Published on 25 Aug. 2010
An Interview with Raymond Kilgarriff
Bookselling is speculation - chancing your arm and knowing that you have backed winners or losers.
Kilgarriff is a no-nonsense professional - trained hard in the dusty discipline of the book trade academies of London and Cambridge. But, in case this brings to mind the moth-eaten figure in Ronald Searle's Wicked World of Book Collecting, this is also the Story of a road runner with the hands of a pianist and one of the neatest wardrobes in the business.
`I will happily value books, catalogue books, sell, pack and send books, and even, in certain circumstances, read them. But I am thankful that I have no strong desire to collect. I would not know which ones to take home and which to put in stock. Anyway, it all smacks to me of being slightly unprofessional.'
By training and inclination, Raymond is a general bookseller, revelling in the particular challenges and rewards of his all-embracing stock. `I am an unrepentant generalist. I like being confronted with miscellaneous collections and getting to grips with it all. Specialists tell me there is an awful lot of new material to be discovered even after a lifetime in one subject, but I just cannot be convinced about that. I enjoy the discoveries I make day by day as a generalist:
He was introduced to this style of bookselling at Holleyman & Treacher, his first job in the trade, and immediately took to the large and varied stock with its opportunity to learn `what constitutes a good book.'
`The really formative years were the five I spent at Bernard Quaritch. I suppose, out of sentiment, I still regard it as the best bookshop in the world. The combination of standards it imposed on its staff, its history, and its eccentricity were all totally seductive: It was there that Raymond met John Watson and learnt more about the skills of tackling calf and vellum by the ton. `He was a very down-to-earth bookseller, who knew all about getting his hands dirty - not just picking one book off the shelf here and there, but going through the whole lot! He just had a lust for life that I found irresistible. During this period, Raymond met his German-born wife, Renate, who enjoyed the very special distinction of being the first female cataloguer to work at Quaritch.
The next move was to Heffer's for the final stage in his well-planned apprenticeship before going to Howes. `I believed in getting as wide an experience as possible. In Cambridge, libraries used to come through the door without even trying, and I just had to deal with them. It was no good saying, `Oh well, that's not my subject.’
`I would love it to be possible, or at least facilitated, for young booksellers to have this freedom to move around. Raymond has long been associated with this enlightened, though unpopular outlook. Many years ago he suggested that the ABA might help to set up a kind of scholarship for newcomers to the trade, whereby certain firms would agree to take them on for a year or so to gain experience of different businesses at the top end of the trade in return for a competitive salary.
'A lot of people thought I was mad on the grounds that you do not give away your hard-earned knowledge. But the young people are the future managers of the trade'. As far back as 1965, he went on record as saying, `The shortage of books is less acute than the shortage of trained, experienced staff.' However, his scheme never got off the ground and, on this subject, he remains a bit of a lone voice.
It is obviously something to which he has given much thought and was very ready to define what makes a good bookseller. 'Energy first, commitment and some distinct feeling towards books. But that often comes during the development of one's career. It must be combined with sound business sense. I suppose it is this academic and commercial ability that is perhaps an unusual combination.'
`I always try to cultivate a professional image, which includes an element of good manners. I think a courteous style benefits the trade well. The people we deal with are mostly fairly polite - certainly in the academic world - and we should try to respond in the same way.'
Raymond is a strong believer in the importance of good presentation whether it be catalogue production, stationery or his own personal wardrobe of Daks sportswear, which always gives him that distinctive air of having just wandered in from a garden party.
`I think the printing and design of booksellers' catalogues is very important. We are, after all, supposed to have a bit of an eye for a book, and we should be able to transfer this taste to the appearance of our own catalogues. Actually, I am not very good at buying from catalogues and I am always mildly surprised - and very gratified - when people seem to read ours and ring up first thing. I prefer buying from shops and privately -I like the book in the hand'
Howes Bookshop enjoys a great reputation for its service to private customers, who range from Japanese academics to local fishermen, all finding their way to the Victorian Gothic building in the back streets of Hastings. The enormous stock is arranged on one mile of shelving, and the atmosphere has been aptly compared to a college library.
During his Presidency of the ABA from 1978 to 1980, Raymond drew on his wide experience of the book trade `to bring a bit of understanding to other people's position: His term of office coincided with the row over the auctioneers' introduction of the buyers' premium. `We did show a bit of strength and backbone, and it was actually quite an informative and enjoyable time. Being President is a mind-broadening experience and I was able to take a much wider view of the trade than I could from my own goldfish bowl. But I am not sure I achieved anything very memorable — just kept the old motor ticking over.
Actually, I doubt if the ABA has a much larger role to play than it has at present. But it raust not capitulate to the pressures to reduce the entry qualifications, which are already fairly soff. What it does, it must do to the best possible standards. And it does not do too badly as far as fairs and other activities are concerned:
`I have no worries about the future of the trade. Books are so inherently interesting that they will never not be collected. Anyway, I am retiring in the next two years!'
Raymond's clear-sighted and forceful views on retirement are in keeping with his attitude toward the young. 'You should move over. Firms need leadership and energy at the top. I know I do not come in every morning with quite the same excitement that I did twenty years ago. At 65, it is absurd to imagine that we have all the capacities we had at, say, 45. I am a great believer in working very hard but also cutting clean away. I am one of those lunatic road runners. I enjoy physical activity and I am looking forward to doing more of that. I am also a bit of a gardener.
A bit of an understatement. The Kilgarriffs' home in St. Leonard's is built on the tennis court of Decimus Burton's villa, surrounded by the most attractive garden sloping away to a vista of the distant sea. According to Pevsner, St. Leonard's was entirely built as `a speculation, and it paid: How entirely right to find Raymond here.
Reading this interview over thirteen years on, I am struck principally by the fact that it was aimed at the trade and published in a trade journal. Had I been addressing a wider world, I would have put things a little differently. As for my `clear sighted and forceful views on retirement, while I kept my pledge to `move over' at Howes, complete divorce from the trade at age 65 was not to be borne. Apart from a little trading on my own account, I have found a term of ILAB service, culminating in the appointment as Secretary of the ILAB International Bibliographical Prize, to be a good way to end a long career.
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. 29-31
The interview is presented here, with our thanks, by permission of Sheila Markham. For more information see www.sheila-markham.com and www.oakknoll.com.