time of growing pressures, this underlined the lack of an ABA headquarters. Meanwhile, recession notwithstanding, inflation continued (and later came to roar ahead at times), inevitably affecting ABA finances. A steep rise in the 1969 subscription from £ 5/5/ - to £ 8/10/- did not affect numbers (pessimism, as before, proved unfounded). At the same time the looming commitment to "host" another Congress (and - this time - International Fair as well) in 1971 and to repeat the success of 1956 concentrated the minds of officers and committee wonderfully. Plans were made during 1969, and a Hospitality Fund, energetically encouraged by Tom Crowe, was soon set up.

A welcome breaking-down of any lingering remains of stand-offishness between trade and librarians was typified by the 1969 joint meeting of ABA members and representatives of the Rare Books Libraries, much helped by the friendly offices of Howard Nixon of the British Library. From this meeting sprang many cooperative developments particularly in the matter of security, book thefts from both shops and libraries having become a growing worry.

As the sixties went out, the changing pattern of rare bookselling was indirectly reflected in the increasing difficulties facing the Bibliomites, with fewer larger firms employing large numbers of assistants - the beginnings of a trend that was to grow to the point at which, today, the ABA office may receive possibly something like two hundred hopeful applications in a year for jobs in the rare book trade, with only one hundredth of that number of opportunities.

21st ILAB Congress - 4th ILAB Book Fair

And perhaps one should not leave 1969 without a mention of the death Ifan Kyrle Fletcher, notable as a member who also pursued what was virtually a second career in theatre studies, to which he made a valued contribution. The seventies brought, apart from the twin horrors of decimalisation and VAT, what has with mild sarcasm called the ABA's Great Leap Forward. The 1971 21st International Congress of the League (the third in London) with the League's fourth International Book Fair (the first such in London) was a success. The Congress diversions included a recital in a stately home by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (involving a somewhat heroic fee) and a similarly ambitious chartering of a private train for a trip to and from Chatsworth, with dinner for the entire trainload on the return journey. It was not only railway maniacs who felt that those who chose to go to Chatsworth in their own cars rather missed the point. A Savoy banquet for some 400 people rounded off the proceedings. The Fair, for the first time at the Europa and with professional contractors (for years the stands had been the responsibility of Bill Fletcher and his valiant but overworked team), achieved sales of a quarter of a million and drew three or four thousand visitors and much publicity. With thirty overseas exhibitors out of eighty-seven it might perhaps have been even more "international"; but it was on a scale far beyond any previous London venture, and required planning and finance of a very different order.

All this was something of a leap in the dark for the organisers, who could however bask pleasantly afterwards in the sunshine of comments on "the lavish and faultless arrangements" of the Congress, or on the Fair as "the best ever - surely the best set up and organised in their experience".

At the same time efforts were made to improve printing and presentation of ABA material, of which Congress and Fair demanded a sizeable output; and annual reports became more stylishly printed - and, perhaps, more individual and less a reproduction of set phrases. Annual Reports can never be the most riveting reading but many of the early (especially pre-Robinsonian) ones were extremely brief and repetitive. But of course the public "image" was the most important; and who better than booksellers should care about handsome typography?

From the National Book League to Europa

In all, then, what had been the anxieties of the year 1971-2, not least for its dedicated and indefatigable president Anthony Rota, were crowned with success - a good start for the new decade. From 1972 "domestic" fairs took the plunge and migrated to the Europa, and the happy pioneering days at the ever-helpful (but now painfully cramped) National Book League became a golden memory. The Library was growing ; in 1972 a new Catalogue was prepared and Howes Bookshop not only housed the stock as before but offered an advice service, using the Library's and their own and other resources - a generous gesture. V AT problems were struggled with, and the co-operation of new booksellers sought, with a press campaign on the preservation of the traditional freedom of books from taxation, making much (some carpers said too much) of a very British principle of "No Tax on Culture". So far, and with a suspicion of nervousness, it can be stated that printed books remain zero-rated - but unbound autographs no longer escape, and there have been worrying nibblings at some greyer edges of definitions affecting categories of printed material.

Stolen Books

A minor warning to members came with a ticklish dispute between Sotheby's and Quaritch's over the too-verbatim re-use of sale catalogue descriptions; the auctioneers had a case, but there was perhaps just an element of muscle-flexing in their making it. Sadly, the long flourishing Northern Branch formally disappeared from the regular agenda at meetings (showing again how personalities - or their unhappy disappearance - affect institutions). But a Scottish branch, with members in the North of England, was born in January 1972, and quickly achieved lively and successful growth, in which the house of Grant had some involvement, with others.

