Anthony Rota: Bookseller whose style and charm were valued by writers and collectors alike

Tuesday 15 December 2009 01:00

Anthony Rota was the grandee of London modern first edition bookselling. Other booksellers might have made more noise and attracted more newspaper headlines, but Rota got on quietly with the business.

Collectors, on the one hand, enjoyed his bespoke service. On the other, authors and authors' widows were charmed by him and he sold entire collections and libraries, usually across the Atlantic – to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, perhaps, or the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.

If a thing could not be done stylishly, he said, it was not worth doing at all. Rota was proud of being a fourth-generation bookseller and, while his style was understated, it was definite. His shops had an austere calm about them and his catalogues – for a long time designed by his friend John Ryder, typographer to the Bodley Head – demonstrated an easy elegance.

Anthony Bertram Rota (Tony only to his family and intimates) was born in 1932, the son of Cyril Bertram Rota (Cyril to his intimates, Bertram professionally), whose half-Italian father, Charles (or Carlo), was a newspaper proofreader. Charles's wife, Evelyn, was the daughter of Bertram Dobell, a notable bookseller, a minor but interesting writer and the rediscoverer of Thomas Traherne.

Bertram Dobell died in 1914 and his two shops in Charing Cross Road were taken over by his sons Percy and Arthur, into whose hands their nephew Cyril was placed at the age of 14. "Give us your boy," they said, "and we will teach him all we know." Five years later, in 1923, he founded the firm of Bertram Rota at 109 Charing Cross Road, above the then premises of Marks & Co (later, at 84, to enter Helene Hanff legend).

His son Anthony was completing his National Service in the RAF in 1952 and contemplating a career in farming when his father, not for the first time, invited him to join him in the business. "I thought about it for four minutes," said Rota.

Bertram Rota was an astute bookseller of individual taste who gave the firm the shape that it still retains. He was unafraid of selling (mainly by catalogue) books at the cheaper end of the market, so developing long-term relationships with collectors who became later more venturesome. He was far-sighted, too, in befriending librarians and collectors in the United States, persuading them of the value of investing in the manuscripts and, in the case of institutions, archives of "modern" authors (some of them not even dead). He placed H.G. Wells's archive at the University of Illinois, Eddie Marsh's at the Berg.

When Anthony Rota arrived, the shop was (where it had been for 15 years) in Vigo Street on the edge of Albany, in the historic Bodley House where in the 1890s John Lane had sold books with Elkin Mathews as the Bodley Head, and where the first Penguins were published. When Rota's father died suddenly in 1966, aged 63, the shop had just the year before moved round the corner to 4, 5 & 6 Savile Row into discreet modern premises, formerly home to Gossards, purveyors of lingerie and foundation garments.

Making a "pictorial record" of the London trade in The London Bookshop (1971), Richard Brown and Stanley Brett show airy, open spaces unlike those of most of Rota's more traditionally cluttered contemporaries. "Anthony Rota," they write, "is now directing a business in which a plate-glass fronted and close-carpeted shop is supported by modern commercial practice and an awareness of O.& M. [Organisation and Methods – a term of management efficiency not normally applied to antiquarian bookselling] . . . The character of the business is clearly reflected [not only] in the neat, pleasing and informative catalogues which have been issued regularly since its beginning, but the lower than average age of the staff, and by Anthony Rota's phrase 'creative bookselling', an umbrella term covering customer advice and assistance, the commissioning of fine bindings, promoting a worthwhile but unappreciated author (in for example the Checklist of Jocelyn Brooke) and selective publishing such as Mary Webb's Chinese Lion, a Katherine Mansfield story, some verse of Robert Graves, and Mervyn Peake's A Reverie of Bone."

Rota and his wife, Jean, a former publisher, befriended Jocelyn Brooke (and sold his working library to the University of California at San Diego). He became an enthusiast for Brooke's work, as he was for that of Forrest Reid ("one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century") and the writers of the 1890s. His father had been a friend of such writers as A.E. Coppard and H.E. Bates, and the firm continued to be impressively loyal to many of the 20th-century old guard long after their books had lost obvious commercial lustre.

Six years after Brown and Brett's survey, Rota's bookshop was on the move again, this time to an imposing Victorian carriage works in Long Acre. Covent Garden had long been blighted by the infamous development plans proposed for the area following the market's intended closure in 1974. John Prizeman's 1975 shopfront for Bertram Rota Ltd is hailed by Pevsner as "a harbinger of regeneration" and Rota's have remained at 31 Long Acre ever since. In 1987 they sold the freehold of the building, abandoning their splendid hall-like ground floor, but for seven years had shop premises round the corner, in Langley Court.

They celebrated their 75th anniversary in 1998 with a series of characteristic catalogues, enticingly laid out, unextravagant, in one of which Rota pays a touching tribute to his great-grandfather Bertram Dobell, to whom "I first give thanks when I count my blessings at finding myself a fourth-generation bookseller".

Rota was a stickler for the "good manners" of his trade and repeatedly enunciated, both in lectures and his writings (once a keen Young Conservative, he had a passion for public speaking), the etiquette and proper methodology of the bookseller's business.

As early as 1959 he was elected to the committee of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, the senior trade body, as a "Young Turk" opposing the activities of the Ring, the illegal practice of dealers' conniving to thwart the open market in auction. (In this he followed his father, an equally staunch opponent, though not his great-uncle Percy Dobell, whose auction diaries are a prime source of information on the Ring between the wars.) He was a tireless spokesman for the trade, serving in 1971-72 as President of the ABA and in 1988-91 as President of its international equivalent, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

His book of memoirs, Books in the Blood (2002), rehearses many of his anecdotes of old friends and enemies, favourite collectors (George Lazarus, who made a comprehensive D.H. Lawrence collection; Harry Cahn, who did the same for Churchill), archives won (Hilaire Belloc) and lost (Evelyn Waugh), his exploits with George Sims (a frequent companion in arms) and such individualistic Rota's staff as Anthony Newnham, George Lawson and John Byrne.

It is not a straightforward autobiography, but delivers an endearing self-portrait of a wry, honest, observant, unobsessive and much-travelled dealer who doesn't take himself too seriously. In a trade where brashness so often wins the day his modesty about his achievements was remarkable.

Anthony Rota's 70th birthday in 2002 was marked by an elegant and fond book of tributes from colleagues and customers. The following year he was succeeded as managing director of Rota's by his son Julian. Ever dynastic, he was delighted to have handed over to a fifth generation.

James Fergusson

Anthony Bertram Rota, antiquarian bookseller: born London 24 February 1932; staff, Bertram Rota Ltd 1952-2003, managing director 1967-2003, chairman 2003-09; President, Antiquarian Booksellers' Association 1971-72; President, International League of Antiquarian Booksellers 1988-91; married 1957 Jean Kendall (two sons); died London 13 December 2009.

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