It all started with a Baedeker: Bernard Shapero's Life in Books

- by Bruce E. McKinney


In the embrace of objects and ideas

I was 13 years old and I finally went into Eric and Joan Stevens Bookshop, which I had cycled past many times on my way to the sweet shop. Wow, you can travel the world and not leave your bedroom; it was such a revelation, my imagination went wild. This was the beginning of my book purchasing life- I would never have enough stock, or so it eternally feels. The habit grew into a small business surrounded by soccer posters in my childhood bedroom. I then graduated on to a Saturday market stall at the now infamous Camden Lock, my buying and selling career had begun and I have never looked back.


Unusually at that time, in the 1970s, I left school at 16 after getting 6 'O' levels (basic exams). Conversely, my learning was enriched by my Baedeker obsession and I did respectably well in History. In those teenage years, I had started visiting an antique market, Grays, in London's West End. I discovered that one of the book dealers was leaving and he asked me if I would like his stand, I said yes without a moment's hesitation. All I needed now was some stock, something I had already begun to realise was never going to be a problem. This was the great hey-day of book fairs but not being able to drive, due to my age, I was reliant on some older members of the trade to get me mobile.  It was at this time that I met Donald Heald, whilst he was sleeping on the floor of another book dealer’s flat. I also had the pleasure of meeting Michael Hollander, who was always scouting English book fairs. These were young men starting in the trade but being 10 years older than me, seemed like real adults.


Over several years, I took more stands and bigger stands until in 1989 I had 4 and I was bursting out of them. Yet again, a dealer I often visited called Peter Eaton told me he was retiring and would I like to take over his shop- this was a whole different ball game. It was a large shop on a main high street in an elegant area of London, Holland Park; this was the big time, no more being a market trader now, I was a shopkeeper. It was at this time that Julian McKenzie and Lucinda Boyle joined me and the whole business took on a more serious dimension. Once again when I moved in, what I thought was a lot of books, were suddenly dwarfed by the size of the new shop. But as we all know, if you have the space, you will fill it and I certainly did.


In those days of no computers and no internet, life was simple, you bought with your gut and your ABPC or BAR (English version). Sometimes you got it wrong and mostly thankfully I got it right but there was no ABE, Rare Book Hub or ability to see what other dealers had, books seemed rare, so to speak and the auction price guides only covered the main auction houses. At that time, experience was even more golden than today, people with 40 years in the trade really had an edge over us youngsters. I remember visiting Marlborough Rare Books and Micky Brandt, an ex-Guards officer who ran the business. He would look through his card index and tell me that they had sold a copy of a certain book in 1963,1972 and the last copy they had sold was in 1986 for £2,100. This was golden information, you could not find this out in any other way, every dealer was proud of all their back copies of auction and dealer catalogues that they could cross reference, to gleam important information, giving them an edge, how else could you know how rare something was or how much someone else charged.


During this time, I had the opportunity to meet some of the greats of the book trade, although they would not have remembered me.  I remember well: Charles Traylen, a cantankerous old man, not easy to talk to, Frank Hammond, scary looked like an Undertaker, not naturally friendly, Jaques Vellekoop, highly entertaining and gregarious, Dick Lyon eccentric but fun, and finally John Maggs, who was both helpful and sympathetic.

The list continues with H.P.Kraus who only spoke 5 words to me 'Show me your best book', Bernard Breslaur, who told me that a binding I had was a fake, (probably true, but I am not so sure) Colin Franklin, charming and a real gentleman. There are many others but I cannot go into them all.


In 1996, one of my customers, Tomasso Zanzotto approached me and said that he was retiring from a very senior position at American Express and would I be interested in him joining my business. It seemed like an exciting challenge. He was keen for the new company to sell his collection and wanted to use the money to expand the business. Once again, I could make a leap in business, similar to my previous passage from Grays to Holland Park.

So, in 1996 I moved one more time to a new shop in St George Street, back in London's West End. Things really took off, the book business along with the general economy went through a  period of growth. There were moments along the way that had dips but in general the next 10 years gave me the chance to expand. The company took over the magazine Rare Book Review (edited by my wife, Emma) and changed it from a very niche magazine into a much broader 21st century periodical and then we bought Bloomsbury Book Auctions.