There was another significant meeting between librarians and trade, this time specifically on Stolen Books. Some members strove rather forcibly to impress librarians with their responsibilities for their increasingly valuable and so theft-prone holdings. The outcome was a joint Working Party on Book Thefts, largely inspired and directed by Howard Nixon for the librarians and Ben Weinreb for the trade, which issued a detailed report, at first in duplicated and (1973) in printed form. An article in The Times and some press correspondence followed; and the painstaking and timely report achieved considerable notice.

The ABA Office

In something of the same spirit as had been brought to problems of Congress and Fair an Expanded Services Committee was set up, to try to tackle the mounting problems of premises and resources. The upshot was the finding of a home for the ABA in an office in the [New] Booksellers' Association, Buckingham Palace Road, in 1973; nothing more central could economically be found. Rented from the Booksellers' Association, the office had certain advantages from their facilities; and an assistant secretary was engaged on a substantial part-time basis. It was a little sad to encounter scornful opposition to these foolhardy and new-fangled measures from two eminent past presidents, one of them Percy Muir, himself a bold innovator in his time. Part of their concern was over finance. In fact this proved a manageable problem. Resources of the ABA, even discounting inflation, were by now satisfactory; fairs normally produced a modest surplus (earmarked for future fairs but nevertheless re-assuring); judicious investments were made; and the Benevolent Fund quietly grew with, happily, few demands made upon it.

Monthly Newsletters

At the same time the Monthly Newsletter began (No 1 in January 1973). Some exception was taken to its - as we have seen - hardly accurate claim to be the "first ABA Newsletter". However, it was the first monthly communication to all members, a frequency maintained (with only an occasional lapse) since, and a wholly independent news vehicle unlike The Clique. It has been not merely valuable but virtually essential.

Another innovation was the telephone "chain" (to alert all members rapidly to thefts). The first chain (inevitably modified in later years) was largely the work of Diana Parikian and its inauguration must have been one of the worst of ABA headaches. Again the ABA were initiators - the chain idea was later taken up in Germany and Switzerland. The experiment was made of engaging the P.R. firm not merely for the Fair but for the whole year of ABA activities ; this was not repeated, partly because, as indeed with fairs themselves, not enough newsworthy material was forthcoming. All this brought another fairly steep subscription rise from £ 8.10s. to £ 15 - and in due course another and another - until to-day we find ourselves with trepidation within sight of the dreaded "ton" of £ 100. So far, however, membership has not been significantly affected by subscription increases.

Edinburgh Book Fair

A new feature was the Scottish branch's Edinburgh Book Fair (March 1973); the first British fair outside London, it beat the earlier-formed Eastern branch, whose first Cambridge Fair followed in 1974. While on Scottish affairs, another innovation to record was lan Grant's second term as President. He had first held the office in 1955. Lionel Robinson had been president several years running, and others more than one year, but this was the first re-election after an interval. Concern over admission to membership continued in the Eastern branch's adopted motion that proposers and seconders of new members should themselves be of three (later five) years' standing. More frivolously, but enjoyably, an ABA excursion to Bath (a favourite resort for ABA summer outings in earlier decades) took place in July, by courtesy of Bayntun's. Diplomatically, we agreed with the Society of Authors to impress on our members the need for great moderation in quoting from living or recently dead authors' manuscripts or letters.

Annual Dinners

A new trend in Annual Dinners had begun. In 1971 the first national dinner outside London was held at Cambridge (in George Porter's presidency). Back in London in 1972 the ambitious and successful choice was for Claridge's. But for some years thereafter West End hotels gave place to venues of historic or architectural note - Brighton Pavilion in 1973, followed by Guildhall, Hatfield House, Greenwich, Christ Church Oxford, Stationers' Hall, and so on. Many such occasions were popular and successful; but research shows that rash claims to record-breaking for the attendances of 170-180 in 1972-3-4, though higher than in to-day's costly and not over occasion-conscious times, still did not beat the near- 200 figures of the sixties or earlier.

Libraries, Budgets, Book Fairs

1974 saw the first Eastern (Cambridge) fair as noted; a third librarian-booksellers meeting, addressed successfully by Alan Thomas in conditions beset by lighting cuts, an over-small room, and an absence of refreshments ; a strongly-argued (but unsuccessful) attempt to influence legislation over what seemed the inequitable tax and insurance position of the self-employed (later the Newsletter printed a full statement on the situation); similar concern, and contact with the Booksellers' Association and the Post Office Users' National Council over possible fearsome rises in postal rates; and a deliberate "deficit" budget, a consequence of the commitment to Expanded Services, on which theme Ian Grant could repeat as he left the presidential chair for the second time" It is a far cry from 1955 ... Activities have expanded dramatically". The thorny question of differential subscriptions was ventilated. A referendum on the raising of the entrance fee (not subscription) to £ 25 showed in the event a vote of 120 to 24 in favour (but came, of course, from those already on the inside).

