By Sylvia Bunting
I have a friend who worked on the railways, and enjoys travelling far and wide by rail in his retirement. Once a year he hands me a paper bag bursting with bookmarks picked up from Edinburgh, Camden, Truro and many points in between. I can feel grateful without feeling guilty, because I know they have cost him nothing. If I collected Georgian silver I could never ask my friends to pick something up for me, but with bookmarks there is no problem.
Of course, I can and do look out for items myself. All the bookmarks illustrated here came free; in my collection of around 20,000, over 6,000 cost nothing. No holiday is complete without a visit to the local library and bookshops, to see what is sitting on the counter waiting for a casual grab. Library bookmarks, usually sponsored by the local authority, often have community messages on the reverse highlighting the concern of the moment. In the 90s there were many ‘Don’t go with Strangers’, ten years later domestic abuse figured regularly, and in recent years internet safety has made an appearance.
Bookshops promote their own chain (Waterstones have some fine examples) and also pass on bookmarks issued by publishers to promote a particular book or author.
Another fertile source is charity shops – Oxfam, the British Heart Foundation and the Samaritans have all issued interesting series, though in these cases I try and put something in their collecting boxThe ultimate source, in theory, is a second-hand book seller. After all, bookmarks are usually found where they have been left in books. Sadly, the days when a bookseller would just wave you away free of charge with a couple of finds, are past. Some charge a fixed rate, say 20p, others see a date pre-1980 and try to coax £5 out of your wallet. A useful strategy here is to make friends with an assistant in a charity bookshop, (like the Red Cross, see left) and have an arrangement that he or she will keep any discovered bookmarks for you to collect at intervals.
Better still, for acquiring older bookmarks, is making friends with a librarian. In my home town one of the library staff kept a box by the counter for bookmarks left in library books, and passed them on to me. But my prime example is a Dutch friend who called in at a local library to look at an exhibition of bookmarks: 30 years’ worth of finds from books. Knowing the library was about to move, she asked what would happen to the bookmarks and was offered the whole collection, numbering several hundred.
Of course, experienced collectors try to take several of each bookmark when available, and exchange them with collecting friends from different areas.
In The Bookmark Society we usually include a swaplist in our thrice-yearly newsletter, asking only for duplicate bookmarks in exchange. We often find that one collector’s commonplace is a rarity to a friend from different parts.
I have to confess that I carry one or two surplus bookmarks, in good condition, in my handbag. If I see a friend’s book with an interesting bookmark, I ask to swap, and so far no-one has turned me down.
The question then arises, what do you do when you have a number of bookmarks? That depends on your style of collecting. If you are a completist, you can return to the source until you have a complete series (say, Waterstones Christmas bookmarks). If you use ephemera to trace social themes, you can fling your net wide to see what bookmarks say about the internet or recycling. If you like to cover the field, you can gather examples of every kind of bookmark to show their many materials, themes and uses.
Of course, I am biased. I have been collecting bookmarks for thirty years and have still not exhausted their possibilities.