All Good Fun

Second-hand booksellers poured into the shop to see who was this newcomer daring enough to take on a new business in the centre of one of the best-known university cities in the world. Nothing ventured, nothing gained has always been a favourite proverb of mine. I soon knew all the active booksellers of old books in the UK. Mind you, there weren’t many, but they were all great fun: each a true individual working in their own way and not from anyone else’s (a rare thing) which meant they were never, ever boring.

Several of them lived in outposts where it wasn’t easy to sell secondhand books, especially those who lived in sparsely inhabited but very beautiful countrysides, like the South West of England. Shortly after we went to Cambridge, a new organisation was set up, The PBFA: The Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association. Once a month at weekends in the same hotel in London, those of us who wished to sell their wares there packed up our cars with a selection of our best books with foldable bookshelves flattened out on the floors of our estate cars. Our group rented a large room on the ground floor of the hotel where we laid everything out, providing a temporary bookshop for two days. It was hard work, but the pleasure we got made them well worth while both socially and financially.

It struck me then that once a group of people get together they tend to break down into smaller groups. Those of us who came from the greatest distance stayed in the same hotel so we naturally met each other for breakfast. On Saturday nights, a small number of us, who came from the far West and knew each other very well, spent a convivial dinner together with a plentiful supply of wine. For some reason they always invited me and no other woman. Why? I don’t like alcohol but I managed to get down a glass or two by sipping in small amounts. I seem on the whole to get along better with men than women, as I’ve mentioned before. I was treated like one of the boys in that I was liked for my way of taking bookselling seriously.

My friend, Derek Gibbons, did not have a car and he wanted to come too, so I agreed to take him to the fairs. He only brought a small number of choice books with him. It was all very light hearted. He never took anything seriously. He had a lively imagination and many stories to tell. We often thought that they had been embellished to make them more interesting. He was generally liked because he had a great sense of humour and was a very knowledgeable bookseller.

For the first time in my life I belonged to a group in which I felt absolutely at home. We not only sold books to the public but we also bought and sold with each other. Most of us had a favourite interest and we would often look out for specialities so that we could offer them to friends before we put them up for sale. I enjoyed these little jaunts away from the shop.

But all this was a long time ago, in the 1970s. That time was at the height of a strong interest in books. I met a retired bookseller who worked in Deighton Bell, the bookshop opposite my own. He began to work there in the 1950s. He told me that they were never short of the right kind of books. They were offered so many that they had to turn some away because they hadn’t enough space. Soon after we opened our shop, more people began to work as second-hand booksellers at a time when the rents of shops were increasing too fast and it was ever more hard to find the right kind of books that we wanted. The auction sales of big old country houses which began after the World War 2, were beginning to dwindle. The situation has changed greatly since then. The PBFA still exists but many shops have had to close and the number of booksellers decreased.

We not only went to London once a month. New book fairs at week-ends sprang up in major cities in the UK. Quentin and I went to them together. He always drove me and carried the books and bookshelves to and fro. This made things much easier for me. We always worked very well together and I got to know cities I would not have seen otherwise. It was all very good fun as long as it lasted.