Paul Mills of Clarke’s Africana & Rare Books


Booksellers in America sometimes ask me how we run a successful antiquarian and secondhand book business in “darkest Africa.” I usually reply that the cleft-stick is a remarkably efficient way of distributing letters, and porters with boxes on their heads can be as reliable as the USPS in delivering parcels of books in good condition to far-flung outposts at very reasonable cost.

Now, as I answer my last email for the day, close our on-line auction site after another successful sale, upload a new catalogue to our website and pay my annual subscription to IOBA (always right on time) by PayPal, I wonder if bookselling in the days of the cleft-stick was probably not a more leisured and, dare I say, profitable experience.

Nearby Constantia Manor HouseClarke’s was founded 60 years ago by an Englishman, Tony Clarke, who settled in Cape Town after World War II. He had driven a tank (or rather an armoured gun) during the war, but in peacetime he never learned to drive a car. Incidentally, he is probably the only secondhand bookseller to have a street named of after him—in Italy, not Cape Town. Whilst fighting in Italy one day in 1944 he deliberately disobeyed orders and did not shell the town of Sansepolcro east of Rome as he knew from reading Aldous Huxley’s essay “The Greatest Painting in the World” that the town hall there contained a priceless mural by Piero della Francesca painted in 1463. Happily for Tony the Germans had already evacuated the town and his lapse was overlooked by his superiors. In the 1960s the grateful town elders bestowed Freedom of City of Sansepolcro upon him and named a street after him—the Via Anthony Clarke. Perhaps with rather typical Italian nonchalance they took a number of years to actually erect a street sign, but now, proudly displayed, there is a sign which should be a place of pilgrimage for all aspiring dealers in old books.

Clarke opened his shop in 1958 in Long Street, then something of a Charing Cross Road when there were (and still remain) a number of dealers in the same street. Over the years he produced a series of 50 scholarly catalogues which make wonderful reading today as one marvels at the steady flow of fine books which passed through his hands.

South Africa, first colonized by the Dutch in 1652, attracted a steady inflow of immigrants from all over Europe and they brought with them many printed treasures. With the discovery of gold and diamonds in the late 19th century large fortunes were made and for a number of years these nabobs, or Rand Lords as they were called, bought art and books with a gusto that was only later to be exceeded by the makers of the great American fortunes. So South Africa is something of a repository of interesting books and libraries.

I joined Clarke in the late 1970s as a very junior partner and learned happily at the foot of the master for a couple years when tragically he was overcome with pancreatic cancer. Finding myself in control of the business I continued through what are now thought of as the darkest years of South Africa’s history—the 1980s. During this time we moved temporarily into new bookselling as this was one outlet for political expression at the time and, whilst not claiming to be in any way heroic, we did have our moments with the apartheid regime during its dying days.

“I Was Jogging in These Vineyards This Evening”Nelson Mandela, a person of enormous magnanimity, was released and the Internet arrived almost at the same time. Mandela returned us to normality and the mainstream of the world and enabled us to hold our heads high again at book fairs around the world. The Internet turned bookselling on its head forever. Eventually this, and the stress of commuting for twenty five years, persuaded me to move from a B & M store (if this jargon is correct) and to work from home in the peaceful suburb of Constantia amidst the vineyards which were first planted in the 1680s.

Here we continue to welcome customers, to issue catalogues in a New Series, now mostly produced in electronic form only, and, latterly, to run our online rare book auction business AuctionExplorerBooks.com.

Whilst Anthony Clarke was a scholar bookseller—a sadly dying or dead breed—I consider myself as more of a journeyman: jack-of-all-trades and master of only a very few. My path to bookselling was as varied as many of my colleagues. I was educated at South African and British schools and at university in New England (at a small college in Hartford, Connecticut) and Cape Town, and then, in an attempt to avoid a serious career for as long as possible, I traveled and did odd-jobs in the way of many of us of the late 1960s. I eventually landed in publishing for a couple of years. Being temperamentally unable to work in a larger organization, and without any capital, I found antiquarian bookselling the perfect place of self-employment where I have cheerfully maintained myself ever since.

Bookselling in South Africa, which is a country that exhibits the characteristics of both the first and third worlds, has always had something of a missionary feel about it. In a country where many people cannot afford shoes, books may seem to be a luxury, but reading is the way upwards for many, and selling books at affordable prices was always one of our goals in the general bookshop.

When I was buying books recently, a middle-aged lady, after showing me her own modest collection, said that her son had some books to sell. Leading me down a passage to a bedroom formerly used by the long-flown son, and pointing to a small bookcase, she said without irony, “These are my son’s books. He is forty now, long past the reading stage.”

I hope that we, as members of IOBA, will never reach this stage. Despite all the electronic wizardry which we employ these days, it is the books which remain important, and our skill and passion must be to move them to readers and scholars where they can be used, valued and cherished.

Paul Mills operates Clarke’s Africana & Rare Books in Constantia, South Africa and can be contacted at http://www.clarkes.co.za.

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