Accidental Antiquarians

Image result for ronald searle anatomy of a booksellers
Ronald Searle’s Anatomy of an Antiquarian Bookseller

Some booksellers are drawn to the business because of their love of reading. Some are following a relative in the family business. For others, it’s a second career after law, finance, or medicine loses its luster.

Still others become booksellers through unconventional paths.  One of the first firms I cataloged, W. & G. Foyle, Ltd., got its start in 1903 when the brothers William and Gilbert, having failed their civil service entrance exams, sold all their text books – presto, instant career. Further research has turned up other unusual entries into the business:

  • Julia Elton knew little about books when she was all but ordered by a bookseller to catalog her late father’s collection before the bookseller would evaluate it.
  • Edith Finer learned she was too young to start work as a juvenile probation officer despite her training, so she became a researcher which exposed her to the wonders of books and libraries.
  • Looking to leave his career behind and at a loss over what to do next, Michael Hollander was told by a friend to go through the phone book from A to Z until he found a new career. He stopped at “B” when “Bookdealers” caught his eye.
  • Jennifer Jaeger bought a bookstore on the spur of the moment, because the owner was complaining about wanting to retire and Jaeger happened to have the cash in her pocket from her recent sale of a classic car.  For several years, she sold cars and books out of the same shop.
  • As a teenager, Chris Kohler ducked into antiquarian bookshops looking for a place he could smoke; the second-hand exposure to books gave him a different addiction.

Booksellers are fascinating people. To read more about these sellers and many others, visit Sheila Markham’s website, where she has transcribed the stories of dozens of antiquarian book dealers in their own words.

By Janalyn Martínez

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