‘What’s it like working for Simon?’

Posted on 17th October 2018 by simonbeattie

Greetings from Chesham—and hooray for a new blog post!  We’re hoping to get back to posting weekly after what has been a busy spring and summer.

As I write this, Simon is cooing over one of his latest finds: a lovely example of eighteenth-century block-printed endpapers. This is not an infrequent occurrence here at SB Ltd, as we are very into the-book-as-object, and very very into endpapers, but these are particularly gorgeous. Take a look:

(Are they peaches?  Are they pomegranates?  Who knows.  Maybe it’s Maybelline.)

Access to pretty endpapers is definitely a perk of the job, and I’m sure we’ll posting many more of them here on the blog as we get back to posting weekly.  In the meantime, I thought I’d share something I recently wrote for the ABA Newsletter, describing my experience in the ABA Apprenticeship scheme.  Supported by the ABA Educational Trust, it’s a fabulous way for young people to break into the trade and gain on-the-ground (in-the-book-fair?) experience.  I hope this also shows how dedicated ABA members are to supporting young women in the trade–not just in theory, but in practice.

I hope you enjoy this little peek into what it’s like being Simon’s apprentice.

Best wishes,

Annie Rowlenson

ABA Apprenticeship Scheme, 2018

As of the end of June, I will have worked for Simon Beattie Ltd. for about six months and am happily ensconced in the ABA Apprenticeship Scheme, sponsored by the ABA Educational Trust.  Coming from a background in rare book librarianship, certain faces are familiar to me, as are certain skills (e.g. bibliographical description).  Other things—such as the simple fact that books are, in fact commercial objects—I have yet to learn.  Along the way I keep a journal of my progress, noting things that surprise me or tasks that challenge me.  Some of the skills introduced by the scheme include, but are certainly not limited to, descriptive cataloguing; stock management; packing & logistics; valuation and market awareness; and business fundamentals.  The scheme is divided into two levels, and progress is assessed by the host bookseller at various points in the syllabus.  It will come as a surprise to no one who knows Simon to hear that he has been an enthusiastic and attentive mentor, toting me along to the New York, London, and Edinburgh book fairs, as well as taking the time to work through book descriptions with me and help me learn the day-to-day work of a bookseller.

Aside from Simon–who has proved to be the best resource–I also keep a mental toolbox of resources for descriptive cataloguing.  So far, I’ve found myself using a mix of Gaskell, Simon’s old catalogues, and the ABA Apprenticeship Handbook, which serves as a kind of digest of styles used in the ABA.  Laurence Worms’ ‘Cataloguing for Booksellers’ is helpful and comprehensive, as is Adam Douglas’ cataloguing guide for the Simon Finch house style, ‘Douglas’s Do’s and Don’ts’.  Equal parts instruction and cheek (‘It is not necessary to add multiple forenames for the sake of it, e.g. WILDE, Oscar is quite adequate; to write WILDE, Oscar [Fingal O’Flahertie Wills] is to parade knowledge pointlessly and waste cataloguing space’, p. 1), it is exactly the kind of thing you would want to teach you about the vagaries of cataloguing.

Simon also lets me raid his collection of bookseller’s catalogues for reading material on the Tube, something that has proved essential to my overall education.  Not only do they give me a sense of each dealer’s speciality and house style, but they’ve also helped me familiarize myself with trends in the market over time.  It is also interesting for me to see what I am personally drawn to, whether it’s a particular book, description, or the design of the catalogue itself.

My favourite part of the apprenticeship so far has been, without a doubt, attending book fairs.  Lacking a physical storefront, Simon unapologetically treats book fairs as his shop, and it is there that I feel as if I have learned the most.  Before the fair opens, I will usually tag along as he makes a first foray into the other dealers’ stands, peppering him with questions as he goes about his browsing.  In asking him what draws him to a certain book, the answer can be as simple as ‘this one was oddly shaped’ or ‘this one doesn’t have a spine label, so I wanted to see what it was’, or as complex as ‘I catalogued something last week that might be able to tie in with this because…’  In short, the scheme has allowed me to have invaluable one-on-one, on-the-ground training that I might not have received otherwise.

Our stand at the 2018 NY Antiquarian Book Fair.

When I first started personally collecting the internet was–predictably, given the fact that I am a millennial–my main method of acquiring books.  This, as Simon has taught me, is great–if you already know what you want.  But there is something much more effective about talking to other booksellers in the flesh and discovering books through the kind of serendipity only a fair can provide.  And, at the end of the day, I think we can all agree selling at a fair is much more fulfilling than selling to a faceless stranger online.  By attending fairs, I have been able to meet a mix of customers–private, institutional, or trade–with a mix of experience and familiarity with books.  Some blow through the fair knowing exactly which item from your catalogue they want, while others linger to browse and chat.  I enjoy both kinds equally, as well as the rare moment when you get to teach a customer something about the book as a physical object.  That which seems ordinary to those of us in the trade—e.g., a book bound in contemporary mottled calf—can be something new and extraordinary in the eye of a budding collector.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve been developing a sense of the trade as a community, and how dealers operate symbiotically to (ideally) achieve a thriving trade.  At the NY Antiquarian Book Fair, we shared a stand with Justin Croft and Honey & Wax, two dealers whose stock and ethos seemed to complement ours.  I strongly believe that ties like these come across to the public and are vital to the health of the trade.  In this spirit, I hope members of the ABA will continue to support this apprenticeship scheme.  I have certainly benefitted from it and have no doubt that it will be a major factor in shaping the next generation of dealers.

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