The 1974 Book Fair had a record 97 participants and £ 419,000 total sales figure. Pressure for stands grew with more disgruntled would-be-exhibitors. It was agreed "in principle" that books at fairs should be collated. Socially there was in June an unseasonably damp and chilly but festive ABA boat trip in honour of Ken Russell's (then President) 50th year in the trade; and the last (it proved) Halloween Dinner of the Bibliomites.

With 1975 the Security Sub-Committee's problem did not lessen. Interest was now world-wider; Diana Parikian attended a Paris meeting of antique trades on the subject. Nor did the work load diminish, as the proliferation of sub-committees testifies. It was decided that power to raise the subscription (now £ 25) without an AGM decision should lie with the Committee in line with inflation as seemed fit. Despite apprehension, countered by assurances that the Committee no more wanted escalating subscriptions than anyone else, this power was granted, but by a fairly narrow vote.

“A useful peg for publicity”

The Fair, as now usual, had a theme exhibit, partly as a useful peg for publicity. These special displays have included Books of Hate, Mechanical Carriages, Drake's World Encompassed, The Fleet Street Connection, Bound to be Noticed, Saxton and his Atlas, Treasures from the National Libraries, The Book Trade Displayed, and a working Whittington press. Distinguished openers, though not invariably listened to with attentive courtesy, lent a sense of occasion and - again - provided a publicity talking-point. In fact, the 1975 estimated total Fair sales dipped slightly from the previous year; nevertheless, from the middle seventies murmurs began to be heard that the once vast Europa might soon be too small.

At the 1975 dinner presided over by Ken Russell at Hatfield House Howard Nixon, on retiring from the British Library, was presented with a token of the ABA's regard in the form of a binding (by "Queen's Binder A" whom he had himself first identified). Clifford Maggs, assisted by Alan Thomas and Winnie Myers, organised the presentation. At the same occasion Joyce Shannon's retirement after seven years as secretary was announced. In distinct contrast to Mr. Clark's dry, utterly dependable but fairly low-profile approach, she brought much energy and initiative to the steering of the Association through a time of expansion. Cynthia Sanford (afterwards Bonham-Carter), known to us from the NBL Book Fair days, took over at Buckingham Palace Road, likewise with an assistant.

Booksellers and Auctioneers

Perhaps the introduction of the buyer's premium by the auction houses was the most memorable event in 1975. To charge both buyer and seller was new to this country and aroused anger in much (though not all) of the membership. There were approaches to the auctioneers (who had given the trade no warning), meeting with antique dealers, letters to the press, and an ABA show-card for display by members, showing the true "take" on each lot sold in the rooms ; and at the first sale of 1975-6 on October 6 there was the ABA's only "demo", when Charles Swann as president made a short but dignified statement and led a walk-out of some forty members from Sotheby's, to be interviewed by the media on the steps outside (twenty-five members staged a similar action at Christies on the 8th). The whole episode (due, some maintained, to the high-handed arrogance of the auction houses) somewhat marred the - on the whole - amicable give-and-take of previous relations between dealers and salerooms. Nevertheless, it was in the same year that the two major houses contributed £ 50 towards the ABA's telephone chain expenses, and others followed.

1976 saw the preparation of a short leaflet on the ABA. Since the setting up of an office a steady flow of enquiries from the general public had built up, calling for some such explanatory hand-out. Plans were also put in hand for the exhibition of selected rare books at the History of Science Congress in Edinburgh due in August 1977. The ABA was represented on the Caxton Commemoration Committee - the quarter centenary celebrations of Britain's first printer took place in autumn 1976. Neither the auctioneers' premium nor VAT went away, nor did postal increases; the ABA worked with Julian Blackwell and the Mail Users' Association and with POUNC - with little effect, inflation being intractable as it is, except for some delaying actions, one steep rise in printed matter rate at least being postponed for some months, slightly cushioning the impact. A tiny triumph in the year was the persuading of Christies to revert to the printing of buyers' names in saleroom pricelists - a useful practice followed by no department but that of books at either main auction house. Dismay at shortcomings of Volume 71 of Book Auction Records an essential tool of the trade -led to representations to the publishers. (An attempt to buy the publication for the ABA in the sixties had foundered somewhat unhappily; some members thought a great chance was missed, others, that publishing commercially was not part of the ABA's job. The question soon became academic; the work-load would certainly have been formidable).

Provincial Booksellers' Fairs Association

As to Fairs, the question of charging for admission again arose; and - significantly - concern now arose over possible confusion in the public mind between ABA Fairs and the now rapidly spreading fairs of the Provincial Booksellers' Fairs Association (founded in 1974); while need for co-ordinating dates and styles of the ABA's own multiplying Fairs was growing evident. Two new branches sprang forth - the South-Eastern in April 1976 and the South-Western a month later, underlining the problem.

