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Volume 43, Number 2March/April 1992

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London's Oriental Bookshops

Written and photographed by Arthur Clark
Additional photographs by Jonathan S. Weaver and Insight

Harry St. John Philby, who explored Arabia through the first half of this century and wrote extensively about it, was once a regular patron here. Until recently, Freya Stark and Wilfred Thesiger, also celebrated writer-travelers of the Middle East, stopped by to chat.

And almost next door, though in an earlier era, Sir Richard Burton, the Victorian adventurer and translator of The Thousand and One Nights, was a frequent visitor.

Both places are London bookshops. Both hold dazzling stocks of works related to the Middle East among their many titles. The two establishments - Arthur Probsthain, opposite the British Museum on Great Russell Street, and Bernard Quaritch Ltd., located today on Golden Square, not far off busy Regent Street - have been in the trade for a combined total of 235 years.

London has blossomed of late with booksellers dealing with "the East," or "the Orient," a region that spans, at its broadest, lands from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and from Turkey and India to China. Some of these bookshops - they are among more than 500 in the city - deal exclusively or in part with the Middle East. Newest on the scene: shops owned by Arabs and Muslims anxious to reach readers in Britain and around the world.

In fact, London may be the world's premier marketplace for books about the Middle East, particularly antiquarian titles, and the city's love affair with such works dates back at least five centuries. Indeed, the first dated book printed in England - at Westminster in 1477 - was a translation of a work in Arabic by an Egyptian-Syrian prince, Mubashir ibn Fatik. As capital of a nation whose far-flung empire once stretched east to India and beyond, and as home to travelers, soldiers and scholars who were also ardent writers, London took naturally to Oriental bookselling.

Easily accessible by mail, by fax or - most pleasantly - in person, the city's Oriental bookshops offer a wealth of titles in a host of categories. Prices range from £4 for an inexpensive translation of the Qur'an to upward of £30,000 for the 37-volume second edition of Description de l'Egypte, published in Paris in 1825.

Lately, general economic recession has taken some of the bloom off a market that saw prices soar 1000 percent or more for some books during the 1980's. But it's still not a "buyer's market" in the classical sense, and prices for many older volumes have stabilized - but not dropped.

While they exist to sell books, London's Oriental bookshops also offer something extra: a literary ambience that's hard to top.

"Many well-known authors have been in touch with us and come in," recounts Walter Sheringham, 84-year-old owner of Arthur Probsthain. Adds Sheringham's wife Eve: "Whenever Philby was around he came in, we looked at books and chatted. And Freya Stark, too. What was remarkable about Thesiger and also Philby is that you would never think they were explorers. They looked like City gentlemen, really."

Writers of the current generation also stop by: Last summer, BBC television correspondent John Simpson dropped in at Probsthain "to talk and look for material" just prior to release of his book on the Gulf conflict, From the House of War, says Walter Sheringham.

The business, which the Sheringhams operate with their two children, was established in 1902 by Walter Sheringham's uncle, Arthur Probsthain. It's been on Great Russell Street since 1905. In 1926, the year Sheringham joined the bookshop, a London journal reported that visitors to Probsthain would "receive a pleasant welcome and also obtain advice on anything they wish to know on the East." That promise still holds true.

Sheringham reckons he stocks some 150,000 books - probably the largest number of Oriental titles under one roof in London. The shop specializes in new and secondhand books - it also published books under its own imprint until this decade - but also carries some antiquarian titles dating roughly from the 19th century and earlier. Like most of London's Oriental bookshops, it regularly sends out lists of titles it has to offer. Amazingly, the inventory isn't computerized; it's all in Sheringham's head. "If people ask for special books, we can often acquire them upstairs," says Sheringham. He disappears up the staircase, flashlight in hand, and is back in a wink with two requested 17th-century volumes and a handwritten 19th-century Qur'an.

Just a stone's throw from Arthur Probsthain on Great Russell Street are two more bookshops with a variety of volumes on the Middle East.

