Peter Jolliffe: Dealer in modern first editions

Peter Benedict Jolliffe, antiquarian bookseller and poet: born Trowbridge, Wiltshire 26 October 1947; died London 27 December 2007
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The Independent Online

Peter Jolliffe, poet and bookseller, who co-founded and later became sole proprietor of Ulysses Bookshop in the heart of Bloomsbury, London, developed a successful business dealing in modern first editions. His bookselling career, which began in the early 1970s, developed into an international business, having particularly strong ties with the United States. He was an early and lifelong supporter of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, in addition to being a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association.

Jolliffe began his career working for Blackwell's in Oxford, following education at Stonyhurst and at Merton College, Oxford, where he read Classics. At the age of 21, he suffered a profound and comprehensive breakdown in health which was to affect him for the rest of his life; indeed, on one occasion he was told he would not live beyond the age of 30. He endured his incapacities with remarkable stoicism.

After the death of his father, his mother and siblings having died when he was a boy in Kenya, he branched out on his own, specialising in modern first editions. He became a familiar figure in the auction rooms of Hodgson's in Chancery Lane in the late 1970s, where he would hoover up any collection of fine first editions of contemporary literature that took his fancy. He was one of the first in his field to inspire customers to pay serious money for the books they wanted, justified by the extraordinarily good condition of the books he offered them.

Almost single-handedly in the 1980s, during the heyday of the modern first edition boom, he raised the profile of writers such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, by pricing their books in such a way as to make one reflect that he valued the writers' works seriously. It was this passion for poetry, particularly Irish poetry, which lay at the core of Jolliffe's passion for books in general. It was clear on the rare occasions when he shared his own poetry with the world that Jolliffe himself was no slouch at this craft and sullen art. Poets he loved included Heaney and Mahon, but also those of an earlier generation; Edward Thomas and R.S. Thomas, and he amassed serious collections of their work over the years.

Between 1983 and 1986 Peter Jolliffe and I shared offices in Fulham Road. This was a happy time for Jolliffe as he developed his business and his name as one of the leading players in the world of modern first editions both in Britain and in America.

In the 1990s, he joined forces with three other booksellers, Peter Ellis, Joanna Herald and Gabriel Beaumont, to form Ulysses Bookshop in Museum Street, London. This partnership created two bookshops across the road from each other in the heart of Bloomsbury. After several years of very successful trading, during which time Ulysses also undertook some publishing, issuing various limited editions by William Boyd, Adam Thorpe and Jeanette Winterson, among others, the partners decided to go their separate ways and Jolliffe stayed on with the name and the premises at 40 Museum Street, living, sleeping and eating Ulysses Bookshop.

Due to his infirmities he would never actually go to bed, but would curl up in his favourite chair in the shop, discreetly enough not to be spotted by any passer-by, and would literally sleep on the job. Night after night, day after day, year upon year, this was his routine. He rarely returned to his house near Oxford.

Jolliffe's attention to detail when describing the condition of a book was extraordinary. In his last catalogue, his 102nd, issued shortly before his death, there is a volume he describes thus: "Covers slightly marked, creased, rubbed and dusty. Very good." To anyone outside the bookselling trade this would appear to be a book destined for the dustbin, but his final description, "Very good", is actually the correct description of the book for anyone seriously contemplating buying it. He wanted, above all, to be fair to his customers, and would go to extraordinary lengths to be sure they were not disappointed.

A private man, Jolliffe none the less had a thirst for intelligent, and sometimes glamorous, company. Among the regular visitors to the shop were Heaney and Jeanette Winterson, the latter having once written that Ulysses was her favourite bookshop. Often, friends and colleagues who dropped in to the shop for a chat would leave reeling at Jolliffe's encyclopaedic knowledge, or his rather famous inability to let go of the memory of a missed opportunity to buy something particularly special or cheap. As they stepped out of the door, he would return to listening to his favourite music; some opera, perhaps, or an album by Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. And, once the shop was relatively empty, he would release his grip on the bowls of soft fruit which lay around the shop when in season. As former employees at the shop can recall, woe betide you if you started nibbling at his strawberries or grapes uninvited.

This said, one feature of Peter Jolliffe was his astonishing generosity, both with his time and also in business. He might offer discounts or extended time to pay off the bill; he first encountered this behaviour in Peter Howard, of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California, and was quick to adopt it. At the same time, Jolliffe would lament that the new entrants to the world of modern first editions were pushing up the prices (something he had done himself in the early 1980s, a subject upon which he did not linger in discussion).

Jolliffe was a recognisable figure within the world of rare books. He was often seen trudging the streets of London from sale to sale, or exiting from a taxi, heavily laden with his latest acquisitions in a giant carrier bag from Bonhams, Phillips, Christie's, Sotheby's or Bloomsbury Book Auctions, always ready to stop and talk about how he'd missed what he really wanted at the auction.

It is hoped that the Ulysses Bookshop will remain open, so that Jolliffe's considerable legacy can be built upon.

Julian Nangle