Break-ins at shop premises now added to the security sub-committee's worries. Roger Baynton-Williams took over the convenorship in May 1976. Building on the solid spade-work of Diana Parikian and Ben Weinreb, he came to cement excellent relations with the Art and Antiques Squad at Scotland Yard. His stint in this strenuous office has been most valuable to the ABA and the trade generally; and rumours of the closing or severe pruning of the Squad (infinitely more helpful than the average local police station can be) have been disturbing. In June 1976 Ian Grant took the opportunity of addressing a meeting of Scottish librarians again to stress the importance of security.

Many went down to the annual dinner at Greenwich by boat (on a beautiful evening); attendance however dropped to 130, a sign of the times no doubt. Two slight but pleasant personal touches emerged in the obvious overwhelmed delight of Frank Girdler, Sotheby's head book porter, at the party and presentation given him by the trade on his retirement, and the gratitude of John Gamble at the help and support he received when his stock and premises were shattered by IRA activity.

The Clique II

Something of an era ended when Lionel Fishman, for long by ancient ABA tradition representing the Clique on the ABA committee, found his employment with that journal terminated. The Clique, itself undergoing more than one change of ownership, came to be no longer even informally linked to the ABA, whose somewhat shadowy and negligibly valuable debenture holding lapsed. John Lawson's second consecutive presidential term was not as we have seen unprecedented and several subsequent presidents have served two years, including Keith Fletcher who thus joined the Myers, Blackwells, and Drings as a second generation President.

During 1977 the ABA introductory leaflet was published ; and in August the Edinburgh Congress of the History of Science took place, after a hectic scramble to extract suitable items - and get them feverishly catalogued - from generous but dilatory members. But it was (with sterling support from the Scottish branch) managed; and though in no sense a fair, some after-sales resulted; and the tradition of previous exhibitions in publicising our wares and our expertise was maintained (indeed the range of important books in science, "landmarks" in fact, all from dealers' stocks, was impressive).

Stanley Crowe - President of the League

A new Members' List incorporated geographical references, and the proliferating branches began to issue their own regional members' lists, sometimes with maps. Roger Baynton-Williams attended another international security meeting in Paris; and Stanley Crowe (actually elected late in 1976) came to be an excellent President of the League, the third British occupant of the post. At the Europe Fair, where Edward Heath was considered one of our most widely-publicised openers (there were eight radio "mentions"), the sales reached almost half a million. Some members attended the Jerusalem Book Fair; for others the spacious ambience of Düsseldorf again raised doubts about the future of the Europe fairs. In Brighton the South-Eastern branch held their first fair, opened by Bamber Gascoigne. By now there were large fairs in many countries with international participation, and the ABA strongly held that national associations should retain control of their fairs (in view of what had seemed lapses from standard); this was in principle agreed at the Düsseldorf Congress, 1977.

At the 1977 annual dinner at Christ Church in Oxford the anti-dance movement triumphed (indeed at Greenwich the year before dancing had been a minority sport). There was, however, elegant incidental music in superb surroundings, and the occasion was a distinguished one, though the actual eating extraordinarily speedy.


In 1978 break-ins continued, as did break-downs of the hard worked telephone chain, subject to the hazards of members' removals, holidays, retirement, etc. "Breakers" - atlases and illustrated books with valuable, disposable, and unidentifiable plates - became a favourite target for thieves. The 1978 Fair topped the half million mark; but allegations of infringement of rules, with non-exhibitors "helping" on stands and thus sneaking useful pre-views, caused a little friction. Two-tier membership of the ABA was mooted but not generally favoured (a similar scheme for provisional membership was advanced in 1979). The Benevolent Fund rules were adjusted to permit the general fund's contribution to exceed 5 % if thought fit - another extension of Committee discretion, not perhaps a too sinister one.

VAT and Export License

On VAT, the ABA had advice from the Booksellers' Association and assurance of sympathetic concern from Mr. Michael Foot. In the matter of the export of manuscripts the ABA has always opposed officially-inspired restrictions. This pressure helped to raise the limit of value in certain situations from £ 100 to £ 200- not perhaps much more than a recognition of inflation, but a small success for 1978, as was, next year, a modified reduction of the exemption age limit from 70 to 50 years instead of even less. It should be recalled that even small concessions such as this are the result of a continuous commitment over many years - Stanley Sawyer and Winnie Myers were giving evidence to the Waverley Committee in 1952, and in November 1980 the ABA Newsletter drew members' attention to two reports, of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art (as the Waverley Committee was now lengthily named) and of the Royal Commission on Historic Manuscripts, both mentioning the labours of the working party on which Anthony Rota and Winnie Myers (and more recently John Wilson) sat, sometimes no doubt in an uncomfortable but stubborn minority. Few would seriously argue that there should be no curbs whatever on the export of items of national significance. But the reaction of many academic persons, facing what they see as an outgoing flood (and forgetful perhaps of the vast storehouses permanently in national hands already) to heap restriction upon impractical restriction, is one against which the ABA finds itself fighting a dogged rearguard action.

At the 1978 dinner at Stationers' Hall, the Manoug Parikian trio generously supplied much appreciated incidental music. No one, it seems, attempted to dance. Like the power of the Crown in the later 18th century, the power of the auction houses - in the ABA's view - "had grown, was growing, and ought to be diminished". Their legal situation was seen as over-protected, compared with that of dealers, in relation to the sale of goods. In 1979 the ABA wrote to the Office of Fair Trading over the somewhat anomalous cases in which auctioneers, who often claim, as agents, to have no direct responsibility as to goods offered, sell, and promote, their own property, charging the buyers for the service rendered. Not very surprisingly, the law could not help us.


The 1979 Fair smashed (estimatedly at least) the million pound barrier, doubling the previous total; boasted a catalogue (doggedly resisted hitherto but a feature of leading Continental fairs); was oversubscribed; and brought renewed calls for a new venue. The "chain" scored a success with the apprehension of a book thief within six hours. The fact that for two years running the chief dinner speaker was a prominent, and bibliophilic, Labour statesman (the Rt. Hons. Michael Foot and Dennis Healey) was probably without political significance. The AGM revealed a deep, probably irreconcilable, division as to dancing; and the Christmas Party, at Baynton Williams' galleries, began a move to members' premises (Sotheran's, Maggs's, Quaritch's, and Rota's followed); by courtesy of the firms concerned, expenses were contained and enjoyment enhanced.

Sadly, plans to celebrate Percy Muir's 85th birthday in late 1979 were cut short by his death (a special number of the Newsletter was overtaken by events). A great link with ABA history, national and international, was severed. The burdensome editorship of the Newsletter had just passed from David Bickersteth to Sally Edgecombe.

1979 also saw a fourth edition of the catalogue of the ABA Library; this (though still modestly used) was becoming steadily more comprehensive under Raymond Kilgarriffs care; its grant from ABA funds rose from £ 70 to £ 100 in 1978 and to £ 150 in 1980.

Legal Actions

Early in 1980 it became known that the 1984 Congress and Fair would again be held in London. Meanwhile in March 1980 came the announcement of the joint legal action against the two major auction houses for what was held to have been collusion over the simultaneous introduction of the 10% premium in 1975, the ABA playing a modest part with the British Antique Dealers' Association and the Society of London Antique Dealers. A fund was set up and response was good; £ 14,000 was promised by June, and the target of £ 25,000 was eventually reached. No less than half the domestic members (many little directly concerned with the sale rooms) and some overseas firms subscribed, some out of solidarity despite misgivings as to the wisdom of going to law. In some sense the feeling over the premium was a symptom of unease over the auction houses' dominance; Hylton Bayntun-Coward spelt this out at New York in September 1980 when he pointed out to some surprise that Sotheby's had 46 and Christies 41 offices all over the world (an over-expansion admittedly since then cut back). In the event - as is now past history - the case was settled out of court in October 1981 with a touch of last minute, smoke-filled room drama. This outcome, it must be admitted, dismayed some members who felt nothing, or precious little, (despite the setting up of a joint standing committee with ABA representation and a reduction of Christies' buyers' premium from 10% to 8%) had been achieved; though the auctioneers did not get a very good press. However, contributions to the legal fund were repaid in full during 1980, the eventually modest expenses being met out of interest accrued.

Cricket Matches

The change of Newsletter editor brought a new slant, but Sally Edgecombe faced the same problems as her predecessors and had to thank members at the 1980 AGM for dying so regularly, without which its pages would have been thin indeed. This AGM took place, prestigiously, in the Old Combination Room, Trinity College, Cambridge, following the annual dinner at the Garden House hotel. Soon after, annual cricket matches, once a yearly fixture between Governors and Assistants but latterly languishing, began again when Hylton and Charlotte Bayntun-Coward arranged what became the first of several games between ABA and PBFA, at Dunkerton near Bath.

On the security front things were not all quiet but perhaps not quite so bad; but at the New York Congress (1980) it had to be reported (during a much truncated business session) that only the ABA had made any positive response toward setting up an international security system and confidential list. It was two-year presidencies which probably prompted some regularisation of the historically somewhat arcane (or so it was believed) methods of selecting presidents, with the setting up of a Nominating Committee.

