Ten years – I can’t quite believe it. If asked when I began to trade under my own banner, I would be hard pushed to tell you an exact day, but my VAT registration certificate arrived in early July 2006, a missive which at the time seemed horribly grown-up and official. This is it, I thought. I am a registered small business owner – now what! Some 3500 books, five catalogues expertly designed by the wonderful Tony Kitzinger, numerous lists both printed and electronic, and several fairs in Seattle, California, New York, Olympia, and Chelsea later, I think I am finally beginning to find my feet.
But only just. It has been quite a learning curve, sometimes rather a vertiginous one, and continues to be so, especially in these interesting times. 2016 was quite a year to celebrate my aluminium anniversary! Yet our fascinating, varied, and wonderful trade, has weathered innumerable troughs and peaks over the centuries, and will continued to change and adapt I am sure. When I started working for Pickering & Chatto in 1994, as apprentice to Rebecca Hardie in the Science and Medicine department, we had one computer which handled the newish fad called ‘emailing’. We still prized the historic card archive, and the excitement engendered at the sound of the fax machine coming to life – all hoping for an order to emerge. Heady days! Research was carried out at either the British or London Library, supported by the extensive Pickering reference library. How did you all survive without Google and Wikipedia I hear some of your cry. Perfectly adequately, thank you very much – though I never ceased to be amazed by what one can now learn and discover at the tap of a keyboard. In truth I would be lost without the internet now – for me my main purchasing avenue, being rather bad at getting out on the road and visiting auctions and other booksellers. Whilst it has been a way of doing business which has personally served me well to date, I am resolved going forward to try and get ‘out and about’ more.
Pickering and Chatto has proved to be a fertile training ground, as it were, for independent booksellers over the years, a fact which back in 2006 was very inspirational and encouraging. Christopher Edwards, Roger Gaskell, Amanda Hall, Susanne Schulz-Falster, Rebecca Hardie, and many others, all set a benchmark towards which I still aim at, and hope to aspire too, in terms of bibliographical expertise, erudition, professionalism, and just being very good at what they do! I was very lucky when I started out to have a lot of help and support, from not only my friends at Pickering itself, but from other colleagues both in the UK and in Europe, who were willing to either give me cataloguing work, or were willing to let me take things on commission. The bookselling community on the whole is incredibly supportive and collegiate, and the list of people who provided a guiding hand, or let me bend their ear, is far too long to mention. Slowly but surely the size and quality of my stock increased and improved. The small local fairs led to my first international foray at the Seattle fair, followed by ABA and ILAB membership and thus access to larger International book-fairs. One or two fortuitous finds and collections (i.e. with healthier profit-margins) led to further stock expansion. New customers emerged, new trade relationships were formed, so that I find myself, somehow, 10 years on and still in business.
Moments of self-doubt – as they say I have had a few. But then I am sure that even the most thick-skinned and bullish of our colleagues will have had their fair share of navel gazing. For those starting out in the trade today, rest assured that there will always be someone in the trade who will provide a reassuring shoulder and word when needed. I think it is so encouraging that we have such a healthy intake of young and entrepreneurial booksellers entering all arenas of the profession at the moment, be it joining established firms, or setting up as sole traders, and some even braving opening shops. Even more encouraging that so many are bright and articulate women. Their willingness to embrace social media and new mediums is inspirational, and helps to keep me on my toes.
As to the next 10 years. Well I hope that there are another 10 years! I love my job. I love being my own boss, and the flexibility that it gives me. The cash flow issues, occasional sleepless nights, and the odd week eating war-time rations are far outweighed by the delight in finding an unusual item, my love of researching and discovering new things, helping to conserve items of cultural and historical significance, and the immense satisfaction one gets when a customer writes to excitedly tell you about their new purchase taking pride of place on a bookshelf, or is being used by a scholar, or becomes the subject of an academic blog. My close ‘non-bookselling’ friends (‘muggles’ by any other name surely) think I have the best job in the world, though there are also a fair few who continue to ask if I ‘still dabble in books’ and if I do it full-time. To which I reply, ‘it keeps me solvent and pays my mortgage’. It is much more than that: more importantly it continues to be a passion, and one which I fully intend to carry on with.