Bloomsbury was owned by two octogenarians, Lord John Kerr and Frank Herman; real 'Old School' book men, both ex Sotheby's. They were looking to sell and I was looking to expand, things did not go completely smoothly in the negotiations but in the end we got there. Reflecting on this now despite the difficulties, I am very pleased to have known them. I also enjoyed a friendship with their junior partner the charming and handsome David Stagg (Staggy to his friends).  Bloomsbury was run on a day-to-day basis by the young Rupert Powell, who today is running Bloomsbury in its new guise as Forum Auctions-  he was great to work with then and is a credit to the current auction house.


Back at SRB, we were on a roll, we were selling to two great collectors at the same time. In every dealer's life you need to have one great customer, someone who one might call a 'life changer', to have two at the same time was incredible. There was Percy Barnevik, a Swedish Industrialist and Sheik Saud Al- Thani. You could not meet two collectors so different but yet so similar. Percy was a man in a hurry, he bought books systematically and in great quantity, an absolute pleasure to deal with and an incredibly interesting man. He liked to pay his bills immediately if not quicker, and once shouted at me for not invoicing him on the same day that he bought a book. He collected in groups, bindings, travel by continent, science and his biggest and favourite collection, Incunabula.


Sheik Saud on the other hand was the worlds slowest payer but rarely does one meet a person with so much charisma. He charmed the world and he had an 'eye' for quality in any field he collected. His main book collection was Natural History and Travel but he could buy anything if it appealed. It was one of my great achievements in life to have served him and to have helped him build the most fantastic library.


At that time of plenty, I had the fortune to purchase with Heritage Books, (Lou and Ben Weinstein as well as David Brass) the Library of Donaueshingen. This was the largest private library sold in the last 50 years, with over 100,000 volumes. These episodes deserve their own exploration and explanation- perhaps at a later date. My overall memory of that experience is that it was a uniquely great deal!


In 2007, the world seemed in a reasonably decent state, there are some people sending out warnings but everything on the surface was fine. Debt was cheap and very easy to access, so in a double swoop, I bought the Heritage Bookshop entire stock, because the brothers wanted to retire (or so they said).  Consequently, we opened up Bloomsbury Auctions in New York, with our first sale planned for September. My thinking was, what could possibly go wrong?


Clearly as I learnt quite quickly, plenty can go wrong.


We fast forward to 2012, the business has trundled along, shrunken and with its shine certainly reduced. One morning I am sitting in bed reading the Art Newspaper and I see an article about a private Library owned by a great collector, which is in financial difficulty. I arrange through Jorn Gunther to meet the great Mr Jost Ritman, the owner of the Biblioteca Hermetica. He is an erudite and fascinating man. After a lengthy discussion and negotiation, by Jorn and myself a deal is finally agreed- to buy his collection for an 8-figure sum. Within this collection are some of the most fantastic books that I will ever get to handle. They are all incunables ranging from the 1461 Bible, complete in 2 volumes to complete Block books and many printed on vellum; a dream purchase, so many treasures it was quite incredible and to some degree overwhelming.


During this time and because of the Library, a new investor comes on board, Philip Blackwell, a member of the renowned Oxford bookselling family. After a period of exploration, we decide to take the business public, in order to raise cash for expansion. This proves successful and brings us now to 2020. Finally, after almost 25 years at my shop in St George Street we have moved to new premises on the first floor of New Bond Street. This is the end of that chapter and the beginning of a new one.


Where is the book market today; I think that in general it is in a pretty healthy state, of course it is harder to buy good books because of the internet but then again it is easier to sell good books because of the internet. Fifty years ago, supply was plentiful but customers were scarce. We have to adapt, move with the times into the digital marketplace; no industry is an island, there are plenty of successful dealers out there to show us all that it can be done, this should give us all a level of reassurance. Increasingly there is a world of specialists mainly because general knowledge is available at the touch of a button. Subsequently, what is deemed valuable is deep in-depth knowledge, that only real experts know; this is one way that dealers can win out. Or they can set up their own auctions, as many are starting to do, which appears relatively cheap and easy. Through the global reach of the internet and meta-search engines such as Invaluable and The Saleroom,  everything is possible.

Is there a future, of course there is, this has been the eternal question, people have grumbled about the death of the book trade for 200 years, books are and continue to be a beautiful, tactile collectible. As long as books continue to be printed- people will collect books. Once they stop being produced, they will become mementos of a bygone age, like so many other collector fields. A library is always going to be something that people will want in their surroundings for diverse reasons but mostly because it connects us to the minds of others.


From my first Baedeker to today- bibliophiles need a library. I wanted one in my bedroom aged 13 and I continue to enjoy one in my house aged 57.