Listen to this article
It is the last week of November in Mayfair and we are drinking champagne in a room dense with the smell of ageing books. They grow in unsteady columns from the floor, stacked on desks, tables and chairs. The walls are lined with bookcases. The crowd is dappled with velvet and tweed.
Maggs Bros, one of the longest-established antiquarian booksellers in the world — based in this glorious five-storey townhouse and mews at 50 Berkeley Square for 80-odd years — is throwing a party.
Much of literary London has passed through its doors, many of them today: playwright Alan Bennett visited this morning, Booker Prize-winning novelist Alan Hollinghurst is here tonight. He tells me: “The charm of the place is that behind the posh address and the grand façade there are delightful enthusiasts with astonishing knowledge of their fields. What seemed forbidding proved welcoming . . . The whole business feels personal and alive.”
At 8pm the room goes quiet. Ed Maggs — managing director of the firm; affable, eccentric, an English gentleman in his fifties — taps a microphone. We have been invited to a “valedictory celebration”: the following day, the doors of 50 Berkeley Square will close to the public.
“We had 21 years left on the lease, but rather than stay and let it dwindle, we’ve sold it so we can buy a permanent home somewhere else,” Maggs tells the crowd. He has spent many sleepless nights agonising over the move. “Like death and divorce,” he adds, dramatically, “it has been all-absorbing.”
Until the right “somewhere else” comes up, the vast majority of the books will be moved into storage in a warehouse in the London suburbs. The rest will be transferred to a new shop on Curzon Street, by the entrance to Shepherd Market around the corner from here, but it is a fraction of the size of 50 Berkeley Square, with enough space for only several people to work at a time. Thus the running joke among staff: “Until we find a big enough home, you’ll find us at the London Library.”
During the past decade the number of independent bookshops in Britain fell by a third, to 1,000. London, particularly vulnerable to soaring property prices, has just 100 independent booksellers left. But Maggs Bros, in which a majority stake is owned by an employee trust, is no ordinary bookshop. It sells rare maps, manuscripts and incunabula, as well as the odd curiosity such as Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis (included in a collection sold to an American bookseller in 1924).
The kinds of books it sells are very old and very rare. Former generations bought and sold the Codex Sinaiticus, two Gutenberg Bibles and, in 1998, the shop set a new record when it bought the first book printed in England — Caxton’s Chaucer — for a customer for £4.2m.
As beautiful as a gingerbread house, 50 Berkeley Square was once the home of George Canning, Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister for a few months in 1827; the premises also enjoy a reputation as London’s most-haunted house.
During the past 80 years Maggs Bros has somehow found a way to cram in more than 100,000 books — or 3km-worth of shelving. The stock across the nine different departments — Travel, Naval & Military, Continental, and Early British among others — is large and varied, presented over different floors in rooms furnished with fine marble fireplaces and elaborately-decorated plaster ceilings. Beneath the garden, a vast and ramshackle basement with narrow, winding corridors is lined with shelves of yet more old books. At the rear of the shop, beyond the garden, the three-storey mews contains two “hospital” or “oddment” rooms on the top floor.
“If you bought a book and it turned out to be defective, you’d put it in here and hope to one day find a book with a complementary fault,” says Maggs when I visit on a cold mid-November morning. “Then you’d marry the two.”
There is no coffee shop; no “3 for 2” offers. The only conspicuous anachronisms are the computers that sit on some of the small tables scattered about the bookshop — tables that have been there for decades. Charles Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers on one.
Just inside the entrance, framed endorsements by various royal families from around the world adorn the walls. The only one that is currently used by the company on its letterhead is “by appointment to Queen Elizabeth II”. “One of the rewards of the otherwise appalling task of moving out has been the element of discovery,” says Maggs.
Seated at a desk in his office on the ground floor, he takes a yellowing letter from a concertina file. Addressed to Maggs Bros, it was written by Joseph Conrad in 1922. “Would you care to take over either 50 copies of each for £200, or 60 copies of each for 200 guineas?” wrote the hard-up novelist. Maggs takes another letter from the file, this one written by Henry James in 1913 magisterially requesting to be taken off the firm’s mailing list: “I am chiefly interested in never again purchasing books; being very old and having already so many more than I can house or read.”
“We found dozens of letters in nooks and crannies we didn’t know existed,” says Maggs as he shows me others from Evelyn Waugh and Harry Houdini.
Maggs peers over his black-framed glasses to the group of men in high-vis jackets outside. They are the “professional movers”, led by Bruce Wainwright. From 2009 to 2011, Wainwright oversaw the transportation of Oxford university’s renowned Bodleian Libraries collection of 7m books into storage in Swindon. Now he has the job of packing up Maggs Bros by the end of year.
“Books have had a habit of reproducing themselves in this place,” says Maggs. “They come out of cupboards they never went into, and out of rooms from which they were never knowingly put. Bruce and the boys have their work cut out.”