Fine Books Oriental, owned by Jeffrey Somers, stocks chiefly antiquarian and out-of-print books on the Middle and Far East. Somers's affection for the Orient developed through music, especially that of English composer Gustav Hoist. "Everybody knows Hoist's Planets suite, but many people don't go much further than that," says Somers. "Yet he was particularly interested in the Middle East and India. That led to something called the Oriental Suite, which meant the Middle East." Somers pursued Hoist's musical ideas and took a shine to the music of the dervishes, a field in which he is now a specialist.

Great Russell Street is a prime location for an Oriental bookseller, says Somers. "To some extent this is the center of Orientalism in England. Not only is London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) very close, but the British Library is housed in the British Museum and, until recently, the Department of Oriental Manuscripts was on Store Street, quite near here."

Scholars and institutional buyers frequently visit his shop, Somers says. In 1990, he sold a £30,000 collection of books on ancient Egypt to a Japanese university. But not all of his patrons are academics. "We have people going on a holiday to Turkey who want a good guide book, and some of the good guide books are out of print. Indeed, we have a little saying here: 'All of the best books are out of print.'"

Booksellers can turn up unexpected prizes. Not long ago, Somers discovered a photograph of Harry Philby, seated in a tent with King 'Abdullah of Transjordan, tucked away in a copy of Philby's book The Empty Quarter. The picture, never published, was snapped up by another Oriental bookdealer.

The Museum Bookshop, also located on Great Russell Street, opened in 1979 and caters primarily to museologists and conservators. The shop's stock focuses on Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. Buyers generally are specialists in "the digging-up trade" and the "putting-together trade," says co-owner Ashley Jones, and include King Sa'ud University in Riyadh. Kuwait, before the Gulf war, was a prime customer.

Bernard Quaritch, a German-born bookseller, opened the original shop bearing his name on Great Russell Street in 1847 Sir Richard Burton, a friend of Quaritch's, was a regular visitor to the premises. Today the business, on Lower John Street in Golden Square, is "billed quite simply as the oldest and largest antiquarian bookseller in the world," notes The New York Times. It boasts a staff of some 30 specialists and has a finely appointed main floor, more resembling a law library than a bookshop - but don't let that put you off if you are seriously seeking a rare title.

Quaritch's Near and Middle East Department is directed by Dr. Robert Jones, a SOAS graduate, and traces its roots back to the 19th century, when Quaritch was also a book publisher. Among its imprints: The first edition of the Edward Fitzgerald translation of the classic Persian lyric poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

The Quaritch forte is early editions of books and important manuscripts and maps. What kind of book would you find there that relates to Islamic Spain, for example? "That might be a translation done by Gerard of Cremona," says Jones, referring to the Italian scholar who resided in 12th-century Spain and was the first to translate The Canon of Avicenna from Arabic into Latin.

Titles in a catalogue issued in 1990 included a 16-book set of Philby's published books, priced at $10,500. The collection sold "the moment the catalogue came out," Jones says. The catalogue itself was a very pretty piece of work, with Arabic headlines and a detailed description of each book, along with reproductions of many of their illustrations.

Jones ventures out frequently on bookselling sorties to the Arabian Gulf area, an aspect of the business he says is unique to Bernard Quaritch. And he has come away with respect for what he has found. On a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, "I sat in a majlis [gathering] outdoors and everybody was absolutely fascinated by the idea of the recovery of heritage and finding documents and books relating to the past." The company's carefully researched catalogues are designed to show clients how special a rare book can be.

"Books can be more than just reading matter," says Jones. "Books are symbols of where we are, and I've sold books in Latin in Arabia. Now, [the buyers] are not going to sit down and study Latin and read the book. But as collectors, they're going to have it in their library because it represents a relationship between Europe and the Arab world at a particular moment in time - perhaps the 16th century or the 18th century."

Putting that relationship on the library shelf has become more and more expensive through the 1980's and into the 1990's, as demand has grown for scarce material. That's the case with antiquarian books, as well as many early- to mid-20th-century classics on the Middle East, which generally had limited press runs.

H.R.P. Dickson's The Arab of the Desert, about Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, is one example. Demand for the book, published in 1949, was so high between 1982 and 1986 "we just couldn't keep it in stock," says Yasmin Hosain, who with her husband, Shahid, opened Hosain's Bookshop on Connaught Street, near Marble Arch, in 1979. "There was a time when The Arab of the Desert could be bought for £25. Then suddenly the price was above £150. Now you can't find it for £250."

