For 13 years from 1973, Alec Dickins ran his second-hand bookshop, the Rocks Bookshop, in a terrace shop of two storeys between the northern end of George Street and the Argyle Cut. He fiercely vetted entry to the upper floor, giving those who were refused entry a big feeling of missing out.
”People declined entry would sometimes ask him what it took to get up to the second floor,” fellow Sydney book dealer Peter Tinsley, who patronised the shop in his youth, recalls. ”They asked if I could help them get up there.”
But Dickins genuinely admitted only people he considered worthy of climbing the stairs. One day, an eminent man of the cloth entered and was greeted by, ”You cannot go up there.”
”Don’t you know who I am?” the clergyman asked. Surely Dickins exaggerated in his reply, ”Yes, but 60 per cent of the book thefts around the world are by churchmen.”
Later, working as a cataloguer of rare books at Tim Goodman’s auction house in Waterloo, Dickins had a great deal of difficulty in agreeing to the low reserves necessary to make sure consignments sold. He refused to lower the bar, says Anne Phillips, who ran the art and book auctions that made a very big contribution to the Goodman, later Bonham and Goodman, operation in the mid-2000s. She also had difficulty in persuading Dickins to box rather than individually lot many a book.
Virtually every old book had some value. He catalogued them meticulously and gave them lots of time. The founder of the auction house, Tim Goodman, remembers that Dickins once asked for a day off to have a pacemaker put in. ”Just one day?” gasped Goodman. An argument followed but Dickins insisted on keeping his absence down to a day because a sale was coming up.
True to form, he came in to work the day after and was at the top of a ladder shuffling the books around on the shelves when Goodman spotted a bit of blood on his shirt and pointed it out. ”Oh my goodness there is,” said Dickins, who went into the toilet, washed it off his shirt and climbed back up the ladder.
When weakened by a variety of other physical problems, particularly in the last two years of his life after a serious accident when crossing the road, Dickins refused to sit in a wheelchair.
He enjoyed presenting himself as a bit of a likeable pretend cad and a ladies man, which he could do, in a kind of Terry-Thomas sort of way with the upper British accent that stuck with him from his days in the family house in London’s fashionable Cambridge Square.
Alec Collingwood Dickins was born on September 23, 1923 on a ship heading across the Atlantic. ”Born at sea” presented many exchanges later in life when a birth certificate had to be presented. His father, Alex, was one of the two second-generation brothers of the New York global publishing house of Henry Dickins and Co.
Alec went to the prestigious Harrow School in Middlesex, which nurtured his love of literature. His spoken English was as meticulous as his writing, and sometime wrongly gave acquaintances the impression there was a bit of pomp in him.
He loved English literature, including the work of Charles Dickens, whose surname he regretted was spelt differently.
By the 1930s, and after Alec’s education at a respected East Coast college, his family had settled in fashionable Mayfair in London, but the family fortune was dwindling and inheritance taxes had to be paid. Alec’s appreciation of English, developed through the family’s love of books, served him well.
When World War II broke out, Dickins was on holiday with his family in America. So he crossed into Canada and joined the Canadian army. His family said he never talked about the war and, for that reason, cannot elaborate on the bunch of medals he had. He was nonchalant about danger and appears to have had a lively war.
Occasionally, in passing, he gave unexpected insights into this time. Anne Phillips remembers asking him the name of a bridge in an etching and he said it was over the Arno in Florence. He remembered because he had to crawl across it during a campaign for the advance of the Allied forces in Italy. So off-handed, casual and convincing were these occasional stories that there was no likelihood they could have been made up.
After the war, Dickins became a copywriter and manager in the advertising industry working for Time magazine and on marketing the Ten Pound Pom scheme in Britain.
This meant many trips to Australia, and Dickins finally settled in Sydney in 1970 and opened his bookshop that year. He continued to do the Times crossword every day and usually polished it off very quickly.
Dickins catalogued old books continuously and meticulously, and in the process saved many from destruction, but auctions became a less rewarding part of the collectible industry because of the intensity of descriptive skills required and the fall in the status of books in the community. His contribution to cataloguing may now look a vanishing and oblique skill.
He failed, however, to instil a love of old books in his daughters. One of them, Ursula concedes, ”We grew up surrounded by old books and were a bit underwhelmed by them, especially after helping stack and sort them over the years.”
The sisters were always impressed though by the respect their father commanded in a world long gone, with books now increasingly in electronic form. Dickins even frowned on modern first editions, which have been the subject of several manic booms in the book business over more than a century, and he also eschewed the emphasis on investment that had taken over the rare-book field.
Dickins also had a valuable different perspective to most Australian bibliophiles who have tended to trade mostly in Australiana.
He lived in a world of British and other overseas antiquarian books – and maps – rather than Australiana, although he did not rule it out.
He was a leading light in the Australasian Antiquarian Booksellers Association, often sitting at the door at its annual book fairs, trying to resist the temptation not to let people in.
Dickins died in his North Shore Sydney nursing home the way he would have wanted – being given a gentle bubble bath by a young nurse.
Alec Dickins is survived by his daughters Ursula and Matilda, ex-wife Victoria and grandchildren RJ and Eloise.
There will be a commemorative function for Alec Dickins on Sunday, September 22. Details: EstateOfAlecDickins@gmail.com