This article originally appeared in Dazed And Confused magazine in February 2012.
Maggs Bros Ltd rare bookshop is an unlikely place to encounter the counterculture. For a start, it’s located on one of London’s poshest squares in Mayfair, the heart of the establishment, and even boasts a Royal warrant just inside the front door. Inside No 50 Berkeley Square – an imposing Georgian terrace once described as ‘the most haunted house in London’ – earnest young men in expensive suits sit at desks covered in large old brown books, which they flog to largely millionaire collectors that occasionally step through the front door.
But round the back, a different world awaits. Carl Williams works in an office converted from the stable block, in a room that is full of wonders. Come here at the right time and you will find boxes full of punk fanzines sitting on chairs draped with Republican flags from Spanish Civil War. Ask Williams nicely and he may show you brooches made by junkie poet Alexander Trocchi from used heroin needles, a complete set of ‘Anti-Monopoly’ board games or a pamphlet drawn by Latvian anarchist Peter the Painter, the shadowy figure behind the Sidney Street Siege of 1911. This recent catalogue will give you an idea of the material.
Williams, a fast-talking Yorkshireman , is one of the few booksellers who deals in items related to the counterculture, a nebulous term which covers politics, the occult, avant-garde art, film and literature, drug culture, rock and roll and alternative lifestyles. The interesting stuff, in other words. ‘There’s no guide to the counterculture,’ says Williams. ‘It’s not doctrinal. It’s whether something has the right feel, the way it looks, where it came from. It’s folk art, it’s the Watts Towers, it’s Austin Osman Spare, it’s Aleister Crowley. It’s not like Marxism where everybody knows the key texts. There are things in the counterculture that are still being discovered. There are things lost in libraries that will take it in a completely new direction.’ And it isn’t just books: Williams deals in paintings, posters, games, clothes and records. The only requirements are that Williams can locate it somewhere within his own concept of the counterculture, and that he can sell it. He also puts on occasional shows in the gallery beneath his office, such as the recent Lost Rivers exhibition.
Williams was born in 1967 – ‘the autumn of love’ – in Scarborough. Despite failing his O-Levels, he went to the LSE to read sociology, where he discovered the library and ‘read indiscriminately’. In 1997, after a decade of odd jobs and working in book shops, Williams returned to the LSE to do a Masters just as the library was selling off its old stock during a refurbishment. Almost by accident, Williams became a ‘runner’, a pejorative term that describes something which, in essence, all book dealers do. ‘Running is a pre-internet term, now it’s much more transparent, but it means taking a book quickly from one dealer or auction house, to another dealer or collector and selling it for more money than you paid,’ says Williams. ‘The idea is that you get it from A to B without B finding out how much you paid A.’
With the LSE library at his disposal, Williams was blessed with early success. ‘I was able to sell all these political economy and philosophy books,’ he says. ‘But although I knew the books I didn’t really know what they were worth. I realised this when I took one dealer the first Western European edition of the Koran, and walked out with £500 when it must have been worth thousands.’
As the stock from the LSE ran out, Williams began frequenting other dealers and auction houses to find sellable books. In February 1999, he wandered into Bloomsbury Book Auctions, where he picked up a book from 1864 called The Pure Logic Of Quality by William Stanley Jevons. ‘Jevons thought this book would revolutionise how we understood logic, but he only sold six copies,’ says Williams. ‘I’d never seen one outside a library. I took it to a dealer, Pickering and Chatto, and a man called Jolyon Hudson asked if he could keep it for a day or two.’
Hudson recognised the book had been stolen from the London Library. The police were notified and Williams’s discovery unravelled what the Guardian described as ‘the most systematic plundering of Britain’s great libraries ever carried out by an individual’. William Simon Jacques, a dealer, had stolen books worth more than £1 million. He was eventually sentenced to four years in prison. (Jay Rayner covered the story here.)