"A lot of people from the [Arabian] Gulf were visiting" London in the mid-1980's "and there was a sudden awareness of the national heritage in Muslim countries," says Hosain, who emigrated with her husband from Pakistan. "It has been the Middle Eastern clients and customers who created this demand, resulting in a steep rise in prices" through most of the l980's.

As an example, she cites the auction of an American expatriate's collection of antiquarian titles by Sotheby's in London in late 1989. The collection of the late Henry M. Blackmer, a Denver native with a huge library that included many rare books about Turkey, brought bids that were "absolutely incredible," Hosain says. "Books whose prices were estimated at £200 to £300 went for £2000 or £3000."

"The Turkish government, fortunately, bought a large number of these books," she says, and its interest resulted in some sky-high bidding. "This happened in the mid-1980's to books on Saudi Arabia, books on Kuwait, on the Gulf, Oman and Yemen," she adds.

Hosain's Bookshop, which deals mainly in antiquarian, rare and out-of-print titles, is an example of a relatively new phenomenon in London: Muslim- and Arab-owned Oriental bookstores. Often the shops are located in areas of the capital with large Arab and Muslim communities. "A lot of visitors from the Islamic countries tend to live in this area," Hosain explains. "We thought we would be more accessible to them, particularly to people who were just passing by."

Among the rarest books to be found in the shop last summer were some very early editions of the Qur'an, including the first printing of the Qur'an translated into English - Andre du Ryer's 1649 Alcoran of Mahomet. The book carried a price tag of £625. An even rarer printing of the Qur'an at Hosain's Bookshop was Abraham Hinckelmann's 1694 edition, in Arabic. That work, which was long thought to be the first printing of the Qur'an in Arabic, recently turned out to be the second, causing something of a stir in the antiquarian book industry: A single Arabic copy of the Qur'an printed in Venice in 1538 was discovered in a monastery library there in 1987, according to Robert Jones of Bernard Quaritch. The discovery "was shattering,... like finding a lost Shakespeare folio," he says.

Well-known Arab-owned bookshops in London include Al-Saqi Books in the Bayswater area, Al-Hoda Books on Charing Cross Road and Al-Kashkool in Knightsbridge.

Al-Saqi, in Westbourne Grove, operates separate bookselling and publishing businesses. Set up in 1979, the company was the brainchild of four Arabs, including two Lebanese, who had fled the civil war in their homeland, and Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi expatriate architect and the pseudonymous author of the bestseller Republic of Fear. Al-Saqi quickly found itself serving as a key connection with Lebanon, which had been a main international supplier of Arabic-language books. "We started receiving orders from universities all over. In a way, we almost had to become the link with Lebanon," says partner Mai Ghoussoub. The firm opened an office in Beirut, and then expanded to acquire material from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and North Africa.

The shop moved into English titles in the mid-1980's when customers began asking for English-language bestsellers on the Arab world. Today, it stocks about 15,000 titles in Arabic and about half that number in English. It offers new books and reprints of bestselling volumes, along with some antiquarian titles.

Al-Saqi, which means "cupbearer," has turned into a main source of books for - London-based diplomats anxious to keep their home governments informed about developments in the Arab world. "Whenever there is a bestseller or a book that is a bit controversial about the Arabs, they want it for their diplomatic valise and immediately we have to provide 15 or 20 copies," says Ghoussoub. The shop also serves as a window on the Arab world for British audiences, providing a variety of books on political developments.

Al-Saqi has also been a press office for and about Arab writers. When Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, "we became more like an information center than a bookshop," notes Ghoussoub.

Al-Hoda opened on Charing Cross Road, London's busiest and best-known bookshop street, in 1983. Its objective was similar to Al-Saqi's: to try to fill the literary void created by the crisis in Lebanon. "A large Muslim community lives here, in particular in Greater London," says shop director Dr. Jassem Hussein, a Gulf Arab educated in Britain. "We decided to try to provide not only educational and religious books, but everything related to the Orient, while offering services to people in the Orient, too."

