On the occasion of the release of the 200th catalogue of the world’s foremost cricket dealer John McKenzie, Arunabha Sengupta looks back at what has been a splendid journey.
“A hundred of anything is nearly always significant,” wrote the late David Rayvern Allen in the introduction to the 100th catalogue produced by John McKenzie. That was in 1996, and it had taken 24 years.
The strike rate has been steady. If anything, it has accelerated just a wee bit. The veteran cricket book dealer has just released catalogue number 200. The second hundred has taken 23 years. And, to paraphrase David Rayvern Allen, it is doubly significant.
The South African born McKenzie started out operating his book store from his home. The interest in cricket was inherited from his father, a South African journalist. It was nurtured through a perusal of cricket books and frequent visits to the grounds. The books were often acquired through long bicycle trips stretching beyond county borders. Apprenticeship carried out at Francis Edward antiquarian bookshop in Marylebone and Ben Weinreb’s Architecture Books in Bloomsbury went a long way in setting him up as a dealer.
When the books started spilling out of every possible shelf, he found the current premises. The outlet at 12 Stoneleigh Park, Epsom, Surrey, used to be a lending library and our man came across it while taking his dog out on a walk. It was convenient … close to home and, being a library, it came with shelves. The purchase was completed in 1973.
The early catalogues were trendsetting. Most cricket book dealers used to send out pamphlets akin to roneoed lists. A John McKenzie catalogue was a full-fledged booklet, almost a collector’s items in its own rights, with detailed information enhanced with illustrations.
The catalogues continued to be churned out and the stocks continued to increase. The Roland and Betty Cole business was purchased in 1973, the collections of AW Shelton, Roy Webber, O. Couldrey, EN Green, HRT Holmes, AC McKay, KJ Cole and others were acquired. An extra floor was added to the premises in 1977. Periodic extensions have been made since then, such as a major one in 1991.
The gems that have made to the stock include a copy of the 1798 Britcher’s, an original 1864 Wisden (purchased for £1000 in 1983), the full range of Ashley-Cooper and so on… There is a magnificent collection of cricketana as well, including Coalport china plates, cigarette cards, commemorative handkerchiefs and much more.
The business has brought forth interesting associations. Harold Pinter had appeared at his doorstep in search of copies of Wisden. A young John McKenzie ended up visiting him regularly, to play Table Tennis with the playwright and his son. There have been a complete set of Wisdens sold to the cricket loving author and lyricist Sir Tim Rice. There have been visits by the likes of the Bedser twins, Jack Fingleton and several other cricketers. And while on purchasing tours in Australia, there have been dinners with Don and Jesse Bradman.
As McKenzie recollects: “In the mid-1980s a rare J M Barrie cricket book appeared at auction. Don Bradman contacted me as he had a copy of this book, but unfortunately his copy was the reprint. He invited me to visit on my next trip to Australia, which I did, and saw him on each of my trips to Australia.”
JW McKenzie Cricket Books is probably one of the rare institutions about which Bradman and Fingleton had similar views.
However, John McKenzie’s contribution to cricket has not been limited to selling cricket books and artefacts. He has published over 50 books himself.
This includes the recent publication of the appreciation of Everton Weekes, the last ever book penned by Tony Cozier. McKenzie, Cozier and Weekes got together for a memorable meeting in the Caribbean while the book was being finalised.
The latest effort in publishing has been Sir Garfield Sobers: The Bayland’s Favourite Son by Keith Sandiford, a look at the career of the legend with emphasis on his early years. Some of the reprints of the early cricket books that he has carried out remains invaluable to serious researchers.
47 years and 200 catalogues later, McKenzie’s enthusiasm for the game remains unabated. He can be seen variously in MCC colours at Lord’s, or enjoying a Test match in the Caribbean, and even taking a day off to watch a day’s cricket at Arundel.
The double century under his belt, John McKenzie chugs along, cheerful and enthusiastic as ever. Catch him during the lunch break, or between correspondence and cataloguing in his shop, and you will be regaled with cricketing tales, from his interactions with Louis Duffus to letters exchanged with SF Barnes.
There have been a few heartbreaks on the way. For example, after acquiring the diary of Victor Trumper, McKenzie had been informed that the Australian Heritage Department would not allow the item out of the country.
But on the whole it has been a great innings so far, with plenty of excitement and a fascinating cast of characters. 200 is just a landmark on the way.
Artwork by Maha