The antiquarian book business is a funny one. The people it caters to are not exactly non-readers but they do not buy books just to read them, or even, in some cases, to read them at all. They are interested primarily in things surrounding books: their bindings, covers, paper, typefaces, age, condition, whether they are first editions and if they are signed by the author.
Maggs Bros deals in both the most expensive rarities (it currently offers an original copy of the earliest known collection of fly-fishing patterns, dating back to the 15th-century, for £125,000) and the lesser rarities (a trade magazine from 1935 about China’s food industry for £4,000), along with mere second-hand books at various levels of value (a 1997 signed edition of Enduring Love by Ian McEwan for £75).
While other booksellers rely on barcode scanners to determine the value of titles, Jim Clancey, 71, can tell within a few seconds of taking a book into his hands whether it’s worth anything. “A lot of times I have no idea of what I’m buying. All I know is that I should buy it,” says Clancey. “Often it’s the little bits — an obscure pamphlet buried deep into the pages of a book — that turn out to be worth a quarter of a million pounds.”
We are speaking in a room in the basement that has the potent whiff of leather binding polish. Clancey tells me he recently discovered a room full of books down here that no one knew existed. “I love this place, but it’s chaos!” he says. Though he has worked on and off at Maggs Bros for about 15 years, his colleagues still think of him as one of the “new boys”. “That’s the thing about this place — once settled, people stick around.”
That much is obvious. Titus Boeder, 51, who deals in Japanese photobooks and design as well as the Far East more generally, has worked here for 20 years. Ed Maggs has been full-time for 35. The business is in his blood. It is, he says, the oldest antiquarian booksellers in the world under continuous family ownership. A long line of black-and-white photographs ascends the stairs by the entrance, commencing with Uriah Maggs, who founded the family business in 1853, at the foot, and culminating with contemporary Maggses.
Growing up, Ed Maggs played in a reggae band, worked as a DJ in various minor clubs and held some other undemanding jobs — not what his parents had in mind after an expensive private education at Westminster. Eventually, in 1980, he joined the firm and started hauling boxes and typing out invoices. His 28-year-old son, Ben, joined nearly three years ago and now works in the modern department.
Did Ben, I ask, feel pressure to continue the family tradition? “It was a loving pressure,” he says. “When I was younger I was very aware of the privilege and ran away from it.”
He went to Cardiff University to study prehistoric archaeology. “My course was defined as the study of anything before the written word, which is about as far removed from the family business as one can get! But one can’t escape their past.”
The move, he goes on, is “fresh and exciting. The company has been in suspended animation for too long. We are being forced to wake up and confront things that are not very easily confronted.”
I ask Ed Maggs whether book-dealing is a dying profession. After all, the internet has made it easier for libraries, second-hand bookshops and the rest of us to sell our own books, reducing the number of titles available to the trade. Younger readers are less likely to turn to print sources for information.
Maggs, however, says the internet has been a stimulus for the trade. “It has made it easier for collectors to collect; they can find rare books more readily than they could when only dealers’ catalogues were available,” he says. So even though fewer people come to the shop itself today, sales have actually increased. The company has been profitable for each of the past 20 years, turning over £6m to £12m each year, he says. In the past year Maggs Bros sold about 3,000 books, of which the biggest transaction was for £300,000.
“Still,” he says, “we eat what we kill. By the time we remunerate ourselves and reinvest profits back into the business — we are more like a partnership than a traditional company — there isn’t much left.” He compares his job at the company to that of a mahout or elephant driver: “I don’t like management. But once in a while I might need to nudge the elephant in one direction or another.”
Herding elephants may sound difficult but Maggs says he remains “optimistic” for the future of the rare books trade. A handful of his staff are under 30, including Alice Rowell of the Autographs department and leader of the firm’s recent attempts to kick-start its social media presence.
Fuchsia Voremberg, 28, who works in the Travel department and, owing to the number of requests from ghost hunters to visit the property, doubles as “supernatural liaison officer”, says: “The job is academic but in a completely chaotic kind of way. There is no sense of focusing on something for a long period of time. Today I am working on a book about Saint Catherine of Alexandria; tomorrow it could be William Burroughs.”
The new small shop in Curzon Street is, admits Ed Maggs, “only a temporary solution”. When I press for more details, he says only that the business will reopen “somewhere, somehow. The future proper begins next year.” Meanwhile, Jim Clancey must come up with a plan of how to transfer the firm’s strongroom from 50 Berkeley Square to the warehouse in the London suburbs. He declines to tell me what books it contains but says that, collectively, they are worth “ in the millions”.
“I haven’t quite worked out how we’ll do it yet,” he says. “Maybe Ed has a plan, he usually does. Perhaps we’ll end up transporting them to the warehouse ourselves. It’ll be a back-of-the-van job — us book-dealers together, eagle-eyed, protecting the books, shotguns at the ready.”
John Sunyer is commissioning editor on FT Life & Arts
Photographs: Howard Sooley