75th Anniversary

1981, the year of the ABA's seventy-fifth anniversary, saw a slightly different kind of annual dinner and meeting; Hylton Bayntun-Coward as president arranged what was called a Conference at Bath - with useful help and a mayoral Reception from the City. An Any Questions session was added to the formal business at the AGB ; there was a golf match, a tour of the Roman baths, and a come-back for dancing ( with partial approval) at the dinner. At the Fair a charge was made for catalogues and the proceeds (£ 2150) given to the Friends of the National Libraries, 1981 being their Golden Jubilee year. Security problems seemed at least no worse; suggestions were made for computerising, preferably with international access, the whole stolen books register. This, increased by the monthly lists circulated with the Newsletter, had naturally now reached massive proportions.

Other ticklish problems included consideration of the proper response to the advocacy of collecting for investment, and unwelcome demands from Customs and Excise for back VAT payments; the status of Branch activities in this connection was particularly worrying. Furthermore, Cynthia Bonham-Carter was anxious to retire from the secretaryship, and we learnt that the Booksellers' Association wanted their office back. 1981 closed with a reminiscent and amusing survey of the ABA's first seventy five years by Winnie Myers (her father had been a founder committee member in 1906) at the Christmas party at Maggs's.

New Headquarters

Inevitably 1982 opened with a sense of urgency as to premises and secretary. With fair advance warning from the Booksellers' Association, the president had in September 1981 sought suggestions for a new headquarters. It is quite normal for membership of any organisation to berate its committee from time to time for not listening to bright ideas; these, however, when urgently sought, were not overwhelmingly forthcoming. Slightly earlier, as it happened, the question of an ABA central shop and rallying point somewhat on the lines of the New York Rockefeller Center of the American ABA, had come up in the Newsletter's columns and generated a lively correspondence. Amid the standard brickbats thrown at the complacent and stagnating committee, various calculations emerged from any of which it seemed that some fifty or seventy five committed participants in such a joint venture would be essential ; some five members, in the event, showed interest (not necessarily commitment). True, continue pressure might have secured or stimulated more; but no urgent demand seemed to exist.

After a good deal of leg-(and brain-)work the National Book League was chosen. For some years, by this time, handsomely housed in what many regarded as the wilds of Wandsworth, it was obviously right for a book-orientated body and had a host of earlier friendly links with the ABA. Its warmest advocates admitted its remoteness for committee and general meetings, currently held at the Royal Institution, Albemarle Street, not far from the NBL's old home. Bridget Cuming took over from Cynthia Bonham-Carter in May 1982 in time for the move to Book House, Wandsworth, in July.

Bath was again the site of annual ABA business and festivities, with a too thinly attended symposium - on computers and their uses, the economics of catalogues, and (surprise, surprise) stolen books. AGM attendance was quite good but dinner sales somewhat collapsed - perhaps the same venue two years running was an unwise choice, though it had seemed popular in prospect.

Booksellers and Auctioneers II

In 1983 representations to Sotheby's secured agreement to restore the twenty-one day period of grace for the return of imperfect items, which had been reduced to seven days only at the "Hodgson Room" sales. However, the "quickie" Hodgson type sales were soon discontinued anyway. Nevertheless the ABA has always tried to keep a watchful eye on auctions in general and to encourage more uniform and less restrictive sale-room practices. Later in 1982 a formal protest was made to the BBC at what seemed excessive publicity for the auction rooms in a Nationwide programme ; once again the sale rooms seemed to appear as public institutions above the hurly-hurly of trade, rather than commercial organisations, which would in general receive nothing like the same generous - and free - mention.

John Lawson - ILAB President

In October a meeting was announced which called itself "a nail in the coffin" for the Bibliomites. The fact that Charles Traylen (in a tribute to Fred Baker, one of the last of the old time assistants who had entered the trade in the twenties) could recollect that thirty years earlier his own firm alone had five Bibliomite assistants, shows the changing pattern of the trade. A pleasanter note in the same month was the election of John Lawson as president of the International League, not so long after Stanley Crowe's very successful term in the office (Stanley had died earlier in the year and his exceptional efforts for ABA and League were gratefully recalled). Less happy was the cancellation of the Paris Conference, leaving the election to take place at an emergency meeting in Amsterdam.

In 1983 the subscription, after several more fevered leaps, reached £ 75. The membership paled, but paid up. Another prestige-promoting exhibition was arranged (with the usual trepidation, the organisers desperately cajoling or bullying lenders to meet deadlines) in Edinburgh for the gathering of the Association Internationale de Bibliophilie. (A revival of a travelling exhibit in the style of Harry Pratley's of the sixties has been considered.) Urgent revision of the VAT position as it affects branches (and indeed the extraction of hard cash to meet official demands) added to life's burden for John Wilson as treasurer. Innovations included an ABA flag, and a luncheon of past presidents - held at Fyfield with Sir Basil Blackwell, by far our oldest past president, present - alas, for the first and last time as we have since had to record his death aged 94.


