There's a man at the Sheung Wan end of Hollywood Road who admits he recently handled a pair of Lolitas - a thrilling experience, by his telling. 'Exquisite,' he says. 'Simply beautiful, and I know where they live.' But before you call the police, it should be explained that, as the proprietor of Lok Man Rare Books, Lorence Johnston is a specialist in first editions. The subject of his passion is not flesh and blood but Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, published by Olympia Press in Paris in 1955 with a first-edition print run of just 5,000 copies and subsequently banned in almost every English-speaking country. Fifty years ago, it could be bought in a plain brown wrapper for 900 francs. Today, it's worth an estimated HK$300,000. Johnston, who had been working in his family's leather business, opened Lok Man Rare Books in June last year after a colleague suggested the company's B Felix showroom, with its hand-crafted leather chairs but empty shelves, could do double duty as a bookshop. It was the perfect environment for Johnston's bibliomania and a way to test what he believed was happening at the luxury end of the Hong Kong market. Since then, his shop has become part of a nascent synergy developing on Hollywood Road, already an established destination for antiques and art - Lok Man Rare Books, IndoSiam Rare Books and the long established Wattis Gallery have found common cause in the ongoing education of an increasingly sophisticated customer base. Having lived in Hong Kong since 1994, arriving from Essex via Spain and Singapore, Johnston, who is married with two young children, is confident his local knowledge, his MBA from the University of Cape Town and passion for books can turn a profit from what people have tossed aside after the final page. There is no hard-sell to his style. He knows how to read a potential buyer, how to probe for likely interests and how to nudge them towards an often pricey title that might take their fancy. 'That's one of the biggest hurdles in retail,' he says, 'resisting the hard sell. There's too much of it in Hong Kong. I don't think it was a conscious decision for me. I just don't think I would enjoy myself if I did business that way.' To build on his knowledge acquired over the years as a 'serious amateur' collector and to gain tips on the highly competitive book trade, he attends major book fairs in London and New York - the capitals of the book business - important auctions, where he first got to know of Hong Kong map dealer Jonathan Wattis, and visits influential bookshops such as Peter Harrington or Nigel Williams in London. Johnston's eclectic tastes range from modern first editions and contemporary authors - he sold a signed first edition of Brett Eason Ellis' first novel Less Than Zero recently for HK$2,200 - to Graham Greene - fine copies of the The Quiet American are increasingly scarce - and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). He likes Antarctic explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert F. Scott, former British prime minister Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, of course, and has a copy of Jack Kerouac's Beat era classic, On the Road (HK$35,000). A few weeks ago he sold a first edition of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for HK$10,000. His shelves hold a set of Joseph Conrad, a first edition of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, with the writer's pseudonym 'Boz' on the title page, and which the extremely informative Johnston has traced back to the first week of printing, and some nice Winnie the Pooh books by A.A. Milne, which may find a home on the mainland (China has put Piglet on a postage stamp for the Year of the Pig). What motivates people to spend huge amounts of money on an old book? Venture capitalist Ilyas Khan, whose financial commitment to literature is locally manifest in the Hong Kong literary agency Creative Work and the Asian Literary Review, says: 'Owning rare and collectable books is a sublime pleasure. Collecting, admiring and, occasionally, reading them is something I have come to enjoy and appreciate over a period of time. 'It's probably a mix of some of the usual things that motivate people to collect all sorts of items, such as rarity value, celebrity association and aesthetic appeal - some books are true works of art. Beyond those things, however, I take pleasure from the fact that books - and writers - are just the most obvious form of human intellectual and artistic achievement,' he says. 'I don't understand very much about music and art, but it's clearly the same 'space', and I think owning a first edition, in pristine condition, of a book that may also be inscribed by the author is appealing to me in the same way that owning a Monet might be to someone else. 'I have a few hundred rare and collectable books, most of them stored in London, but a few in Hong Kong. The most expensive items are now worth many hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Most are worth tens of thousands.' Khan studies catalogues, visits overseas bookshops whenever he gets time and browses online. The internet has proved to be a godsend for many independent booksellers faced with being steamrollered by Amazon.com and the megastores. For example, a virtual inventory of more than 100 million books from 13,500 booksellers in 57 countries can be found on internet marketplace AbeBooks.com, a 1996 Canadian start-up based in Victoria, British Columbia, that has grown to dominate its field in North America and Europe. AbeBooks publicity manager Richard Davies says, 'We notice a lot of high-end buyers from places such as Hong Kong and Singapore making very expensive purchases.' He notes that the fifth most expensive book sold on AbeBooks.com - Historical, Military, and Picturesque Observations on Portugal by Lieutenant-Colonel George Thomas Landmann - went to a Hong Kong buyer. This 1818 first edition, described as 'the most beautiful illustrated English book on Portugal of the period', went for US$57,500. 'Online will never replace offline and I don't think it should try to,' says the website's chief operating officer, Boris Wertz. 'You can't replace the experience, the sense of adventure, if you like, of walking into a bookstore and seeing what's there. I like to think we help the small bookstores survive alongside the megastores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, but in the end if all they offer is more of the same, then they will not survive. It's up to the shops themselves to nurture the uniqueness of that experience.' Lok Man Rare Books is certainly unique, and Johnston wants to tap not only Hong Kong's emergent positioning as a destination for luxury shopping, so far largely confined to designer goods, but also the shift of shoppers away from big-ticket brands to purchases that make more discrete statements about themselves. Hong Kong has evolved to another level of retail, which names such as Lane Crawford have already recognised, with others following suit. 'Hong Kong is moving to the next stage of retail, away from the big brand names and the 'bling',' says Johnston. 'I think people want things with more depth, things that say something more about who they are, things that help define their character. And when they give something as a gift, they want it to speak to the person receiving it, to complement both the giver and the givee. Look at Lane Crawford. It's gone from being merely a repository for racks and racks of quality brands to creating a retail environment for the more discerning customer. I'm not sure if I'm making much sense, but I'm pretty sure that's what's happening.' Johnston has, in fact, hit the nail on the head. Hong Kong-based expert in semiotics Paul Yao, who applies the study of everyday signs and symbols to work out what motivates people to buy what they do, says Johnston's analysis largely reflects what has been emerging over the past few years. 'When it comes to 'worldly sophistication', our society has gone beyond materialism to embrace the unique identity of each individual,' says Yao. 'It is not just what you own or what you can afford, but what you are, what you know and what you can create.' According to Yao, the popular view is that owning a collection of rare books is 'a rich man's hobby, an indulgence and freedom only the affluent can afford. The mere idea of owning a private antiquarian library, however small, connotes a sense of luxury only a few can enjoy. But it is a misconception that it takes thousands of dollars, if not millions, to get into book collecting. 'As a measure of exclusivity, what can be more exclusive than having your own private collection?' asks Yao, who works for a major multinational market research group. 'Not only does it offer you a sense of accomplishment, it allows you the unique privilege to grant access to only those you wish to view the collection. The higher priced a collection, the more exclusive this privilege becomes.' Umberto Eco, the guru of semiotics better known for his 1983 debut novel The Name of the Rose (first editions of which are now worth more than HK$6,000), has said: 'A library is not just a place to keep books one has already read, but primarily a deposit for books to be read at some future date, when one feels the need to read them.' Johnston often acts on commission for a number of high-end clients, whom he declines to identify but can be surmised to be overseas-educated Hong Kong Chinese, mainland Chinese and high-income expatriates in the financial and legal sectors who regularly spend HK$50,000 or more on a book. He has a number of lesser buyers, though they only rarely bid at auction, where prices can suddenly become stratospheric. He recalls watching two Wall Street types in a New York auction refuse to lower their hands as they bid for a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses, each trying to stare the other down. It went for US$60,000 (HK$470,000), a new record. 'Far more than the book is worth, but who can put a price on pride?' What appeals to Hong Kong buyers is still unclear, but Johnston learned from his December sales he will need to focus more on China after a steady flow of customers nearly cleared those shelves, which had included scarce first editions of Narrative of the War with China in 1860 (1862), by G.J. Wolseley, and Herbert Giles' Historic China & Other Sketches (1882). However, Johnston is no China specialist and prefers to leave the high end of that market to dealers such as Wattis, who has been buying books on China as well as rare and original maps since 1984, and IndoSiam's Yves Azemar, who for the past 15 years has collected nearly 8,000 mostly French books on Indochina, Thailand, China and wider Asia. Azemar, who spends his holidays back in France exploring small bookshops, flea markets and antiquarian dealers, confesses: 'It started as a hobby. Now it has become an addiction, but an addiction with passion.' He eschews the specialist booksellers in Paris - 'too expensive' - and focuses on smaller shops that might have benefited from the cast-offs of deceased estates. 'Many of these books were not intended for distribution in France and would have been taken back by returning colonials, but the only place you will find them now is in France. What is left here or in Saigon or Hanoi or Bangkok has been destroyed by the climate, by insects. Even books in the various national archives have turned to dust.' The internet is making it hard for small specialists such as Azemar to find reasonably priced stock. People with old books, often inherited from a relative, get an unrealistic idea of what they are worth and bypass the bookseller. A good sale for Azemar is HK$20,000, 'peanuts compared with what's happening in Europe', where catalogue prices are considered low at Euro6,000 (HK$60,000) to Euro10,000. There are few bargains to be had. His contacts on the mainland advise any book not written in Chinese is considered rare and priced accordingly. 'China is not the place to find books about China,' he says.