Why rare books are thriving in the digital age

One of London’s oldest antiquarian booksellers says young collectors have given business a boost

Features

23 May 2017

Maggs Bros, the antiquarian booksellers by appointment to the Queen, is moving to spectacular new premises in London this week – a sign that, despite the ongoing march of the digital age, there is a future for the art of collecting rare books.

Maggs has moved to a Georgian townhouse in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, following its departure in 2015 from its home of almost 80 years in Berkeley Square. In the meantime, a Maggs shop opened in Curzon Street and this will remain open, to complement the new premises. Maggs was founded by the wonderfully named Uriah Maggs back in 1853. Since then successive generations of the Maggs family have owned and worked for the company, and one of the current family members, Benjamin Maggs, who is the son of managing director Ed Maggs and part of a 20-strong team of experts, confirms that antiquarian bookselling is currently enjoying a good moment.

‘I did a degree in the history of books and my dissertation looked at the idea that was prevalent in the 80s and 90s that books were dead and computers were going to take over,’ he says.

‘There was a view that because digital technology was newer and more efficient that it was completely better than paper, but the reality is they are simply different things. I believe strongly there is a reaction to computers. When computers were new people went to them, but because they are now the mainstream, people want to get away from them. As a result the antiquarian book trade is full of young people. There are lots of people just in London between 20 and 30 interested in rare books and we are winning customers over, as well. I see it as part of the same movement as other artisanal things, like craft beer.’

The new Maggs bookshop in Bedford Square (Ivo Karaivanov)

Earlier this year, it was reported that 2016 saw e-book sales drop for the second year in succession – which isn’t something that surprises Benjamin, who specialises in William Morris and the Arts and Craft Movement.

‘Physical book sales have gone up, while e-book sales have gone down, and it’s because people like owning things. You buy a 100 Kindle books and you read them, but you’ve spent money on nothing and are left with an empty feeling,’ he says.

Maggs’ new premises can barely be described as a shop, considering the fact it is a large and very grand townhouse. Benjamin describes it as an ‘imposing showroom that feels like a club’ and which treads a fine line between ‘exclusivity and accessibility’. The house comprises three departments (modern, early British and early European and travel) and an exhibition space, with a series of displays set to start in July. Benjamin’s fellow experts include specialists in the history of voyages and exploration, early printing, literary and historical manuscripts and literature of all periods, including classical literature, modern first editions and Irish literature.

If you are an old hand in the rare books trade then you’ll probably want to head straight to the new Maggs Bros to find exactly what you’re looking for, but, if you are keen to become part of the youthful throng of new collectors, then Benjamin suggests a visit to the Curzon Street shop would be a good introduction for anyone starting out. What other advice can he give? He says that the best thing to do is go to your local second hand bookshop and embrace the ‘joy of discovery’, rather simply logging on to an online store.

‘The fun is in going to a bookshop and searching for your book. If you just go online it’s no fun at all,’ he says. ‘There are books by people I collect that I could find online, but I don’t because it’s like reading the end of a story before you’ve read the rest of it.’

To find out more about Maggs Bros, including it’s programme of exhibitions, visit www.maggs.com 


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