Biographical and bibliographical information on the book trades
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16 January 2007

Devon Book 73

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
73. Antiquarian booksellers in post-War Exeter

Exeter has not maintained a position as an important centre for the antiquarian book trade since World War 2. The firm of James G Commin survived into the 1960s, producing its regular catalogues, closely set booklets in two columns with 500 or more items in each although the pace slackened somewhat - it had issued its 500th catalogue in 1932. In January 1963 the 680th and last catalogue was issued by the proprietor Harold Commin with 685 items including a collection of Westcountry titles.

Unfortunately no bookseller in Exeter has borne the antiquarian torch quite so proudly. In the early 1970s the Dickens Centenary Bookshop was opened in the City Arcade, Fore Street by Royston Parry with a general stock of about 10,000 second-hand books and some years later he opened Exeter Rare Books in the gallery of the newly redeveloped Guildhall Centre with a select stock of antiquarian and second-hand material, including local interest titles, leaving his son to run the Dickens Centenary Bookshop. The Parrys have been the permanent feature of the second-hand book trade in Exeter since the closure of Commins. There have been several short-lived shops in Exeter, for example Mike Nott who for some years ran a small bookshop in Gandy Street and the Cathedral Close in the later 1970s and early 1980s. The SPCK Bookshop has had a small second-hand section on the top floor of its shop on the corner of the Cathedral Close and other bookshops have come and gone in locations such as Fore Street, a home to dealers in bric-a-brac, army surplus, fancy dress as well as sex shops. One such down-market emporium that has survived for a quarter of a century is the read 'n' Return Bookshop, dealing mainly in paperbacks, which buys back at half price titles that it has previously sold. The area of the Quay, transformed from a run-down but authentic port area to a somewhat sanitised industrial heritage site, has bookstalls in the Antique and Collector's Centre which occupies the former fish market. In the historic port of Topsham, now a suburb of Exeter, Joel Segal has for some years provided a good general stock of books. There are also booksellers who sell mainly by catalogue, two such in 1998 being Isabelline Books specialising in ornithology and Messengers, run for many years by Barrie Evans, who issues three postal auction catalogues each year with about 1,000 items largely of ephemera relating to postal and transport history.

More traditional auctions in Exeter do contain books, often as part of more general sales, the main regular book sales being two a year from Whitton and Laing, full of lots described as "Books, a box" but which do attract dealers from up-country and realise high prices.

It is strange that Exeter, as an historic cathedral and university town does not boast a more thriving antiquarian book trade. The Provincial Booksellers Fair Association did hold a couple of fairs in Exeter in the 1980s but their main Devon location now is at Tiverton. Other Devon towns have more bookshops. In 1998 several were located in Honiton: Honiton Old Book Shop, run by Roger Collicott which issues about two catalogues a year, one of them on British topography, the High Street Bookshop with a general stock of books, maps and prints, Graham York with a small stock, including material on gypsies and lace, in the Fountain Antique Centre, John Ryan, some of whose stock is held in the High Street Bookshop and John Wignall Fine Books, claiming to be the longest established bookshop in the town with a good general stock but specialising in field sports and dogs. In Totnes there were at least four second-hand bookshops in 1998, Collard's Bookshop in Castle Street, Harlequin in the High Street, The Bookshop in Fore Street and Pedlar's Pack Books in the Plains. Both towns are less than one tenth the size of Exeter. As for suppliers of good Westcountry material, while Roger Collicott of Honiton produces catalogues with unusual material and good items are to be found in places such as the Dartmoor Bookshop in Ashburton, the most prominent dealer in the region is Ambra Books in Bristol, whose proprietor Ivor Cornish issues in association with Lesley Aitchison a bewilderingly rapid succession of catalogues of books on the west of England, now also available by e-mail and to be consulted on the Internet. Their business is in private premises, accessible by appointment only and that is an increasing trend in Devon and elsewhere. Some deal by catalogue, for example P.M.Pollak in South Brent has for many years issued catalogues on science and medicine, others such as Tantalus Antiques and Books of Branscombe deal through trade fairs. Peter Hames of Westward Ho! displays stock in a series of antiques centres and shops in Bideford as well a trading in markets in Barnstaple, Bideford and South Molton. In fact in many Devon communities junk shops, charity shops, market stalls, fetes and car boot sales are the only readily available source of secondhand books, endlessly recycling Reader's digest condensed books, Rainbow romances and back issues of the National geographic magazine but offering little of real antiquarian interest. It would seem that the economic climate does not favour the survival of large antiquarian or second-hand bookshops in the major towns and this must be a trend that will be reinforced by the growth of the internet, which facilitates the development of cottage industries in all sectors.

This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.