Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Zen and the Art of Books and Bikes. Reflections on Top Gear, Reliant Robins, Motorcycles the internet, bookselling and computers

This is a long old ramble that wasn’t really intended for publication, the sort of thing that comes about, sitting behind the till in the bookshop between customers.

The recent Top Gear clips of the Reliant falling over so easily, have left me very suspicious that something is not right about them, some sort of set up that I don’t understand.

The same is true with internet bookselling and as these are both areas that I have some understanding in, here we go.

I learnt to drive by a rather eccentric method that didn’t involve conventional lessons, I think the same can be for secondhand bookselling, self taught is closest I can get to the description.

With the driving I started by buying a secondhand BSA motorcycle in a bits, this was a 1956 C12, I assembled this, got it insured, MOTd, taxed, drove it around for a bit and then took the test on it. This involved riding around the block in Margate while the examiner watched from the pavement, I passed first time, frankly it wasn’t difficult.

Passing this test meant that I was and still am licensed to ride all motor cycles, and I think over the years I have had over thirty of them, another thing passing this test does is that it provides one with a full licence to drive three wheeled cars.

This meant that when the winter came on I bought my first three wheeler, it was a Reliant Regal van like the one in the picture above, powered by a 750cc engine, it was quite quick reliable and economical.

The main difference between this Reliant that I think was manufactured in about 1958 and the modern ones though, was that it didn’t have an anti roll bar to help stop it from falling over.

The anti roll bar works by linking the two back springs together and makes it very difficult to get one to roll over, believe me I have tried to get the more modern Reliants up onto two wheels and it isn’t easy.

Now looking at the handling of the Reliant that they are using on Top Gear, it seems very similar to the handling of my early reliant without a roll bar, so I wonder if the Top Gear people have removed it.

But much more to the point here is what actually happens when you are driving a Reliant and it starts to roll over. First it goes up onto two wheels, at this point two things happen, one is that because one of the back wheels is off the ground it looses all power – like wheel spin due to the differential – the other is that ones natural instinct to balance it, like a bicycle or a motorcycle takes over.

I drove the van I had around for several years and although it went up on two wheels on numerous occasions, it never fell over. I am not saying that it isn’t possible to roll one over but it just isn’t easy, my brother managed to do this to another van of the same model without an anti roll bar but he did have three large German hitchhikers in the back.

One thing that I suppose you have noticed is that from top gear, is that they are very rugged indeed, but even so I think if you really did get one up to the speed where it would roll over just from cornering, then the damage from sliding along the road on its side would be much more that that shown.

I know that this is all a bit daft, but engineering things that don’t make sense bug me. Aspects of internet book buying don’t make much sense either and I have been trying to see where the secondhand book world is going now, so here are some thoughts on that, too.

In the first instance I suppose one wouldn’t expect the world of secondhand bookselling to be particularly advanced in the field of computing, I think it would be fair to say that most people who think about it at all tend to associate it with an age before the computer was invented.

On reflection too perhaps Ramsgate wasn’t the most obvious place to open a fairly large bookshop, like so many things in life though logic isn’t always at the top of the list.

I suppose the primary reason that I moved back to Ramsgate was the proximity of an aging parent, anyway in 1987 I rented a shop in King Street Ramsgate, put up lots of bookshelving and stocked it with a mixture of book remainders and the secondhand stock from my previous shop.

The first five years were fairly successful seeing year on year increases in sales and then in about 1993 the retail world started to change in this part of Kent. Most noticeable was the number of shops being converted to residential premises, something that went on until very recently and meant that over the past seventeen years I have gone from trading in the middle of a busy town centre street to trading right on the edge of the town centre.

By about 2005 it was becoming obvious that with decreasing passing trade and as always ever rising expenses I had to make some changes to the way in which I was selling books.

I think it would be reasonable to say that over this period of time passing casual trade here has pretty much ceased to exist, during the same time however the whole booktrade has changed dramatically, particularly in terms of retail outlets selling books.

