There's nothing quite like an old-fashioned browse for antiques though the Internet has also made a mark with the collector.

There's something so wonderfully comforting about walking into an antique store… Inside that Aladdin's Cave of pretty, shiny things, I fall in love with fussy little objects d'art nestling on handsome teapoys and delicate silver artefacts that gleam under golden, dancing sun-beams.

I wander about, in a sort of semi-trance, unable to decide what I enjoy more - the gorgeous smell of old, lovingly polished wooden surfaces, or the heady aroma of freshly brewed tea…

I'm at Anteaques, a quaint little antique shop in Edinburgh, by no means the city's biggest but certainly among its finest, with an elegantly appointed parlour, that neatly doubles-up as the tearoom! Cedric Maynard, the affable co-owner, is carefully decanting teas in various exotic flavours (think almond, rose petal and verbena) into twee red paper-bags, all the while telling me about ornate Victorian houses of yore that could have easily passed for a museum, transporting me altogether to a different era!

I couldn't help thinking about the days, long before Amazon/e-bay and the convenience of one-click buying, when antique-shops were practically places of worship for collectors and the dealers, fonts of knowledge.

Fierce competition

“Today, there are many more ways of sourcing antiques and there seems to be a wider audience,” acknowledges Cedric. “Shops are still around; auction houses are doing well, as they have moved with the times and embraced online auctioning.”

All, it seems, is well, except for the robust and, at times, fierce competition from online antique dealers happily running a small, flourishing business from the spare-room!

The Internet, however, has not killed off the business, stresses Cedric. “It has only changed the rules.” Prices, thanks to online resources, are transparent; but competition remains intense; at times pitting dealers against their very customers, as they bid for the same ‘lots'!

A very different modus operandi indeed, from the pre-Internet era, when antique collectors would frequently seek out lovely way-out little shops and, with a keen eye, build collections that, by today's standards, would be formidable. Graeme Munro, the former Chief Executive of Historic Scotland, talks about his late father-in-law, one such collector. “He travelled a lot throughout England in the course of his work and holidayed in Scotland and collected early 19th century blue and white Spode. His aim was to collect at least one example of every design and shape. Whether he achieved that, I do not know but he did build up - over many years and at relatively modest cost - what I believe was one of the largest collections in private ownership.”

The thrill of the chase

A keen book-collector himself, Graeme talks about browsing around second-hand bookstores in Edinburgh, Harrogate and Alnwick, looking for those elusive titles that will complete his collection of “Britain in Pictures” books. “The books,' he says, “were published by Collins during the Second World War (1940s and into the 1950s) to celebrate the best of British achievements and to raise morale, emphasising the values that the country was defending from the totalitarian Nazi regime.

I know of 114 titles in the main series, of which I have now collected 97, from second-hand or charity bookshops around the U.K. A few I have bought on-line but it is not so satisfying as tracking down a copy on a shelf in a bookshop!'

And yet, the Internet has definitely revolutionised book-collecting, says Stuart Manley, who, along with his wife Mary, owns Barter Books, one of Britain's largest second hand book-stores at Alnwick, Northumberland. Inside the lovingly restored Victorian Railway station (that now houses the enormous book-shop) they stock nearly 350,000 titles, among them many rare, antiquarian books, some costing several thousand pounds!

New gems

“In the days before the Internet, collectors typically went to thousands of second-hand book-stores, but the rarer titles might still have eluded them, whereas now with live-searches on the web, you discover new gems everyday.” He talks about people who collect crime writer Sue Grafton's alphabet series. “They might have, quite easily, found the L M and N titles; others are far more difficult, especially B C D and E. We often get e-mails from people, asking if we have those titles!'

It hardly seems to matter, in the end, whether it's a first-time customer who walks in for a cream-tea and a quick-browse (the tea-room, Cedric assures me, attracts those who are otherwise too intimidated to walk into an antique shop) or a passionate collector who eschews the effortless simplicity of buying out a collection online… Nobody, really, can fail to be charmed by a collection of objects – be it exquisite, hand-painted china, miniature revolving book-cases, or lovely, brick-red hard-bound books – that come with not just a price-tag, but also a delicious story, long history and the glorious patina of old-age…

(See http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-literaryreviewarticle1513674.ece for article on Barter Books)

Quick tips

Anteaques is located in Clerk Street, Edinburgh and is open Thursday to Sunday, 11.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m.

Barter Books is located in Alnwick, Northumberland, about an hour's train ride away from Edinburgh/Newcastle; Open every day except Christmas. (Station: Alnmouth for Alnwick. Barter-books is a £8 taxi-ride from Alnmouth station.)

Stuart Manley suggests AddALL (www.addall.com) or BookFinder (www.bookfinder.com) as the top sites for comprehensive online book-searches.

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Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012