An innovation in security that did not satisfactorily materialise was the international "BAM BAM" operation, involving an online data base available through access to a suitable computer terminal. The BAM BAM book of 192 pages, an alphabetical listing of all known missing items to September 1981, appeared from New York. But ready and inexpensive international availability of the computerised information showed no signs of coming to fruition. In May 1983 Sally Edgecombe, after a most competently discharged stint of four years - probably as much as most editors can stand - gave up the Newsletter, to be replaced by Paul Breman.

Social Life

From Bath the annual dinners returned to central London, in 1983 at the King Davids Suite and in 1984 to a restaurant rather than the ever more expensive hotels - L'Escargot, where for the first time for countless years a few latecomers had regrettably to be rejected - but with a capacity of barely a hundred. The food was considered markedly better and the conditions markedly cramped.

As for the Fairs, the 1983 Chairman Robert Vaughan reported that the sales figures (and these are estimates) since the freak million of 1979 had been £ 663,000 (1980), £ 620,000 (1981), £ 464,000 (1982) - a declining trend - but now in 1983 a reassuring resurgence to £ 731,000, with some return of euphoria. Book Fair parties, incidentally, had now become regular occasions (held on one of the fair evenings), with interesting venues including the House of Lords, the In and Out Club, Lambeth Palace, the Inner Temple, the United Services Club, the National Portrait Gallery, the London Transport Museum, and Leighton House. Most seemed popular, even though seating was usually minimal and many exhibitors had been. on their feet most of the day. No fair was planned for June 1984, in view of the coming International Fair in September. Though beset by difficulties, and differences, over finance, and choice of the now essential new shelving and furniture, this has gone ahead with a move to the larger Park Lane Hotel. Whether this break with t?e Europe will prove final - just as the International Fair in September 1971 signalled our expansion from the NBL to the Europe - cannot at the moment of writing be foretold.

In mid-1984, therefore (a year less portentous than it sounded in prospect) we await - as in 1956 when Dudley Massey's survey ended - another (the 27th) International Congress and Fair in London. Again looking backward for a moment, there is no doubt that browsing through twenty-eight years of files and reports reveals a growing work-load, complication of duties, and proliferation of sub-committees - and perhaps of more new ideas than is generally supposed. Only a sampling of all this can be touched on here, and many unsung stalwarts, present and - sadly - past, have played their part besides those mentioned.


One constant preoccupation throughout later years at least has been with membership and entry. This concern has frequently surfaced - few AGMS are without some manifestation of it - and sometimes seethed underground; and it is of course entirely natural. In pioneer days, perhaps to get members at all was important (quite a few fairly major firms remained outside until relatively late).

The growth of ABA fairs from the early sixties on came to seem a good reason for joining, and pressure for membership rose to a steady trickle if never exactly a flood. But concern for professional standards - easily mocked as cliquishness - grew likewise, not least among those hard workers who hoped to make fairs worthy and creditable activities. The book trade, too, was changing. Always pleasantly diversified and informal, with control over the process of setting up as a dealer neither practicable nor, probably, desirable, it no doubt always had its part-timers and semi-amateurs. But more and more full-timers were giving up maintaining expensive shops, or indeed never even contemplating having one, which did not make their status and quality any easier to determine. And the ABA has never seen the fact that entry to the trade is free as an excuse for dispensing with control over entry to the Association.

Thus repeated, earnest, and not wholly successful tightenings-up of rules governing entry have characterised recent ABA history. They were intended to cover such matters as time spent in full-time bookselling, quality of stock, standards of bibliographic expertise and of business dealing, the possible effect on these of changes in ownership, and so on. They tended to require complex and wordy re-drafting, which in turn threw up further anomalies, making life difficult for the drafters. Hard cases arose. Assessments of quality of stock or catalogues were to some extent subjective. Autographs have always been regarded as naturally belonging to the book trade, but the case of those who were predominantly, or wholly, map and print sellers has always been difficult, prints in particular being seen as closer to the fine art trades, and the practice has been to admit, in a discretionary (it has been said arbitrary) fashion, only a limited number of such members (including a few we should be extremely sorry to do without). Occasional resentment among disappointed applicants and sponsors was thus inevitable. And it was, after all, questions of standards that led to the painful decisions of the sixties whereby two member firms had their memberships terminated (both later re-installed); human nature being what it is, an Association mindful of standards which had never in three quarters of a century found it necessary to expel anyone might be thought relatively lucky.