When I moved to Ramsgate there were two other secondhand bookshops in the town and a large stationers and booksellers with a substantial stock of new books, also of course we had and still have the inevitable W H Smith.

Back in the early 60s and late 70s part of my engineering work involved computers so I had some experience with them, something that stopped completely in the mid 1970s when I went to work full time for the family bookshop business.

Around 2006 the internet became much more widely available in the UK as did the ownership of PCs and at this point in time I decided to buy a PC and see if there was some way to enhance the bookshop business with it.

At the time I hade some rather vague notion that I would photograph the book stock that I had and that potential customers would see on their computers how good it was and come here to buy it or contact me so I could post books to them.

What I hadn’t accounted for was the American factor, essentially what this boiled down to was that the American secondhand book world wasn’t like the one in the UK at the time. American secondhand booksellers had been using computers in very advanced ways to produce their book catalogues for a long time and with the coming of the internet they had produced both very advanced book listing software and several large unified online databases where customers could look at the stock of thousands of booksellers worldwide and search for the book they wanted.

We joined several of these databases as did many other UK booksellers and put a very large proportion of our stock onto them, about 12,000 titles, the net result of this was that a lot of our best stock got posted off all over the world, making the shop less interesting.

One way or another this happened to a great many other bookshops and two things resulted from this and the ever increasing expenses of running a shop, one was that most secondhand bookshops closed and the other was that most book customers found and bought all of the elusive titles that they knew that they wanted.

In about 2005 the whole situation changed again, two important things happened, one was that as most of the other bookshops had closed so we had very little competition in terms of shops and the other was that the firms running the larger online databases swallowed up the smaller ones.

What I did then was to look at the internet in a new way, this was mainly by identifying the ways in which it could be used to improve the bookstock in the shop, rather than use it to decimate it and to make the book prices in the shop competitive with those on the internet.

We now use a method for book pricing based around the combined cost of the book and postage of the cheapest copy of the book available online and frankly mostly because of postal costs in many cases we just can’t be beaten by the internet.

There is also a little trick that you can do with books that you never have enough copies of, which is to make them very slightly more expensive in the shop than you can get them online. This means that the proportion of people who are prepared to go through the rigmarole of first seeing the book in the shop, then checking to see if it is cheaper online and then buying it that way to save a small amount of money, make the stock much better for those who can’t be bothered.

From my own experience of buying secondhand books online, the proportion of purchases that go wrong in some way compensates for any money saved in this way.

Where the internet really comes into its own in improving the shop stock though is in terms of getting rid of books that ought to have sold in the shop but didn’t and books that have a scarcity value that makes them appear bad value for money in the context of similar books on the same subject.

This is particularly helpful in the competitive area of buying stock from the public, while new books have got considerably more expensive since 2005 prices of secondhand books have fallen on the whole.

You have to lift out of this equation those books that are produced in massive quantities for the supermarkets and the gift market, you will find the charity shops and boot fairs overflowing with these titles.

The great vat of unwanted books we deal with by pricing them at 10p or less and even at these low prices we are still taking about a ton amount for paper pulp.

Of course I am not saying here that there aren’t bargains to be had both online and in the bookshop for that matter, nor am I saying that the internet isn’t very useful when trying to get an elusive title that you aren’t likely to encounter on the shop shelves.

What I am talking about here is what I can only call the regular book buyer and although it is difficult to generalise the two most common can be described as, either the person who reads fiction and tends to accumulate all or most of the works of the authors that they like, or the person with an interest in a subject who likes to browse through a range of books about it and chose some to add to their collection.

In some ways it is looking as though electronic readers are set to replace a considerable amount of these sales and although I think that we are still a long way from a time where actual physical paper books become just historical curiosities, this new direction in publishing is bound to have a considerable effect on secondhand bookselling in the future.

