Books matter more than money, say Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers

Anniversary: Brian Lake runs Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers wit his wife and son

When you step inside Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers, it looks as though Charles Dickens might materialise at any moment from behind one of the tall shelves.

Named after Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the interminable legal case in his novel Bleak House, the shop in London’s Bloomsbury overlooks the British Museum.

The delightfully old-fashioned outlet is run by Brian Lake, 72, his wife Janet Nassau, also 72, and their 40-year-old son Edward Nassau Lake.

‘We called it Jarndyce singular because Jarndyce and Jarndyce seemed a bit much. But we thought the name might put off litigants,’ Brian jokes.

‘And if anything went wrong we could blame the other Mr Jarndyce. Mind you, the number of times we have been called Jaundice doesn’t bear thinking about.’

Bibliophiles must ring a bell for admittance, a device to deter people who just want to come and take pictures to post on Instagram of the fascinating interior, full of nooks and crannies, with no intention of buying a book.

‘Whenever I go into a bookshop I try to make a courtesy purchase, even if I don’t really want anything,’ Brian says.

The shop is a book-lover’s paradise. Countless volumes jostle for space over five floors of the beautiful old building, which dates back to the 1730s. Randolph Caldecott, the 19th century illustrator, lived and worked here, and it has been a bookshop for over a century.

When Dickens published A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843, exactly 176 years ago today, he wanted his fans to be able to afford a copy. The first run of 6,000 was priced at five shillings, or around £15 in today’s money.

In 2009, a first edition sold for nearly £145,000 at auction in New York.

Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers is based in London's Bloomsbury and is named after Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the interminable legal case in the  Charles Dickens novel Bleak House

Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers is based in London’s Bloomsbury and is named after Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the interminable legal case in the  Charles Dickens novel Bleak House

But is it possible for Dickens fans of more limited means to buy a first edition? ‘How much it costs for a first edition depends on a lot of factors. 

‘What condition it is in, whether Dickens presented it to somebody, for example,’ says Brian.

‘We bought a copy for a customer for around £150,000 a few years ago and he gave it to the Dickens House Museum.’

In the Dickens catalogue produced by Jarndyce, there is a first edition from 1843 for £3,800 and a 13th edition from 1855 with illustrations by the caricaturist John Leech for £1,200. ‘A fine copy in cloth might be £20,000, an ordinary copy might make £5,000 or £6,000,’ Brian adds.

And are antiquarian books more widely good investments?

‘I have known people who have matched what they might have got on stocks and shares, but you have to know what you are doing,’ says Brian. ‘You should buy them because you love them, and if you make a profit it is a bonus.’

The only way you will make money out of buying books is if you have specialist knowledge you can use to buy early editions.

‘Knowledge is the key, it is the same in stocks and shares. If you are a complete amateur you are likely to lose.’ How much money do you need to start a collection?

‘There are some authors like Herman Melville who were very popular but whose books were not produced in large numbers. So an English first edition of Moby Dick will cost a lot.

‘Some books, like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, weren’t produced in huge numbers. To get a copy in the original cloth binding is expensive. Dickens, however, produced so many books that you can collect him very reasonably.

‘Looking at 19th century literature you can still buy books for ten or twenty pounds. Most of what we sell is £10 to £1,500.’

An early edition of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol originally published in 1843. In 2009, a first edition sold for nearly £145,000 at auction in New York

An early edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol originally published in 1843. In 2009, a first edition sold for nearly £145,000 at auction in New York

What about caring for books once you have bought them?

‘You don’t have to do anything special, just dust them now and again. Books are hardy.’

He grabs one off the shelf. ‘Look at this – by Oscar Wilde for £65, from 1910. It is pretty much as you would have bought. It doesn’t mean anyone has made any particular effort. Just put it on a shelf and read it when you need to.

‘Books last a lot longer than Kindles. I don’t have one myself. We are in danger of becoming slaves to our machines.’

Brian set up the bookshop in 1969 with a business partner, so it has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Janet bought out the partner in 1977.

Books line practically every inch of every wall. One quirky detail is the tiny bedroom at the top, also surrounded by books and manuscripts, with a little bathroom. 

One member of staff stays in it a couple of nights a week so she doesn’t have to commute, and others occasionally sleep over after the opera or the theatre.

Although the shop does sell online, most of its business is through printed catalogues.

Humbug: Derek Jacobi playing Scrooge

Humbug: Derek Jacobi playing Scrooge

Over the years, they have produced more than 200, including Dickens, Women Writers, and Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls. Only 10 per cent of sales are in the shop.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the wholesale closures of many bookstores, Brian and Janet believe this is a good time for their trade.

‘Bookselling is on the up,’ says Janet. ‘People have been predicting the death of the book for ages.’ 

They point out that they have the huge, and rare, advantage of owning their own premises. They pay £27,000 in business rates a year. Brian admits it would be tough if they had rent on top.

‘There is no way we would be here if we had to pay rent,’ he says, confiding that they bought the building in the 1980s for £400,000. ‘We went to the bank manager, and he just said it was fine. I feel quite nostalgic for those days. It was all on a personal basis. Now it would be done on algorithms.

‘We are not a normal business. We don’t pay ourselves a dividend. To have an enjoyable time at work is more important than loads of money. 

We take enough to live. It is political laziness that business rates has not been addressed.’

Bloomsbury is synonymous with the group of writers, intellectuals and artists of the same name, including Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, and the area used to be alive with bookshops. 

‘We used to do a guide to booksellers in the area. In the 1970s and 1980s there were around 30, but we stopped because there weren’t enough left,’ says Brian.

Other independents may be falling victim to rampant business rates, but the future of Jarndyce is in the hands of the next generation, in the form of Ed, who is hard at work upstairs. ‘He is taking over quicker than I thought. Ed is keen, he is very good,’ says Brian.

‘I’ve always seen it as long-term business. If he didn’t want to do it we would probably be winding down now, but he has given us a new lease of life.

‘There is a future for bookshops, for people who have commitment to what they are doing rather than being a big chain. If they take notice of what people want, they will do well.’



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