The whole position was to some extent resolved by the formation of the Provincial Book Fairs Association in 1974. It energetically provided a galaxy of what might reasonably be called more down-to-earth and popular fairs - and much cheaper to run. It must be recognised that the PBFA has been a success, and its publicity occasionally - and irritatingly - more telling than the ABA's. Some rivalry, a good deal of banter, snobbery, direct and inverted, on both sides, and now and then a touch of malice, were probably to be expected. Nevertheless relations now seem established on a harmonious live-and-let-live basis ; cricket matches are played annually in an inimitably British fashion; and while some operators inhabit a bookselling scene so informally basic that they would probably not dream of joining anything like an ABA, many other booksellers are quite happily members of both associations. Whether, with hindsight, some kind of twotier scheme might have embraced a wider membership under a single capacious umbrella is now an academic question. But it would have been a different ABA ; in which connection it must have significance that within a year or so of foundation the original name was changed from "Second-Hand" to "Antiquarian". Elitist, some would call it - others, simply discriminating.

ABA 1906-1984

In the event, therefore, ABA membership is not much changed in size since the early thirties. It still has numerous overseas members, even in countries which now have associations of their own - a reminder of the ABA's original international status (at the Amsterdam Conference of 1947, held to discuss the formation of an International League, the ABA was described as "our Association, on which all international duties have hitherto devolved"). The continued adherence of such members is gratifying. As an organisation it probably serves its members more industriously than ever. (With no wish to denigrate past efforts, it is nevertheless perhaps permissible to recall that twenty years ago an ex-committee member could be heard incautiously to suggest that his term of office had been comparatively restful, secretary and officers between them doing all that was necessary. No committee member to-day need expect to avoid having one, or several, jobs landing in his or her lap). We have seen it negotiating with authority, and working with other organisations; it is represented on the NBL and the National Book Committee; its relations with the academic and library world are probably better than in former days. Much of this activity is not visible to the membership at large - who in any case are entitled to criticise (it is to be hoped constructively), despite the cynical contributor to the Newsletter who maintained that for the ordinary member apathy was the pre-eminently desirable condition.

There have been changes, of course. What seem - especially to older hands - startling changes in money values may be more apparent than real. To-day's £ 80 subscription would not be thought a very princely weekly average wage - yet when it was two guineas, there may well have been junior assistants earning thirty shillings or so. Even to-day's healthy Benevolent Fund of over £ 20,000 is probably not so much greater than 1956's £ 2,500 as it sounds (although still of course a useful sum). In style, things have altered with the times. There are more women members generally and on the committees (as, indeed, there are more women in business generally). And where, in our first half century, the Misses Banks and Myers pursued their widely separated and lonely courses, both achieving the presidency, we now have a third woman president in Clare Perkins and a fourth foreseeably and consecutively imminent in Senga Grant. There is almost certainly less formality - most certainly less in the present Newsletter - entertaining, provocative, lively, and considerably larger, it pursues (clearly quite compulsively) a knife-edge course between healthy irreverence and hurtful insult, with mixed success, watched even by its well-wishers with admiration but bated breath. Nothing like it could have been imagined in the staid days of old. Dudley Massey found the verbose facetiousness of pre-1914 painfully tedious ; the safe conventionalities of pre-1960 seem stuffily complacent to many nowadays, when Richard Ingrams of Private Eye takes his turn at opening book fairs with Dukes and ex Prime Ministers. (Incidentally, a glance at the list of book fair openers does not wholly bear out this account's earlier suspicion that the personalities who swam into the ABA orbit in the past were in fact so much more glittering or eminent after all, which is reassuring).

As for the ABA's wider and perhaps most important function - to extend the cult of the book in all its aspects, through fairs, exhibitions, and publicity generally, it must be said to have had only partial success. Book collecting seems destined to remain - comparatively speaking - a minority taste. A good deal of dissatisfaction with what are regarded - in some quarters - as the ABA's lack of startling achievement may well derive from frustration - from a persistent but erroneous belief that somewhere a vast reservoir of book-collecting potential is waiting to be tapped, if only a touch more vision and enterprise was shown. It is almost certainly not as simple as that. Books and manuscripts are - on the whole - still collected by persons of civilised instincts but not unlimited means - while the incursion of well heeled but ignorant and investment-minded speculators is fraught with dangers. It is salutary to remember that the Friends of the National Libraries have a thousand supporters; the National Art Collections Fund has at least twelve times that number, many of them probably appreciably wealthier.

Nevertheless, the ABA has not lost its impetus. The oldest national association, now again preparing to play host to its younger sisters, it continues to represent the collective mind and endeavour of the bookselling fraternity. In an age of bewilderingly rapid change, the instinct to preserve our roots with the past, for which the written and printed record is so essential, does not weaken, as even the now fashionable nostalgia cult shows. The ABA has a vital role to play. In a spirit of cooperation and conviviality much has been achieved. Let us look forward to the happy continuance of both, in what is, after all, one of the most fortunate and ultimately pleasurable of all vocations.

The historical survey was published in the ILAB Newsletter 36.

>>> Antiquarian Booksellers' Assocation

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