Next a random look at some books on the shelf to see how they compare, obviously this is a situation that changes all the time as both the bookshop stock and the stock of online booksellers sells and gets replaced.

The three main online places that you can buy secondhand books in the UK on the internet are:

We buy and sell books using all of these and it is important to understand that when you are buying via these sites, apart from when you buy new books directly from Amazon, you are buying from a third party.

This means that every time you purchase a book via them your experience will be different and I the case of Amazon and Abe a large proportion of the booksellers listing there stock there have it listed on both sites and for sale in their bookshops.

Many of the booksellers that list on the internet fall into this bracket, this means that quite often when you order a book this way it will have already been sold to someone else, so you wont get it.

This happens to about 5% of the books I order this way, ebay works a bit differently and sellers state if the book is for sale elsewhere.

The next problem is the one of the books condition, if you understand the rules the books listed by a professional bookseller have condition descriptions that are fairly reliable, explained roughly here, poor means atrocious, good means not very good, very good means very good and fine means pretty much like new – not written in the dust wrapper not price clipped or the spine faded, no foxing and so on – this may sound all a bit picky, but for instance a lot of first editions can only be proved to be so if the price is present on the dust wrapper, so if the corner is clipped off you can’t tell if it had a price on it in the first place.

However the real problem here is that a lot of the people listing on these online sites are not professional booksellers, so I can say that about 20% of what you buy this way comes in a condition that you don’t expect.

OK I am now going to step outside the box for a bit and try and explain the non-fiction from a customer’s point of view but with a bookseller’s knowledge.

As I said I have an interest in interest in motorcycles, have often owned British motorcycles made mostly in the 1950s and have also a particular interest in how our motorcycle industry collapsed.

This means that come birthday and Christmas I often get given books with titles like “The Big Book of Motorbikes” most of the bikes that I have owned over the years have been Norton and BSA twin cylinder machines and so I though I would look on the bookshelves of the shop today and find a few motorcycle books that actually interest me that I haven’t already got.

The first one is Norton: The Racing Story (Crowood Motoclassics Series) by Mick Walker (Hardcover - 29 Aug 2002)

We have a fine copy on the shelf for £9.99

Amazon has it new for £18.95 this would attract their free postage offer, they also have six different people selling copies described as new, prices between £12.95 and £58.24 all also having the extra postage cost of £2.75 see

It also has six secondhand copies priced between £11.40 and £72.97 also plus the £2.75 postage.

Abe have twelve copies price between £10 and £65.87 all plus between about £3 and £24 postage, see

Ebay have one copy priced £15 with free postage, see

My favourite motorcycle of the ones that I owned was a Norton Dominator so the next book that took my fancy was “Norton Dominator by Mick Walker (Hardcover - 24 July 2006)” cheapest Amazon copy, £8.50 plus £2.75 post this is an ex library copy see cheapest on abe seems to be the same book at the same price see cheapest on ebay £10.95 plus £1.75 postage

The copy on the shelf in the shop is £9.99 and in fine condition.

I won’t go on as this could get very boring.

Both of these titles started out as new titles priced at £19.95, this was a real price, not like “The Big Book of Motorbikes” with £30 printed on the cover that has only ever sold for the most at about £10, usually at garden centres and via multiples.

These are both books that I paid £5 for to sell for £10 which then takes me to the person wanting to sell the book, in the past I suppose they would have taken the books to their local second hand bookshop got their £5 each for them and that would have been it. So what about the eight people that have put their copies of the book on ebay, will any of these sell, certainly all these people will pay listing fees.

One of the customers today was a chap who was off on a cruise and bought a big pile of Wilber Smith and Jack Higgins paperbacks to read, lose on the way, give to people he met and any of the other thing that happen to paperbacks on holiday. The 30 or so books he bought in various conditions came to about £45, and I tried to do something similar on the internet just now. Frankly you either do it expensively or you are looking at about a days work to get anywhere near the prices that he paid in the bookshop.

