"It's one of the last things left to collect, I suppose. Quite appropriate really." The speaker is Dr. Jeffrey Stern, joint owner of York's most prosperous antiquarian bookshop. In his hand is a flimsy brown copy of The Quantum Theory of Line Spectra by the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr. This is an important work in the academic history of the atomic bomb. The condition: fine The price: £300. "If you want something a bit cheaper, how about this? Isotopes by Francis William Aston. 1922 edition." Original price, 9 shillings: today's price: £95.
Dr. Stern does not pretend to understand Bohr's contribution to electron theory, nor how Aston, who began his career as a brewery chemist, ended it on the brink of unravelling the atomic nucleus. Neither he nor his partner claims any expertise in physics. What they do know is that Japanese collectors are prepared to come to York to pay huge prices for the intellectual precursors of Hiroshima - as long, of course as they are first editions in fine condition. Stern, in fact, is an expert on Lewis Carroll. While the boom in "bomb books" would provide a nice paradox for the Red Queen, it has also helped McDowell & Stern to the top position in Britain's most ambitious book city - and to a turnover last year of some half million pounds.
York has sixteen antiquarian booksellers, mostly cited around the Minster and loosely linked in a recently formed trade association. McDowell & Stern will sell you Keynes' first book Indian Currency and Finance for £200 or his later Economic Consequences of the Peace for £20 as well as those old physics and chemistry books that the unwise amongst us might easily pay our local bookseller to take away.
For the past fifteen years Peter Miller, a 36 year old, round-faced art lover, has worked in Ken Spelman Books on Micklegate. For the past eleven years he has owned it - borrowing £25,000 from the bank to go into business that at that time would not have been every bank manager's favourite. His first big deal was to pay £1,250 through the fondly remembered solicitors Birdsall and Snowball for a collection belonging to Major Roberts, "a clever chap from the Twenties who managed to avoid Galsworthy, Masefield and Walpole and collect instead, Huxley, Beckett and Nancy Cunard". He still recalls the investment with terror. "It was an enormous sum for me". Today he would be prepared to pay £20,000 for the same books, which would put their retail value at around £40,000.
His most memorable deal was to buy 7,500 books from the housekeeper of a deceased York physician, Dr. Pope. The good doctor had an impeccable taste in literature but curious faith in the preservative power of the 3-in-1 oil with which he used to anoint the covers of his books. "The standard edition of William Morris - hessian with paper labels - suffered very badly. The only one to escape was a 39-volume set of Ruskin in Moroccan leather guaranteed by the British Museum. That apparently was a good enough guarantee for the doctor. This added a new description to the book catalogues: 'slightly oiled'''.