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Dealing with the Texts

Peter Inch

One spring day, twelve or so years ago, I found myself in Lucca, exploring this little Italian city's medieval core., which is encircled by a perfectly preserved Renaissance fortification system. I was holding a copy of Camillo Sitte's City Planning According to Aesthetic Principles in my hand. Walking from the Piazza Antelminelli to the Piazza Grande (which is actually not medieval at all., but designed by Napoleon's sister), I felt a small frisson of pleasure as the sequence of squares opened up before my eyes. just as Sitte had described h nearly a century previously. Such an experience was for me a nice conjunction of place and text .

Not long after this visit, I gave up my job as a senior lecturer, specialising in planning history, to become an art and architecture bookseller. I founded Inch's Books, with my former partner, Janette Ray, in York in 1985. Since then most of the other editions of Sitte's famous book have come and gone. In Lucca I carried the scholarly American version edited by George and Christiane Collins (1965). Subsequently the business has acquired - and sold again - the original Austrian edition (1889), the rather eccentric first French edition (1902), the first American edition, with introductory note by Saarinen (1945) and the first Italian edition (1953). I have never seen the Russian edition (1925). Significantly, there never has been a British edition. As well as these variant editions, we have also had most of the key texts influenced by Sitte's book - works by Raymond Unwin, Werner Hegemann and Eliel Saarinen, amongst others.

Urban design books have been a part of my life during recent years. These books are often interesting and attractive and there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from handling the key texts - from Ruskin's Stones of Venice to Edge City. Author signed copies, dedication copies, first editions and copies from book collections we have purchased (like those of Reyner Banham and Arthur Ling) have all come our way at one time or another. A piece of the past is captured as one holds such an original edition or association copy in one's hand. Or as Waiter Benjamin says,' I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth'. ('Unpacking My Library' in Illuminations ).

In the bookselling world 'urban design' is not usually regarded as a clear-cut subject: unlike, for example, 'architecture' or 'landscape design', or even'town planning'. Perhaps this is because its boundaries seem unclear to the outsider. It is often difficult to know where the subject begins and ends and what texts ought rightfully to be included. Can Traffic in Towns or'The Hook Book'or Theory and Design in the First Machine Age be regarded as urban design texts? In my view, yes they can; but for many, the parameters of the subject are confusing, However, bookselling, like any other activity, should not become set in its ways. There ought to be a creative approach, where one can formulate one's own categories, and urban design certainly seems an interesting and lively subject at present.

Who are the customers for these books? Academic libraries, of course, acquire them, when they have the money. There also appear to be three other categories of buyer. The first of these is the academic or practitioner 'direct user', the person who asks for a particular book just because he or she needs it, for the job in hand. Architectural practices and planning consultants often ask Inch's Books to find particular books in this way.

Secondly, there is a growing number of collectors of urban design books. Several collecting topics have been developing recently. For instance, the fine 1940s British reconstruction plans by Abercrombie, Reilly, Sharp and others, with their attractive coloured maps, photos and diagrams are much in demand and prices of them have risen lately. Then there are books by particular authors, like Ian Nairn and Gordon Cullen.

Extract from 'The County of London Plan Explained', Carter and Goldfinger 1945, providing visions of the future. Where are the plans with similar visions today?

A third category of customer seems to be a hybrid of the previous two. This individual I would like to call 'the user-collector'. Such people buy books and enjoy the collecting bug, but are also acquiring them for a purpose. From the bookselling point of view, this is a valuable type of customer, but one not always recognised by the trade, which focuses over-much on the pure collector kind of customer, wanting first editions, in pristine condition, with nice dust wrappers. For the 'user-collector', collectable books are not essentially useless objects, as they are for most other collectors, they are an intrinsic part of a practical working library.

Where are the customers for urban design books? They are certainly widely spread. Far away customers often become our friends. The Japanese market is particularly strong and academics there seem to be very interested in British topics like wartime and early post-war reconstruction, New Town design and townscape. They are surprisingly knowledgeable about these subjects. But we have customers all over the world and probably half our sales in this area are overseas. It should be added, this is a two way process: we also buy many books abroad and import them into Britain.

Recently, technology has come sharply into focus with e-mail and Web sites as pressing needs for the specialist bookseller. The bookseller is in a good position to observe shifting trends and reputations in a subject like urban design. Some books always seem to be in demand, for instance, Gordon Cullen's Townscape and we notice increased interest these days in books or plans by Max Lock and Anthony King. Other figures, including, Thomas Sharp, Ian Nairn and Clough Williams-Ellis, are making a comeback after being quite neglected, whilst the demand for others, for instance, Frederick Gibberd and Doxiadis, seems to be on the wane.

A bookseller performs several valuable services. He or she is able to find or replace books for customers, of course. In September, there are often earnest phone calls from parents with student reading lists. (it is surprising to me that quite often these lists seem rather dated, stuck in a time warp.) And early signs of Christmas are the calls for copies of Banister Fletcher to give as presents. The bookseller also performs a rescuing service, redirecting useful books that might otherwise be destroyed. This is particularly true of academic ex-library books, which are being de-accessioned at an alarming rate these days.

Perhaps above all, the specialist bookseller should play a key networking role. Knowledge about research topics needs to be handled with discretion of course, but many research contracts have been made via our business and we like to think we are a good information source. A customer who recently completed his PhD (on the interesting subject of changing urban design theories in Britain since World War II) said he found our bookshop a better source of ideas and information than his tutor. The modern specialist bookseller is part of the information revolution. He or she is perhaps really marketing information, not books.

How valuable are urban design books? This article is not intended to be a general price guide, but a few high values can perhaps be mentioned. You might have to pay up to £1000 for a good copy, with the Waiter Crane designed cover, of Ebenezer Howard's seminal garden city book, Tomorrow (1898). For the second edition, when this work acquired its better known revised title, Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902), the price might be £250. Other expensive titles include Patrick Geddes' City Development (his plan for Pittencrieff Park, Dunfermline, 1904) at about £200 and Werner Hegemann's magisterial The American Vitruvius at about £250. Two recent urban design titles that are already very expensive are Learning from Las Vegas (1972) and Delirious New York (1978) both perhaps around £150. Generally, the values of books on urban design are increasing faster than for most books.

There always seems to be a need for more good stock. The travelling bookseller is very like Waiter Benjamin (himself an incurable book collector), who grasped the geography of a foreign city, articulated it in his mind, through its bookshops.'How many cities have revealed themselves to me in marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!' ( Illuminations ). This has been very true for me in Lisbon, San Diego, Montreal, Copenhagen, Dublin and a great many other places, large and small, around the world. And always there is the pull of serendipity, the prospect of that unique find on the next shelf or in the next town.

Books often seem like characters, with interesting stories to tell. Last month I was driving north from Miami, to visit one of Florida's better bookshops (Hittel's in Fort Lauderdale). The endless strip development along State Road 7 was pure Americana; it was a good situation to evaluate Appleyard, Lynch and Myer's The View from the Road . At the end of the journey there was a nice encounter, on the shelves, with a rarity: Frank Lloyd Wright's The Disappearing City (1932). This was Wright's first articulation of his' Broadacre City' concept.'Pioneering now lies along this new frontier: decentralisation,'he claims near the end of this polemical text. Did he realise what all that would lead to? I 'rescue' this book with quite a few dollars. At present it is safely relocated in a locked bookcase here in York (rubbing shoulders with Le Corbusier's Propos d'Urbanisme and Raymond Unwin'sTown Planning Practice ). But where will it go next? And for how long will it stay there?

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