Long life

Alexander Chancellor: Pursued around the world by a thousand books

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

It is exactly 40 years since my elder brother John gave up a successful career as a publisher to set up in business on his own as an antiquarian bookseller. He lived at the time in a fine 18th-century house on Kew Green next to the botanical gardens, and perhaps for no reason other than its location he decided to specialise in botanical books. The business, conducted from his home, went quite well; but various events led him in due course to move to New York, where Kew Books, as the business was and still is called, established itself grandly in Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side.

This proved less successful. The overheads were enormous and the competition formidable, so John moved to Puerto Rico where Kew Books was re-established in the capital, San Juan. The Puerto Ricans are not renowned for their interest in old books, so John developed a sideline in old maps of the Caribbean. And what had started as a botanical book business became more and more diversified as it strayed further and further away from home. It came to include books in Spanish and other languages, and also many books in categories other than botany, such as literature, history, philosophy, and so on. And whenever John moved from one country to another, he left part of his book collection in storage behind him. So by the time he moved from Puerto Rico and set up the headquarters of Kew Books in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, his thousands of books were spread all over the western hemisphere from New York State to Venezuela.

This may seem an odd way to run a book business, but then John is an unconventional businessman who has always preferred buying books to selling them. And every time he does sell a book he feels compelled to read it before letting it go, like kissing a loved one farewell. In 1987, I moved to Washington DC as correspondent for the Independent, which rented a fine house in Georgetown to serve both as my home and the newspaper’s office. John came for a weekend and stayed a year, bringing a couple of thousand books with him. When I was recalled to London, these books went into storage in Washington. And then, finally, John also returned to England, bringing all his books back home with him, and set up house in the village of Caxton near Cambridge, where most of the books were then stored.

But that is not the end of the story. John’s books caught up with me once again when over a year ago he left his house in Caxton to become my next-door neighbour at Stoke Park in Northamptonshire, known for its two Inigo Jones pavilions. John rents a former Coach House, 20 yards away from me across the gravel, and his books are stored in hundreds of cardboard boxes clogging up my garage. John is now 86, which is getting on a bit, and even he thinks that it’s time to sell a few. Which is why we are currently in the throes of preparing for a two-day book sale in one of the pavilions next weekend. I have to admit that my selfish desire is to get rid of as many of John’s books as possible before they crush me, though I recognise that few people want to buy books any more, even at rock-bottom prices. This is sad, because if nobody has a library and everyone has a Kindle, it will mean an end to book-browsing, which is the way that most people get interested in reading in the first place.

But that is by the way. However the sale goes — and I hope we may sell at least a few books — its preparation is completely dominating life at Stoke Park, which is why I have really nothing else to write about this week. Kind volunteers are emptying the boxes of books and sorting them out. A marquee is being put up for the sale of coffee, tea, wine and home-made sandwiches. And pressure is being put on John to refrain from reading all the thousands of books that are about to be put up for sale. Anyone who feels like showing up is, of course, more than welcome, and the relevant information is on our website, www.stokeparkpavilions.co.uk. And when it’s all over, John will be free to return to his favourite pastime of buying books and doing his best not to sell them.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments