A New Generation Bookseller
via Richard Overell
THE SPEAKER WAS young Melbourne book dealer Douglas Stewart. He was introduced by the President John Emmerson who remarked that some may remember Douglas from the 1990s as the only buyer at Leonard Joel’s auctions in a school uniform (Wesley College). Douglas worked later for five years for Spencer Sandilands in the print trade and now works as manager of Delshan Art Gallery in High Street, Armadale. He specialises in Australian art and history books and operates without retail premises, selling to private and institutional clients through personal contacts and email catalogues.
Douglas began by saying that one of the established dealers has remarked that he, Douglas, may represent the last generation of the trade as we know it. He started by running books between dealers and has now developed a specialist area in Australian art books and catalogues. His clientele is mostly from a small group of art collectors and general Australiana book people. His family did not have a background in the trade, but he had early developed an interest in old maps. He would pass Sandilands shop on his way to and from school, and began work there in November 1995, aged 14. Already collecting maps, he now began to collect books from Joan Rogers book-shop and gallery in High Street (now in Warrandyte at Old Bakery Books). He would spend Thursday mornings at Joel’s auctions and went to the evening sales. At age 15 he bought a set of the Picturesque Atlas from Andrew Barnes Military Bookshop which he sold to Peter Arnold for $200.
He began to sell books to Monash University Rare Books Library while studying there as a Law student. He also worked at Australian Book Auctions on the Chirnside collection of travel, literature and fine bindings.
He considers himself part of the next generation of book-dealers, who sell quality antiquarian books through personal contacts, without overheads, as they have no retail premises. This can however disrupt home life, with books encroaching on living areas and a variety of packing materials also too much in evidence. Being “without retail premises” usually means living in a stock room, a practice not popular with partners.
Douglas follows the book market online, participating for example in auctions in South Africa and on the Continent. He circulates his own catalogues electronically, checking the Libraries Australia data-base to see which Australian libraries lack particular titles. He uses digital scanners to show his books. 3-D video images allow you to turn the pages.
Douglas believes that the customers have not changed; quality clients are essential and his work is in cultivating relationships. There are always books for sale, but it is not always possible to connect with the right customers. Douglas makes a point of visiting Rare Book Collections and showing appropriate items from his stock. With the use of e-mail catalogues he finds that people forward the lists to their friends, thus increasing his clientele. It is still the love of books that attracts dealers to the trade, but increasingly they will use electronic media to carry on their business. He cannot see the trade declining unless all collectors, personal and institutional, have found everything they are looking for.
General discussion and questions followed.
Richard Travers commented that bookshops offer the opportunity to browse, allowing you to find things you didn’t know existed, which is difficult when using the web.
John Emmerson agreed, saying that antiquarian bookshops need an attic or cellar full of unsorted books.
John Dean remarked that he had owned bookshops but sold up partly to avoid technology. He still operates on a personal level and believes that eventually there may be no street-front shops.
Douglas Stewart replied that that such a development would be a tragedy because the charm of the well-stocked shop is part of bookselling and collecting. Most dealers now use a hybrid of the web as well retail. The problem facing young dealers is the need for large amounts of capital to start retail selling whereas it is relatively cheap to start without a shop.
John Thawley said that he has lived in the US and the UK and found that the trend was away from shops. But the advantage of a shop lies in the contacts, both selling and buying. People get to know you and it is easier to replenish your stock. John remarked that he gained good exposure through exhibiting at the Sydney and Melbourne Book Fairs. Despite being online, many collectors did not know him. Now they visit his shop.
Anthony Marshall drew attention to the threat to the trade in the UK posed by charity book shops. They get stock free, pay no wages and are able to undercut.
Douglas remarked that dealers and collectors here in Australia do not find good stock in such outlets. He felt that by following trends online he has been able to discover items which, though not previously considered rare, had now become so and were creating a demand among collectors.
Barbara Hince proposed the Vote of Thanks, saying that she had known Douglas through about half his career and admired him for characteristics which would keep him in the trade, that he is energetic, vital, good-humoured and articulate.