I suppose the problem here is that rather like the world of small shops the large multinational companies are always looking for profit, at the moment with the way they are running internet selling sites they are already getting a very substantial proportion of any profit, particularly with lower priced items.
The problem may be that as this goes on they want more and more of the cake.


  1. I also grew up in Ramsgate and had about 30 bikes in total including BSA Gold Stars(wish I had them now). I have just given Phil Spain a large album of my photographs of friends on bikes round Thanet involving the Invicta Motorcycle Club, and the Ramsgate Undercliff Sprint in the 1960s. He is going to scan them in and post them on the Ramsgate Remembered site. My memories of the Reliant I drove was more about the interior noise level. Never managed to overturn it unlike a friend in an Isetta bubble car when all the windows popped out.

  2. 17.34 I have already spoken to Phil about this and think that there is the makings of a book about the club there, something I would very much like to publish.

    I never could afford a Gold Star although a mate of mine had a Gold Star engine in a featherbed frame, which I tried out and rather liked.

    I had the green Reliant van that I bought from Tony at Bike Bits and was around Ramsgate for several years in the 70s, I overcame the noise with lots of layers of carpet, the main problem I had with it was the wooden floor had a tendency to catch fire due to the heat from the exhaust.

  3. On the Reliant, there was the problem of keeping the weight under 8cwt otherwise it went into the normal car tax bracket. Removing the passenger seat, spare wheel and minimal fuel in the tank were various ruses. I also had a Bond Minicar for a week but the less said about that the better. Phil has a pic of me sitting in it in Central Road where the Bonugli brothers live(d). No Honda Gold Wings or Harleys then, but plenty of oil dripping from an engine.

  4. Before the late 90's you were also trading with the Net Book Agreement in place. No doubt this has had some effect on the small book seller.

  5. 19.30 I think the weight rule predated the time I had one as I never had any problems and always paid tax at the motorcycle rate. I also believe that you could drive them at one time on a provisional licence if reverse gear was blanked out, something I don’t think you could still do when I had one.

    I don’t recall that the Reliant dipped much, the bikes yes with the Norton not only the primary chain case but the breather that was supposed to lubricate the drive chain meant that Dominators had self lubricating back wheels.

    19.31 It didn’t effect the secondhand book world that much, but when it went it decimated the new book world, we went from having pretty much the cheapest books in the world to pretty much the dearest. Not so very good for the customer, unless you happen to want the titles that the big chains decide to put on special offer, where I suppose the prices are about what they would have been before it went.

    You may wish to ask yourself the question, with no fixed price agreement what do the prices printed on the books actually mean?

  6. I gave up riding motorbikes (mid 70s)- it was no fun anymore after I'd been knocked off along Manston Road when a car didn't signal (the driver found it amusing). Was only a Honda B120P, had a Suzuki 50 as my first machine (from Philpotts). Used that in the sixth form to get to school.
    My now wife once dozed off on the pillion of the Honda whilst we were on the M20 travelling to Guildford
    Do remember the driving examiner leaping out by Margate gasworks for the emergency stop. No formal lessons in those days - my tutors were my fellow venture scouts who had already passed their tests.

  7. Michael, I've started scanning and publishing the Sprint photos on the Ramsgate History Forum HERE and on a new Ramsgate Sprint Blog HERE

    I'm having trouble identifying the bikes and riders so any help would be appreciated. I have programmes for 1966, '67 and '68 but I can't tell which year the photos were taken.

    This project will take some time, especially with summer attractions vying for priority.

  8. 20.15 Absolutely apart from a few Highway Code questions, jumping out from behind the tree for the emergency stop and watching me ride up and down the road that was it.

    Phil I think that we may have a bit of a chicken and egg situation with this one. I suspect that a lot of the riders will only be identified when we have something in printed form to show to people.

  9. The 1966 programme is available HERE. 1967 & 1968 will follow soon.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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