It has been trading for more than 70 years – but the Ken Spelman Bookshop on Micklegate will close for good in the New Year.
The thriving business behind it will continue online however, trading with prestigious clients around the world.
It is a new chapter for a business which began when the shop was opened by Ken Spelman in 1948. For 73 years the shop served the city, buying and selling rare and secondhand books to and from the people of York and beyond.
That will continue – just without the shop itself. “The world has changed,” said Tony Fothergill, who has been involved for 43 years and is now the business owner with his wife Nicki.
“Increasingly the business is done by me from home anyway. The cheaper secondhand books side is only one very small part of the business.
“For virtually two years, the shop was shut due to the pandemic restrictions, and we had to rely totally on selling things from home and online.
“Twenty years ago we had seven staff, and a huge footfall coming through the door. I can’t see that coming back. People’s patterns of buying – certainly buying cheaper books – has changed.”
‘It will be poignant’
The Ken Spelman Bookshop on Micklegate will close in the New Year. Tony is considering a closing down sale soon.
Then he will close the door for the final time.
“It will be poignant,” Tony told YorkMix. “I’ve spent my entire life there. But I really don’t see a future for selling high volume, cheap secondhand material from a big, four-storey, double-fronted shop.
“The old days, where you would get people browsing for hours and going out with handfuls of books, that just doesn’t happen any more.
“They’re still buying the cheaper books, but increasingly they’re doing it online or through Amazon, things like that, especially since Covid and the lockdowns.”
Just three owners
The shop was founded in 1948 by Ken Spelman. During the 1930s, Spelman worked at Bumpus and was very familiar with the grand London carriage trade.
After the war, he unexpectedly inherited some money and used it to open the shop in York. He would probably have liked to run a rather political bookshop – he’d been a conscientious objector during the war.
Instead he opened a more general secondhand shop, without much emphasis on antiquarian books… a customer once asked to see the antiquarian section, to which Mr Spelman replied, ‘We don’t arrange the books in chronological order’.
After a mere 25 years, Mr Spelman retired, and Peter Miller bought the business, himself retiring in 2012 after working at the shop for 44 years. And now Tony has been involved for 43 years, joining straight after leaving University of York in 1979.
Tony specialises in 18th and 19th century books on the fine arts, gardening, the grand tour to Italy, manuscripts & documents, and a wide range of other areas, and will continue to travel the country buying material, and issuing regular catalogues and monthly lists.
He has no plans to retire. Even before the advent of the internet, his customers were spread world-wide.
A major part of the business sees him working alongside private and institutional clients in developing their rare book and manuscript collections.
Places like Yale and Princeton Universities, and the Getty Institute, all in the US, and the Rijksmuseum in Holland, have all seen books added to their holdings over the past 30 years with the help of the Ken Spelman business.
It was one of the first booksellers to predict the importance that unique and manuscript items would have to collectors and libraries – rather than printed books that can be easily digitised.
The Ken Spelman website is undergoing a major redevelopment and will continue to be a hub of the business. Contact details remain unchanged “so do keep in touch”, says Tony.
That said, Tony will miss the shop and its atmosphere. “It’s been wonderful. But I’m not stopping dealing with the customers, I’m dealing with them in a different way. It’s just that I’m no longer going to be like Arkwright with my till.
“So in a sense, it’s just another chapter really.”