to begin at the beginning…

Some recently discovered prehistory.

When I took my first steps into the rare book trade in 1990 I had no idea my family had already been booksellers for over half a century.  The reason for my ignorance was that the period in question had been roughly 1870 to 1930, when the firm of ‘A. Maurice & Co, Ancient and Modern Booksellers’ traded books all over the world from their shop at 23 Bedford Street, Covent Garden, London.

The proprietor for much of that time was Armand Maurice, my great-great-grandfather. I knew nothing of him until a couple of years ago when his name was mentioned at various family gatherings when discussing my own bookselling experiences. Since then, the internet has thrown up an increasing number of references to him and his firm. He was born in London in 1865 of émigré French parents, Armand (a Jew) and Josephine Magnien (a ‘proselyte’, presumably Catholic). Both the French and Jewish  strands in my family history were new to me.

A. Maurice & Co. was most active at the turn of the nineteenth-century and bookselling in 1890s Covent Garden seems terribly romantic in retrospect. Bedford Street was a hive of activity. William Heinemann (publisher of Oscar Wilde’s manifesto, Intentions and of Wells, Stevenson and Kipling) was next door at number 21, while J. M. Dent and Company was a couple of doors away pioneering the Everyman series. Revisiting Bedford Street this week I find that nothing survives of number 23 or its neighbours, the whole site having been redeveloped in the past decade or so. Which leaves me free to imagine the scene in the 1890s…

23 Bedford Street, the site today

Few traces of A. Maurice & Co survive. No archive, and certainly no books. But the internet throws up more and more ghosts, with chance references to catalogues, customers at home and abroad and even some of Armand’s books, including what must have been his very best: a copy of the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio. More of that (and others) anon.

I am actively seeking more information from friends, family and librarians. Armand issued many hundreds of catalogues, yet few survive, even in the libraries he sold books to. I have a couple and would love to have more. I’ll post more information as I find it, interspersed with my own  rare book discoveries…

Mnemosyne: personified by Rossetti in 1881

Armand Maurice used the codeword “Mnemosyne, London” as his telegraphic address. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, daughter of Gaia and Uranus, mother of the nine Muses was the personification of memory, as in mnemonic. What more appropriate word for a purveyor of old books. Here she is, pictured by Rossetti in 1881.