November 25, 2014

The last cricket bookseller

The home of Australia's first - and possibly last - full-time dealer of his kind is a treasure trove of cricket literature amassed over 45 years

"Cricket has one of the richest literatures," said John Arlott, "yet often the invitation from a good friend and cricketer to 'come and see my cricket library' strains tact to the limit." Though he's a lover of Arlott's works himself, veteran cricket book dealer Roger Page might disagree with that particular aside.

Though some nominative determinism might have played a role too, a love of cricket and cricket books has remained constant throughout Page's life. Nestled on shelves that line every available wall space in his hybrid shop-cum-home in Melbourne's north-east is a treasure trove of cricket literature, amassed over a remarkable 45 years (as of last month) as Australia's first and only full-time cricket book dealer.

Visitors expecting a crusty old septuagenarian will be surprised and maybe inspired by Page's enthusiasm, energy and passion for his cricket pursuits. For 38 years and counting he has been scoring for Victorian Premier cricket side Fitzroy-Doncaster. (I probe him for recollections of Abdul Qadir's late-'90s season in those ranks and he admits, "I haven't seen anything else like it.") And in addition to his primary concern of selling books he also edits a new Australian journal, Between Wickets, named in honour of his former acquaintance and titan of Australian cricket writing, Ray Robinson.

As the business creeps towards its half-century, Page recounts that the wicket was actually a bit dicey early on. The A$300 worth of profit from his first year of operation was swallowed by the taxman and it was four years before the full-time business started making money. "It took longer than I thought to really become established," he says, but by then he'd dug in for the long haul.

In those formative years Page travelled to England for stock, stashing books ("three or four bob each") in "ridiculous" large cabin trunks at his grandmother's house in London. Those were then ferried on to his Tasmanian home for the princely sum of £10 each and arrived at his Tasmania home a few months later.

On those early treasure hunts the Epworth Press in London, and Charing Cross Road, were ripe for plunder, as was a small bookshop Page spotted as he alighted from a train in Leeds. In that instance he was drawn inside by a row of 1930s Wisdens that would complete his own personal collection. Moments later, the shopowner was heading upstairs to dust off a pristine copy of Pelham Warner's Imperial Cricket, unknown to Page at the time.

The shopkeeper mistook Page's reservations about lugging the hefty volume home as haggling and halved the £3 asking price. It couldn't be left behind for a deal like that, and sits in Page's collection to this day. In those early days he could buy a full run of original Wisdens (from 1891 through to 1970) off John McKenzie for £150. Now the same set would pay off the best part of a luxurious holiday house.

Since the recent passing of his wife and business partner Hilda, Page's only visible sign of slowing down is the help he gets in on Fridays to pack the orders that now flow a little more regularly again since the creation of his website, a nod to modern business that he credits with saving the shop over the last half-decade.

Neither the state of the publishing industry nor of the game itself particularly ruffles him, neither does the fact that the completists and obsessives of yesteryear are not being replaced by younger collectors. He now sells far more new books than he does old ones

Many of the consignments end up at the MCG, on the shelves of the Melbourne Cricket Club library, whose librarian, David Studham, marvels at Page's longevity and exacting service. "All our cricket books come from Roger," says Studham. "He's amazing, really."

At regular intervals meticulously wrapped packages will arrive at the ground - as they do for scores of private collectors - bolstering the collection with the latest journals, magazines, elusive limited-edition releases and obscure periodicals from around the globe. All are sourced through Page's extensive overseas contacts in England and the subcontinent. Without his services, acquiring them would be a logistical nightmare or impossible. "Service" is a word Page himself uses often, perhaps unknowingly, and his brand of it is old-fashioned and reliable.

A quick glance at one of his early-'70s price lists is good fun. Back then tour guides went for 30 or 40 cents apiece, Arlott titles for $1.50, and classics by the likes of Robertson-Glasgow and Alan Ross barely a dollar more. When I pick up one of Ross' early tour diaries in the shop, Page smiles and says he's "one of my favourites too".

Otherwise his tastes, perhaps predictably, lean towards the cream of the cricket writers whose books have passed through his hands in epic quantities. "The books in my collection, aside from the annuals, have got to be written with style and power," he says. "I just can't read the stuff that's poorly written, with hackneyed and clichéd expression, which drives you up the wall.

"It just varies depending on my mood. A year or two ago I went through some of EW Swanton's tour books of the '50s and found them interesting because he could sum up a game so very well. I like the Cardus works and the Arlott works, and Gideon [Haigh] is a favourite, of course." His other contemporary likes include David Frith, Rob Steen and George Dobell.

Though I shouldn't be, I'm a little surprised when Page says he's an ESPNcricinfo devotee on account of his passion for county cricket. In the middle of his book-lined office space sits a gleaming iMac, the only noticeable concession to modern times.

Page foresaw none of this when he started selling books in 1969 as a means of furthering his own collection, back when he was an English master at Parklands High School in Burnie, Tasmania. At 22, while juggling an arts degree, he wrote and published a history of Tasmanian cricket. Before he and new wife Hilda, once a fashion designer, left the Apple Isle to make a full-time go of the cricket book business in Melbourne, he had also found the time to form the Tasmania University Cricket Club, now a mainstay of the TCA competition.

"There was no cricket club, so I called a meeting and became their first secretary," he says. Later he also became their first life member.

Thus, in a literal sense, our hour-long chat covers births, deaths and marriages. Page no longer struggles for stock, though this is a bittersweet scenario, because many of the collections he once helped swell - extensive and lovingly compiled ones - have arrived back on his doorstep as older collectors sell up and slowly die out.

Some older collectors even worry that Page will drop off the perch before them, a suggestion that makes him laugh. Neither the state of the publishing industry nor of the game itself particularly ruffles him, neither does the fact that the completists and obsessives of yesteryear are not being replaced by younger collectors. He now sells far more new books than he does old ones.

Still, so many of the older volumes Page stocks contain stories separate and sometimes every bit as poignant as the actual texts themselves. "I just acquired a collection from a bloke from South Australia," he says. "It was marvellous because he kept a record of pretty well every book he got and all about it. Going through that year by year, it became obvious that the love of his life was the cricket books." Like many collectors, he found a kindred spirit in Roger Page.

As for anyone else taking up the baton and continuing what Page has started, the man himself is doubtful. "I'm sure no one at the age of 30 is going to start a business like I did, so that's the end." With a laugh and a wry smile he concludes, "I'm sort of the last of the Mohicans".

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko

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