Al-Hoda ("right guidance" in Arabic) quickly found the demand for English-language books greater than for those in Arabic. Today, up to 80 percent of the 20,000 books in the shop are in English. Al-Hoda carries mainly new books, with a small number of antiquarian titles. It has a good Farsi-language section.

Al-Kashkool, in Knightsbridge, was established early in 1989 by two Lebanese journalists and Damascus-born writer-publisher Riad el-Rayyes. The shop's name translates as "the album," and its location, just down the street from Harrod's, has proved a boon for business.

After initially relying on passersby in a district where vacationing Arabs often stay, the store has developed a loyal clientele and "become very well known to customers in Britain and abroad," says el-Rayyes. He says patronage breaks into clear "summer-winter" cycles: Westerners buy most of the books in the winter and Arabs buy in the summer, when they're in London seeking refuge from the Middle Eastern heat.

Al-Kashkool stocks some 13,000 volumes, roughly 60 percent in Arabic and 40 percent in English. They include new books, out-of-print and antiquarian titles, and reprints. Among the shop's English titles are many books by and about women in the Middle East. Books in the Arabic section deal mainly with politics and religion.

John Randall, a native Briton who owns John Randall (Books) in the Pimlico area, sees the heightened local interest in books on the Middle East as dating back to the Festival of Islam in London in 1976 (See Aramco World, May-June 1976). His shop has a 30,000-book stock devoted to all of Asia, but emphasizing Islamic, Chinese and Indian art. Randall carries mainly antiquarian and out-of-print titles, with a few new books.

Randall's own interest in Asia and Islam dates from the early 1970's, when he lived with a Muslim family in Indonesia and traveled in Southeast Asia. He later earned a degree at SOAS and went to work at the British Library, in the Indonesian section.

John Randall (Books) also stocks titles dealing with early Western travel in the Middle East and early accounts of local tribes. Among the most popular books are those by Philby. "I make sure I have something by Philby in stock all the time, but inevitably when people ring they want one of the books that's the most difficult to get. A lot of the best books, the rarest books, never appear on the shelf in the shop because when I get them I've got several customers who've already asked for them," says Randall.

Randall's rule of thumb for antiquarian and rare bookshops: "Books that are most saleable you never have in stock, because whenever you get them in, they're sold. By definition, a bookshop only has in stock the books that nobody wants."

Over the last few years, Randall says he's seen the economics of bookselling change dramatically from the days when he combed shops outside London for bargains. "Everything comes to London today," he says. "Ten years ago, there were good antiquarian bookshops all over the country. Now there are very few. It's sad for the English book collector because everything goes straight to the top end of the market ... and they have much less chance of finding books and building up collections at price levels they can afford."

David Loman, a bookseller who runs one of London's oldest mail-order establishments from his home on Suffolk Road, lays the blame for that development at the doorsteps of London's big auction houses. Loman, who set up his business in 1970, has approximately 6000 antiquarian and out-of-print titles, more than half of which are devoted to the Middle East. Like most mail-order dealers, he meets customers by appointment only.

Among his choicest titles on a recent visit: the second edition of the Description de l'Egypte, detailing research carried out during Napoleon's 1798-99 expedition to Egypt. Loman was able to acquire 11 folio volumes of plates at auction and 24 of its 26 volumes of text from a dealer in Paris. Such a set was auctioned for £30,800 at Christie's in 1990. The bookdealer claims hard work, not luck, is required for success today in bookselling. "I don't believe in luck," he says. "To be a success ... you've got to go around to a lot of bookshops; you've got to go to auction houses; and you've got to keep at it all the time."

Bookselling veteran John Trotter, owner of J.T. Books in Hendon, agrees. He says the days of making finds of rare books in odd places are over. "Things have got very mundane over the last five to six years. Certainly the times of going into old bookstores and picking up things for 50 pence and selling them for £500, that's all fiction."

Mainly a mail-order dealer, Trotter opened his business in 1973 when his own book collection "overtook the house," he says. "Most people collect and collect and collect until they can't collect any more. Then if they can, they go into business." In 1990, Trotter moved his operation out of his home and into new quarters.

Trotter's stock covers the Near East, Middle East and ancient history, and he carries antiquarian titles. About 3000 to 4000 of his books deal with the Middle East. Among recent good customers: the library of The American University in Cairo.

Some of his most interesting "books" aren't books at all but souvenir albums with pressed flowers from Palestine, produced around the turn of the century. The albums come in two sizes, retailing for £15-£20 and £50-£75. Their covers are made of distinctive red olive wood carved by Palestinian craftsmen.

Despite the naysayers, some romance still remains in the search for books, contends J.M.S. Slater of Oxus Books. Finding valuable books is sometimes a "matter of getting down on one's hands and knees to look on the bottom shelf where no one's been for years," she says. "I like the personal touch,... dealing with individuals and going out into the field to look for books." Oxus Books is a mail-order concern on Astonville Street which stocks among its titles rare, out-of-print and used books on the Middle East.

Echoing Slater's words, Jane DeYong, co-owner of Snowden Smith Books in Chelsea, recounts the time she got a call from "a man who worked at one of the British embassies in the Middle East." He had with him "a book he'd found on the rubbish tip outside the embassy." The volume, published by the Foreign Office in 1918, had maps and "presumably advice for the military types going to Arabia.... My eyes lit upon it and I saw it was something of great value for me."

DeYong finally traded five books from her catalogue for the slim volume, and then promptly sold the book for a handsome profit, she says. Snowden Smith, exclusively a mail-order business, was established in 1974, and carries books about travel, anthropology and ethnology, especially related to the Middle East.

So, no matter what your fancy when it comes to books on the Middle East, London may well be your best book-buying or just-browsing bet. Its well-stocked and well-run Oriental bookshops, of course, are the reason why.

Arthur Clark, a staff writer for Saudi Aramco, buys and browses in London on his vacations.

Collecting in London

Are you planning a trip to London to collect books on the Middle East? Or do you want to fill gaps in a library you've already built?

Then "contact as many bookdealers and shop around as much as possible," says David Loman, who has run his mail-order book business in London for more than 20 years. "Then you'll get a wide spread of prices, a wide spread of [book] conditions and a good idea of whether the chap [selling the books] knows what he's doing or not."

It pays to investigate, says Loman: "There can be variations in prices that are quite wide."

Books on travel in the Middle East are extremely popular - and high-priced. "If you wanted to build up a collection of the major travelers in the Arab world - Doughty, Philby, Burckhardt - that's going to prove very expensive if you want the original editions," says the bookseller. "If you want them in good condition, you've got to pay top prices for all of them,…and that's becoming more and more expensive, because of the lack of good copies coming on the market."

But while prices for such books may have skyrocketed over the last 20 years, Loman doesn't recommend buying rare books solely to turn a profit. "If people want to invest in books because they'll fetch higher prices in the future, it's up to them, but I don't advise it unless they're genuinely interested in the subject matter," he says.

Budding collectors "without a tremendous amount of money to spend... should just concentrate on the 20th-century books, because anything earlier is going to cost them a lot," says Jane DeYong of Snowden Smith Books. "The main point when you're starting is to always buy books in very good condition - with their dust jackets. And always go for the first editions."

Counsels Ashley Jones of the Museum Bookshop: "Pick a very narrow [subject] area. Otherwise collecting is very diffuse and you go off in all sorts of directions."

DeYong agrees. "Say, for example, you're somebody who's been posted to Yemen for three years. Obviously, you would start collecting books on Yemen and then you can branch out from there." The collector should also consider purchasing Royal Geographical Society journals with articles on his subject. "Some of these articles are fascinating," says DeYong, noting that some of Harry St. John Philby's earliest work was published by the RGS.

If you're planning to travel to London to buy books – or just to look - then June is probably the best time to go. It's the month for two major book exhibitions: the Antiquarian Book Fair, sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (June 23-25 this year), and the major event of the year mounted by the Provincial Booksellers' Fair Association. The two fairs, held respectively at the Park Lane Hotel on Piccadilly and the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury, bring together hundreds of bookdealers
selling thousands of antiquarian and secondhand books.

Nonetheless, there will be plenty of stock left in the bookshops, as well.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the March/April 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1992 images.