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2011-03, 369, Antiquarian Books, Book Reviews, Colin Steele


Rare: A life among antiquarian books by Stuart Kells
Folio, 311 pp. $65

RARE, A BEAUTIFULLY produced and profusely illustrated book, is the story of the ‘Kay Craddock’ Melbourne antiquarian bookshop and the two remarkable women Muriel, and particularly, Kay, who succeeded in establishing a globally renowned business in a traditionally male dominated profession. There is also a Canberra connection, as in 2004, Kay married Jonathan Burdon, the son of Tom and Barbara Burdon of Canberra bookshop fame.
Rare operates, not always seamlessly, on two fronts, intertwining the bookshop‘s progress from its humble beginnings and the story of the Craddock family, with the focus on Kay. Stuart Kells does not reach the Nicholas Basbanes or Rick Gekoski prose levels on book people and collecting, rather he is more a dedicated collator and a discrete commentator. Personal triumphs and difficulties are outlined, but without probing too deeply into the undoubted trauma of financial crises and relationship break-ups.

Kay was only 19 in May 1965, when her mother Muriel, and her soon-to-die father, Les, established, the ‘Essendon Treasure Chest’, essentially a bric-a-brac shop. After Les‘s death in August 1965, mother and daughter were locked into a three-year lease, ‘Our form of grieving was to throw ourselves into the [book] business,’ Muriel, now heralded as ‘the world‘s oldest antiquarian bookseller’ celebrates her 99th birthday in April 2011. Muriel said recently that while she will never lose interest in the book trade, she is concerned ‘I‘m outliving everybody’.

A move to the city saw a name change to the Bourke Street Bookshop but rising rents meant a number of relocations in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the lowest points came in 1989 when their landlord‘s decision to renovate their Flinders Lane building took over a year and resulted in water damage, collapsed bookcases, dust and noise pollution. The Craddocks sued, Kay mortgaged her house to save the business, and Muriel had a nervous breakdown.
Their arrival on 3 June 1990 in the basement space of the neo-gothic Assembly Hall at 156 Collins Street, proved , however, to be the space turning point for Kay Craddock Antiquarian Bookseller, which has been there ever since, except for a twelve month renovation relocation. Their stock, also available on the Internet, ranges from the 15th to the 21st centuries, covering most subjects and price categories. Kay recently stated war and children‘s books are current hot collectables.

Bookshops that survive in the digital era reflect a care for the customer and a deep knowledge of their special interests. Last year, when a customer sought an important gift, Kay unearthed a fine set of Charles Darwin‘s The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle (1838–43), as well as an extremely rare, pre-publication presentation copy of On the Origin of the Species (1859). She reflects: ‘With books – of all businesses – people really do have to have that personal knowledge and attention’.

Kay‘s bibliographic expertise developed over the years, buying stock skilfully but fairly, a trait that some Australian booksellers are not renowned for. Kay benefited from the advice of booksellers like Margaret Woodhouse, Gaston Renard, Kenneth Hince, Richard Booth and Anthony Rota. Kells notes the problems, however, Kay faced in being accepted in an often misogynistic trade, with some customers believing they were dealing with a Mr Kay and a Mr Craddock.

The respect of her peers was evidenced, however, when Kay became the third President of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers (ANZAAB) from 1987 to 1991. Muriel became ANZAAB‘s third Life Member on the occasion of her 90th birthday in April 2002. It is fitting that Sally Burdon of Canberra‘s Asia Bookroom is the current President following in Kay‘s footsteps. Kay broke even more barriers when she became the first female President (2000-02) of the prestigious International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), also the first President of either gender from outside Europe and the United States.

But Kay herself often remains an elusive figure in Kells‘s pages, even though Kells alludes to difficult times such as in the early 1970s when ‘Kay‘s emotional state was poor and she was desperately lonely’. Her relationship with the ebullient, handsome, but unreliable, Richard Griffin ended in the early 1970s, before she met John Menesdorffer, whose ‘smooth Teutonic charm was at full power’. They married in May 1977, but divorced in 1995. The sentence, ‘Kay felt she could never forgive him [John] for how he had left her [for another woman] but she felt differently later’ is indicative of Kells‘s reserved approach. In late 1999, Kay met Jonathan Burdon, a prominent respiratory physician, and in 2004 they married in the now famous Collins Street shop. Jonathan has joined Kay and Muriel as a part-time ‘general factotum’ in the shop.

In 1982, Kay recognised and bought, not without some financial worries, the now famous Alex Hamilton collection of nearly 30,000 modern first editions, immaculately stored in a Ballarat weatherboard cottage. Samuel Beckett‘s Murphy (1938), Beckett‘s first novel, now recognised as one of the great comic novels, was just one item, priced in the Craddock catalogue at $95. A copy, one of the few in the green cloth binding with gilt titles, was recently listed at US $98,957! While Australian buyers were slow to react, specialist American first edition booksellers went into overdrive and flew to Melbourne. A major dispute erupted between two competing American booksellers but they ended up shaking hands and sharing their purchases.

It is said that after poets and academics, secondhand and antiquarian booksellers are the most critical of each other‘s work, but don‘t look out for acerbic bookseller anecdotes here, even though ‘alpha personalities’ directed Melbourne ‘feuds and alliances like a Latin soap opera’. Geoffrey Blainey, in his short Foreword, describes Rare as ‘captivating, partly because it discusses other booksellers and their prizes and eccentricities’. Many well known names in the book trade and in book collecting feature, including Canberra‘s Claude Prance, but are often described in what might be termed pastel shades.

In similar vein, while Kay was a champion archer in her youth, Rare, as a biography, is too detached emotionally to fully hit that personal target. Kells‘s words in the final chapter merit extrapolation. Kay‘s preference for ‘handling only books in excellent condition’ gave her a confidence with customers in contrast to ‘those insecurities and feelings of inadequacy that have been in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, throughout her life’. That said, Rare succeeds in the overall bibliophilic context and will have undoubted appeal to book-lovers and collectors, as the reader follows Kay‘s journey from book novice to the doyenne of the Australian antiquarian book trade.

Colin Steele



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