When John Randall first set foot in Asia at the age of three, he was unimpressed. It took a few more years to develop an interest in the region – initially as a voracious reader, then as a traveller, and eventually as a specialist bookseller.
John’s greatest claim to fame in the book trade is to have sold the first book underwater. On a trip to Paris in 1994, he picked up a copy of Camera Studies in Iraq from a Paris dealer. Returning to London by train through the recently opened Channel Tunnel, he ran into the great collector of books on the Middle East, Mike Burrell. No sooner had he shown Mike his recent purchase when Mike demanded to buy it then and there – deep in the tunnel, under the English Channel (La Manche).
John’s initiation into bookselling actually began in his teens, when a less literate friend inherited the Bookworm Bookshop in Leatherhead and enlisted John to spend the summer of 1968 selling books there.
Books took a backseat to the travel bug, however, when John packed his rucksack that fall and set out for India, an overland journey – then known as the Hippy Trail – that covered Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Parkistan, India and Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia. The total outlay for this five–month road trip was £60.00, the maximum currency one was allowed to take out of Britain at the time.
Settling for a time in Australia, John worked for Dymocks, then one of the largest bookstores in Sydney. There his job was to supply books delivered to remote cattle stations by the Flying Doctor Service. A further year was spent working for Georgian House, marketing the publications of Cambridge University Press and Colonel Allen’s books on horses.
Growing fascination with Southeast Asia steered John to Indonesia for a year, after which he returned to London to take a degree in Southeast Asian Studies at SOAS – a radical departure from his designated path in chemical engineering. His new degree entailed a further six-month stint in Indonesia to tackle the language.
While at SOAS, John funded his studies selling Asian antiques on London’s renowned Portobello Road. He also took on vacation jobs at the British Library where, on graduation, he earned a short-term contract. As no permanent jobs were available at the Library in those days of poor government funding, he took up a more lucrative position as an Indonesian-language translator on a maritime legal case.
John set up his own business in 1978, initially with a stall on Portobello Road, later sharing a brilliantly designed shop in Fulham Road with Han Shan Tang, and eventually opening his own shop in Moreton Street, Pimlico, in 1982.
After twenty years in Pimlico, John moved to Suffolk, maintaining a foothold in Bloomsbury. But on acquiring the 50,000-volume stock of Ad Orientam, he needed a much larger warehouse, which he located in Rye, East Sussex.
For the past ten years, John has been joined at Books of Asia by his wife Wendy Law-Yone, a Burmese-American writer. They work out of central London and Rye, with frequent travels abroad.
Jan Smith deals with keeping the stock in order, and with shipping from Rye.