October 5, 2008

My friend the bookseller

Thirty-five years ago John McKenzie opened a bookshop in Surrey that has since grown to be a mecca for collectors of cricket titles

John McKenzie in his shop © Suresh Menon

Many years ago I tipped a can of Coke (it was Diet Coke actually, which probably explains why it was light and easily tipped over) onto a computer keyboard at JW McKenzie Bookseller in Surrey. It was the start of a long and cherished friendship with John McKenzie, the legendary owner, a man whom the writer Geoffrey Moorhouse described as being "quite as celebrated as Geoff Boycott".

His latest catalogue is his 155th and lists the McKenzie publications. The theme of the previous one was Biographies, Profiles and Benefit Brochures. No. 150 was dedicated to Scarce Cricket Books, including a 1798 Britcher. Britcher's are among the rarest of cricket annuals. Only four copies of the 1798 edition are known to exist. This one is worth £75,000.

The catalogues, with their succinct descriptions of books, lithographs and cricketana are a treat. Catalogue-writing (and producing) is an art form, and these show us why. The descriptions are technical, critical and focused. These are treasures of their own.

For all the resources within, the bookshop itself is an unprepossessing building a few minutes from the Stoneleigh Station. It is warm and cosy, and if McKenzie decides you are all right, he might give you a tour of the upstairs where the rare Wisdens and other expensive memorabilia are stored. He is himself a storehouse of information on books and collecting cricket-related souvenirs.

It all began in the 1960s. The first Test that McKenzie, who was born in Cape Town, watched was at Lord's in 1960. South African fast bowler Geoff Griffin claimed a hat-trick, but was also no-balled for throwing. England won by an innings. There is no cricket fan like a 12-year-old, as Ian Peebles once said, and the bug settled into McKenzie's bloodstream at that age. Encouraged by his father, a journalist, McKenzie began collecting books.

By 18 he was a serious collector. Already by then he had received a note of thanks and a small amount of money from a South African newspaper for providing background material on Richie Benaud and his thoughts on "walking". Two years later he had a piece of allrounder Eddie Barlow's wedding cake in his collection, thus going beyond books but not yet collecting with the kind of discrimination that was to mark his career as the most respected seller of cricket books and cricketana in the world.

In 1973 he opened his famous bookshop at the current location, 12 Stoneleigh Park Road in Epsom. The building had previously been a library and McKenzie inherited the shelves. On a visit to England, Jack Fingleton bought a copy of his Cricket Crisis there.

McKenzie soon began to make headlines for his acquisitions. In 1983 he paid £1000 for the 1864 edition of the first Wisden Almanack. Today the first three editions are worth £18,000. When an Australian collector decided to sell his Victor Trumper memorabilia, McKenzie flew down under to bid.

McKenzie also collaborates with well-known publishers to bring out special editions; some years ago he bought out the Pavilion Library Imprint, which had reissued many classics and books long out of print.

What is fascinating is that McKenzie takes great pains over satisfying his range of customers - from the collector who thinks nothing of shelling out £75,000 for a rare edition to the casual reader who simply must have Steve Waugh's latest. He is keen that youngsters develop the reading habit. Outside the shop is an armchair stuffed with books and a board that says, "Please help yourself." Anyone going past and attracted to any of the titles can simply walk off with it, free of cost.

Recently in his shop I brought up the Coke incident in the course of a conversation. "Gosh! You still remember - I had forgotten about it long ago," said McKenzie, breaking into a smile. For those planning to begin a friendship by spilling soda on his table or setting fire to his chair, I have one word of advice: don't!

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore