The Genesis of the Society
Reprinted from BiblioNews: Monthly Letter to Members April, 1949 (Vol. 2 No. 4)
(This is reprinted from a copy that once belonged to the late John Fletcher and was given to me by his wife, Elizabeth Fletcher, in 2007. There are pencilled changes made in a hand that is certainly not John’s. I have ignored them and followed Walter Stone’s text in spelling and punctuation exactly, apart from at the few points indicated by the square brackets. Editor.)
Walter W. Stone
“ Vanity, Vanity, all is Vanity”, may be, but the Society has now completed its first five years—to the surprise of some and the undoubted gratification of many of the members. So, sustained by the sense of achievement, if not of importance, it is felt that the time is opportune to record something of our humble beginnings.
The Book Collectors’ Society of Australia was conceived, properly enough, in a bookshop. For years it had been the habit of a number of book-collectors to get together every Saturday afternoon in Gilmour’s Bond Street Bookshop, then managed by its present proprietor, Mr. L.S. Larsen.
Probably because there was nothing formal about the gatherings they ultimately took on the nature of a time honoured custom. From twelve-thirty onward various enthusiasts would begin to drop in. Over a cup of tea or coffee thoughtfully provided by “Buddy” Larsen—we brought our own sandwiches or pies—discussion and argument would be waged about books, book-collectors, book-selling, literary theories were advanced to support the latest items bought: of course, those topics so enamoured of the disputatious collector, namely, condition, rarity, and relative values, were always a fruitful source of argument. Information was freely sought and equally freely given on bibliographical points as well as the whereabouts of books wanted. As might be expected the collecting interests of the group sometimes clashed. It was always kept on a friendly basis and no complaint of sharp practice was ever heard. The very diversity of interests among the group obviated the need for secrecy and over-discretion. Most of us knew, from experience, that sooner or later even the most hoped for item would turn up.
There were always eight or nine present at these gatherings but the nucleus consisted of Fred Malcolm, Stan Larnach and myself. Fred was accorded the unofficial presidency and always occupied the same seat. Although the personnel of the group varied from week to week the proceedings were always lively. Among the permanents, “Buddy” Larsen, whose bounty made the meetings possible, must not be omitted. He took a passive rather than an active interest and seemed to regard us with some kind of benign toleration; in fact, it was with reluctance that he would remind us, about four o’clock, that “Time is getting on, gentlemen.” Some even then loitered outside the shop, bent on further argument or loth [sic] to leave an audience.
From time to time the possibility of a properly organised society would be mentioned. Something was needed which would bring together more of the many regular collectors seen constantly browsing in the bookshops. It was agreed there would be a number, at least, of these “brothers of the book”, as they were aptly called by Fred Malcolm, who would eagerly seize the chance to join such a society. Possibilities and probabilities would be discussed and there the matter would rest.
But one Saturday afternoon, a little over five years ago, Colin Berckelman, whose activity in many other societies did not always allow him to stay for more than a few minutes each Saturday, came along with the information that he was prepared to try and form a collectors’ society. He had, indeed, gone so far as to prepare and distribute a circular inviting all his friends and their friends to attend a preliminary meeting at the rooms of the Genealogical Society on the 10th March, 1944. If the project has [= had?] been previously discussed in a wistful way [,] now that there was something concrete to go on gave rise to great enthusiasm. The meeting was well attended and everyone seemed certain that the Society would flourish. A committee was appointed to draw up the inevitable constitution and rules; this was done and on March 31, 1944 the idea became a reality. Of the original members who accepted office on that night Messrs. Chaplin, Berckelman, Stone, Larnach, Boreham, and Farrell still occupy executive positions. Membership expanded very quickly and so well attended were the early meetings that it was necessary for the monthly lectures to be transferred to our present meeting place: the Lecture Room at the Public Library.
The subsequent history of the group is to be found in the minute book: some slight alterations to the constitution, the admission of women to full membership, the continuation of the membership fee at half-a-guinea [ten shillings and sixpence] per annum, the sponsoring of our first publication, the advent of BIBLIONEWS, and the record of many interesting lectures.
Looking back at the early days of the Society I am struck by two facts. The first is that the doleful prophets who foretold a rapid disintegration of the Society have proven false. The other fact is more interesting. Some characters, among them one or two of the smaller booksellers, considered that we would develop into a group of dealers, in this way militating against the best interests of the book-trade. In some quarters it was hinted that we had banded together as a “mutual protection” group. The how or why of this attitude has never been clearly explained. In any case, here again the prophecies were false. The more widely experienced booksellers rightly took the long view that a fillip would be given to collecting. Members, talking of and showing off their prize items, would broaden the interests of others. Their very enthusiasm would engender a spirit of emulation which could only reflect itself in increased sales. And that is how it has worked out. There are collectors to-day eagerly exploring fields they had not even dreamt of before the advent of the Society. As for the booksellers, some of them are members, and Messrs. Angus & Robertson have materially assisted with the production of BIBLIONEWS.
Among the members information and experience are to-day as freely exchanged as they were when we met informally in Bond Street—only on a wider scale. Friendships have been made and it would be hard now for a member to do the rounds of the shops without meeting some one [sic] with whom he can have a decent yarn. After five years it is not mere egotism to assert that there is a very definite place in the book-world for the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia.