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Bookshop of the Quarter: Autumn 2015

Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge

Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge has been a Foxed favourite for decades, before Slightly Foxed was even a notion. Members of our team have previously lived, studied and worked in Cambridge. In fact, our Editor Gail Pirkis and Publicity Manager Steph Allen worked at Heffers itself and have fond memories of their time there. As Steph writes:

‘I was extremely lucky to have started my working life at Heffers Bookshop, Trinity Street (over 25 years ago) – working for the inspiring MD, John Welch, and chairman, Nicholas Heffer. It was a wonderful introduction into the world of independent bookselling. The shop floor and back office were staffed with a number of very entertaining characters (some of whom are still there!). Everyone was passionate about books, and booksellers were often to be found hidden in a quiet nook of the old shop or curled up in the canteen ‘reviewing’ the latest additions to the shelves.’

Heffers have consistently supported and stocked all that Slightly Foxed have produced over the years, and we’re delighted to be holding an Autumn launch party there this week. We are much looking forward to joining the Heffers team to celebrate our new titles and long-time friendship.

Read on to hear more from the booksellers themselves, Richard Reynolds and Sarah Whyley.

Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?

Heffers has been selling books in Cambridge since 1876. It has been based at its current location on Trinity Street since 1970, and is part of the fabric of the historic city centre. We are one of the region’s most comprehensive bookshops, stocking a vast range of titles from all kinds of subjects and covering both academic and general books. We have recently expanded our Graphic Novels section and it’s proving to be immensely popular, and the second-hand department houses a treasure trove of old books looking for a new home – the selection changing so rapidly that it’s well worth visiting regularly to see what gems you can unearth.

In addition to books, there’s a specialist music department stocking classical music and jazz CDs, sheet music and DVDs. Heffers is the only place in Cambridge that can print personalised Ordnance Survey maps – you can even watch your map being printed! We have also started to gain a reputation for our excellent range of board games, as well as the regular evenings we hold where people come to play them in the shop. We have a busy and wide-ranging events schedule, with book launches and author talks happening almost every week, and we are also the bookseller of choice for the Cambridge Literary Festival.

With a world-class university on our doorstep and many visitors, our knowledgeable booksellers love talking to customers about books and helping them to discover new authors. It’s a privilege to be able to deliver just the right book to each person.

We’re especially proud of our Crime Fiction and Beautiful Books sections. Crime Fiction has a substantial area devoted to it on the right-hand side gallery of the shop; certainly a vast change from its beginnings more than twenty-five years ago, when as a small section it was housed in the below-the-waist shelves near the top of the stairs on the ground floor, where most customers had to crawl on their knees for their Crime Fiction fix. The section is run by Richard and, as well as stocking a wide selection of books published in the UK, some of his time is spent perusing American publisher catalogues as well as several specialist detective websites noted for their recommendations. He is always interested to learn what our customers are reading too as it informs his buying – he says that many a good book has been discovered that way!

About 5 years ago we combined contemporary fiction and classical literature into one section, which now sits upstairs in the shop on the left-hand side of the gallery. Sarah’s favourite section is that of Beautiful Books, where we showcase gorgeous editions of classics. We also keep the Everyman Wodehouse together in this area, alongside highlighting small press editions from Slightly Foxed and Persephone.

What first inspired you to become a bookseller?

Sarah: A sheer love of books came from my family who were always reading. My dad got me hooked on books such as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon and James Herbert’s Dune. My grandmother passed on her love of the classics from authors such as Jane Austen, the Brontës and Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did Next and especially Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – Jo March is such a great female role model. My mum shared her love of crime fiction – with Nancy Drew of course! I’ve been working at Heffers for twenty-seven years and I love to champion books to our customers, especially those of the genres of Fiction, Crime Fiction and Science Fiction.

Richard: I was surrounded by books at home and loved reading from an early age – especially books by Enid Blyton, Ian Serraillier’s Secret Sword, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (I re-read it often!) and, if time allowed, I remember devouring books from authors such as Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers from the school library. The thought of working with people who loved books and reading inspired me to become a bookseller – first at Jardines’ Bookshop in Manchester before moving to Cambridge in November 1981 to start working at Heffers – nearly thirty-four years ago! I’ve specialised in a variety of subject areas, including Local History, Travel and Biography, before turning to Crime Fiction and organising regular events for readers of crime fiction including the ‘What’s Your Poison?’ Summer Party, and our Christmas Crime Party, ‘Mistletoe and Crime’.

What are your all-time favourite reads and why?

Sarah: Always a difficult decision, so here’s just a few: Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice; J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women; Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Recent favourites include Gabrielle Zevin’s The Selected Works of A .J. Fikry and Menna Van Praag’s The House at the End of Hope Street.

Richard: A particular favourite of mine is Leonie Swann’s Three Bags Full, translated by Anthea Bell, in which Miss Maple, a sheep, investigates the death of the shepherd – a terrific book with wonderful line drawings at the bottom of each right-hand page, and if you flick the pages . . . a real treat!

Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?

Sarah: Louisa May Alcott, John Irving, Charles Dickens, Sarah Waters, Stephen King and Jane Austen.

Richard: Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and A.A. Milne.

Who has been your favourite customer?

Sarah: What a difficult choice . . . Anyone I can chat to and recommend a great book to. Menna Van Praag, a local author, is a regular and we have quite similar tastes and are always recommending reads to each other.

What are your top book picks for autumn?

Richard: Lars Mitting’s Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way; Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast; Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

Sarah: Ditto the Lars Mitting, which should do very well for us here. Personally I’m very excited to see a new John Irving, Avenue of Mysteries, and the new Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child. Also, I was very much looking forward to fantasy writer Scott Lynch’s The Thorn of Emberlain, however I’ve just found out this is now not coming until next year!

If you’re a Heffers customer please do add your comments below.

Heffers Bookshop
20 Trinity Street, Cambridge
Tel: 01787 277267

Twitter @heffersbookshop



Comments & Reviews

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  1. David Wilkerson says:

    Hear, hear, well done, Steph, Richard and Sarah, great stuff! As a former colleague, I can,with hand on my heart, state that the reputation and beauty of Heffers is supported by the people who do, and have, work(ed) there. So many former staff who have moved on have left a little bit of themselves behind – mainly to good effect! Keep up the good work, tailoring the shop with individuality whilst a corporate brand-obsessed retail world continues on its merry way oblivious to people’s needs, desires and tastes.

  2. Anji Thomson (nee Mills) says:

    I worked at Heffers as a Saturday / school holidays girl in 1970’s, it was a fabulous training ground and I felt part of a family creating a life long love of books and bookshops. I was introduced by my great uncle Frank Stoakley who did some book binding and antiquarian work for Heffers. At 17 I was given the responsibility of ‘covering’ the penguin bookshop for lunch and bringing the takings back in a paper bag when Barry returned, the characters that were regulars in the paperback shop, the opening of the children’s bookshop and mailing out catalogues using the ‘addressograph’ – happy days, no wonder I still adore and seek out independent bookshops.

  3. Julie Bounford says:

    What a lovely post. In addition to my own fond memories, I have a fascinating personal collection of photographs, press cuttings and other ‘memorabilia’ of the firm’s activities gathered by my family. This covers staff outings, Heffers family occasions and other key events, dating back to 1913. My great-grandfather, Frederick Anstee, worked for Heffers for forty-seven years (starting at the age of thirteen). On his death in 1944, E. W. Heffer wrote an obituary The Bookseller. My great aunt, Winifred Anstee, my grandmother, Lillian Saunders (nee Anstee) and my mother’s cousin, Bryan Anstee, also worked for the firm (as a secretary, shop assistant and printer, respectively). I’m currently gathering stories and images from Cambridge residents and former Heffers employees about working and shopping at Heffers for a planned publication on the social history of the firm. I’m working with Rob Webb whose grandfather and father worked for the company during the 1910s and 1940s-70s, respectively. Rob worked at Heffers himself during the 1970s. I’d love to hear from anyone with a memory to share – [email protected] tel: 0776611 4813. More info here – Gotta have books – Heffers

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