Ben Brown, who works in the Modern Books and Manuscripts department, which covers works from 1800 onwards, gives Humans Invent a tour of the premises. It is located in a grand Georgian house on Berkeley Square in Mayfair. A Blue Plaque tells us George Canning once lived here and it is purported to be the most haunted house in London.
Maggs is not a shop in the conventional sense, there is no obvious shop front touting its goods and you have to be buzzed in to enter the premises. When you go in, however, you understand why some form of security is necessary: antiquarian and rare books burst from the shelves in room after room.
First editions and rarities such as Shakespeare’s first folio, first editions of Dickens’ canon and thousands more have all at one time graced Maggs’ shelves. As you may suspect, such rare books are highly prized and can fetch extremely dear prices. In 1998 Maggs set a record after it paid over £4 million for a copy of the first book ever printed in England, The Canterbury Tales from William Caxton’s press.
In 1853, Uriah Maggs set up a stationers and second-hand bookstore in Paddington and it has remained in the family ever since. Brown says, “His sons started dealing rare books and moved the shop to the Strand. It later moved to Conduit Street and finally to 50 Berkeley Square in 1937.” Today it is managed by Ed Maggs, a direct descendent of Uriah.
Preserving delicate rarities
Brown climbs up a creaking set of library steps and pulls down with care a first edition of Great Expectations in mint condition. In order to keep the books in such a good state they need to be kept out of direct sunlight as they have a vampiric sensitivity to the sun’s rays. Brown says, “It is amazing how quickly it works, you can almost see it happen in front of you, the fading of the spine and the discolouration from green to brown.”
The basement in Maggs is best for the more delicate books, especially those bound in Vellum. Brown says, “Vellum sometimes warps but if you put it in a cool, dry place, more often than not it will return to its first given shape.”
As well as rare books Maggs also sells autographs, illustrations and other ephemera such as counterculture posters. Today people understand autographs to refer to a person’s signature but traditionally it meant any writing by hand. Brown says, “We deal in letters from Kings and Queens, we also have ones from Nelson and Napoleon as well as from literary figures such as Dickens and Hardy.”
They have some incredible illustrations too, most notably from Arts and Crafts pioneer, Eric Gill. Douglas Cleverdon was a close friend of Gill and he published a large collection of his illustrations. Maggs now own a third of Cleverdon’s library and as a result have a few of these illustrations in their possession; they also own several published by Gill himself.
Comparing the two Brown says, “Gill’s are printed on various types of paper. For example, the paper he used when he was at Ditchling is recognisably grey and thick and a bit drab, while Cleverdon tended to use nice cream paper and Japanese vellum.”
Short of the British Library you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere with such an impressive collection of rare and antiquarian books as Maggs. For any bibliophile, a trip there is highly recommended though you might need to save up if you are looking to buy – even the shilling shockers will cost quite a lot more than a shilling these days.