The 90 year old book-seller

Reginald Simpson is an elderly gentleman who has dedicated his life to books. For over fifty years he worked as a librarian. He will proudly tell you that he has worked for the Library Service of every London Borough. He is now in his nineties.

His passion for books has permeated every aspect of his life. He brought up his family (three daughters) in a house over-flowing with books. His hobby was collecting books and at one point he dabbled as a book binder. He and Mrs Simpson frequently travelled overseas with the ‘Retired Librarian’s Club’ visiting libraries of note in France, Italy and Spain. They say in life you should follow your passion and Mr Simpson has certainly done that.

I was lucky enough to meet Reg Simpson on a very rainy day in April, 2014. I was in pursuit of a first edition copy of ‘Venice’ written by James Morris and published in 1960. I was keen to get my hands on a really good copy. I’d found a listing on the internet for RMS Books and when I phoned to enquire a very charming gentleman explained to me that he did indeed have a first edition. He then went on to tell me about his collection. I was completely hooked. He’d built up a personal library of probably 5000 books over six decades. His particular interests included travel, art and history. I agreed to buy the James Morris book there and then. About a week later I got a letter from Reg’s daughter Diane, with a long list attached of other books that I may be interested in. I decided to drive down to South London and take a look for myself.

The Simpson residence is a beautiful 1930s detached house, with an enormous garden and attractive stained glass around the front door. Reg’s study is located on the left of the entrance hall. The study, and I later discover every other room in the house, are filled with books. There were piles of books waiting for me to investigate. I started with the first pile and worked my way slowly through them. Almost every title was a gem. Augustus Hare’s ‘Walks in Rome’ published in 1909 and in perfect condition was enthralling. There was a book by HV Morton too ’The Fountains of Rome’ explaining in great detail the importance of a fresh water supply to the growth of the city. The diagrams of the six aqueducts that channeled water into the centre of Rome and the history of the fountains they supplied, form, architecture and style makes for an interesting read. I put it in my ‘definite’ pile.

There’s an 1856 edition of Charles Dickens ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ which I put in the ‘definite’ pile. I notice it was published by Chapman & Hall, 193, Piccadilly, London. Then my eye is drawn to ‘Letters from the North of Italy’ by William Stewart Rose (1819). This book is almost 200 years old and Rose is admonishing the reader and starting letters with an arrogant and superior tone, for example; “As you, I believe, were never at private school…..” and continuing with ”…I Vicentini, Ladri ed Assassini….” which means that the people of Vicenza were know as thieves and assassins. Although he goes on to reassure us that cases of assassination are “…now unknown in Italy….”. This goes in the ‘definite’ pile too.

I’m completely absorbed in the books when there is a gentle knock at the door. I look up. It is Michael, Reg’s brother-in-law. He asks me if I’d like to stay for lunch. I gladly accept. Half an hour later we sit down to a delicious lunch of chicken, salad, warm bread and even a bottle of wine. Most unexpected and quite delicious. Michael has an interesting story too, he was a Botanist at Kew and spent his entire working life cataloguing flora and fauna at the Royal Horticultural Society. Both gents Reg and Michael grew up in the East End. They moved to Surrey – South London really – in the late fifties to try to give their family a better life, a garden, fresh air. Reg’s daughters join us for lunch too – it is a great treat and adds to the festive nature of this quite remarkable day.

I suddenly realise the time, it is almost three o’clock and I haven’t finished going through the books. I head back to the study and continue my task. I identify a huge volume on Rome. It lists all the ‘architectural buildings’ worthy of note – according to the author Francis Wey (1872). I’m also captivated by a 1740s edition of ‘Gerusalemme Liberata’ an epic poem by Torquatto Tasso. I’ve got to have that too. This visit to the Simpson household has been a visit to a ‘treasure trove’ for me – a cornucopia of history, art, culture and geography.

I start to pack up my belongings, settle up with my hosts and say my farewells. I’ve had an incredible day, I’ve experienced great hospitality, witnessed an exceptional collection of books and really understood (perhaps for the first time) the highly personal nature of a ‘private library’ and its owner. As I’m leaving Mr Simpson gives me a parting gift. It is a 1958 ‘Guide to Paris for School Visits’ written by Janetta Millray. Miss Millray offers advice on passports, sight-seeing, language, food and culture to hapless school children and their parents. This is one of the most amusing of her observations, ‘The traveller who complains, when abroad, that he cannot get British food is a ridiculous figure; the proper place to get British food is in Britain, so why search for it in France?’ I have to say Miss Millray – I completely agree with you!

I get in the car and start my journey home. My beautiful collection of books carefully stacked in the boot. I feel slightly over-whelmed and completely humbled by the richness of the collection I’ve seen today and the generosity of my hosts. It seems to me that every day in life really can be a new adventure. I’m reminded of the words of the poet Robert Frost (1874-1963)….

”Two roads diverged in a wood, and I……I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”

An impressive selection of vintage Penguin paper backs....
An impressive selection of vintage Penguin paper backs….

One thought on “The 90 year old book-seller

  1. Thanks for sharing Janet. I can see the Victorian House with the stained glass windows .. so very British. I found some wonderful Penguin books in Freiburg of all places, when people were clearing out their libraries they’d just leave them in a box on the pavement for anyone interested. Recycling at its best!


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