‘I was devastated,’ says Williams, ‘because I thought I’d tried to sell a stolen book, but it turned out to be a blessing because Hudson told the Guardian that I had behaved impeccably and that gave me an entry into the higher levels of the trade.’
Williams began working at Maggs Bros, selling books on the internet and looking after the catalogue. ‘I got to know the customers. There was one guy who had been coming in for 20 years. He’d usually walk out with a travel book, but one day they asked this guy what he actually wanted and he said he wanted books on drugs.’
The man was Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a Colombian billionaire, and Williams sold him a painting made by a Mexican artist after he had been injected in the neck with LSD. Santo Domingo was in the process of putting together one of the great private collections of drug books and paraphernalia, a stunning selection of material that ranges from ancient books about Chinese opium smoking to a bicycle that belonged to Syd Barrett. ‘I worked for Julio [who died in 2009] for three years,’ says Williams. ‘His collection is one of the great untold stories of the 21st century. It’s not just drugs, it’s sex, rock and roll, the occult, erotica and art. And it’s not just books. It’s everything.’
Santo Domingo had a remarkably open concept of what to collect, not just concentrating on the old and valuable but hovering up anything with drug connections. ‘Somewhere in it is a McDonalds coffee stirrer from the 1970s,’ says Williams. ‘It looked like a coke spoon, just in plastic rather than silver. There were press rumours that it was the hillbilly coke spoon and so McDonalds discontinued the range, but I found an original. What do you do with that? Sotheby’s don’t want it, Christie’s don’t want it. But it’s gold. So that’s what I do.’
Williams operates in a rarefied world, selling unusual and arcane items to billionaires and academic institutions. Some are interested in the subject, others are professional collectors, and still more are collectors who collect other people’s collections, as investments and for the pleasure of ownership. ‘It’s a very small world of dealers and a very large world of buyers, who work on the basis that they should buy now when it is relatively cheap and is all still out there,’ says Williams. ‘And some of it is cheap. The 1960s stuff isn’t because it is more mainstream and the top Beat stuff is far too expensive, although I’ll still buy manuscripts.’
New items are acquired from auctions and the internet, book fares, private sellers and other dealers. A recent haul brought in the first issue of Heat Wave, a British Situationist International magazine written in 1966, which nobody has seen outside the British Library for decades. There’s a file full of items William Burroughs collected during his short-lived immersion in the Church of Scientology. There are four skeletal marionettes that used to live in an amusement arcade in Hastings. There are posters of Black Panther Bobby Seale, complete collections of short-lived No Wave fanzines, cloth bags designed by Yoko Ono and the programme from Michael Clark and The Fall’s collaboration on the ballet ‘I Am Curious Orange’, which took place at Sadler’s Wells in 1988. And there are books, loads of them, by Richard Neville and BS Johnson and Gregory Corso and Timothy Leary. Some of this stuff is hard to sell, partly because it’s difficult to know how much it is worth – ‘there simply isn’t a precedent for some of these things, so you’ve nothing to compare it with.’
Williams found his niche with a little help from Edward Maggs, the man who inherited the family firm. ‘There might have been something brewing in Ed’s mind that we needed to cover this demographic,’ says Williams. ‘It really began when I started cataloguing all this proto-counterculture American Beat stuff from the 50s and it did really well, I sold about 80% of it. I designed a catalogue based on Ginsberg’s Howl, the same size and typeface. It did well, people liked it and I realised I had the right skills for the subject.’
And what are those skills? Williams pauses. ‘It’s judo,’ he says. ‘I have one real ability. I can pick up a book, look at the front, open it, look at the back and I can usually understand what that book is about, condense it, understand where it came from and put a price on it before I’ve put it down. That’s not a talent many people have. It’s like judo, you’re fighting an opponent who is much bigger than you but you don’t need take on the whole thing at one time if you are going to defeat it. It’s an intellectual work-out every day. I have to explain each item, do the research, understand its value, and then I try and sell it.’
Unstable at Maggs Bros Gallery is on until June 8, 2012.