David Eccles, Board Game - John Saumarez Smith, Bookshops & Bookselling - Slightly Foxed Issue 4

My First Gethsemane

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Thirty-nine years ago I came to work at Heywood Hill’s bookshop in Curzon Street. Between school and Cambridge, I had worked for three months at Heffers, where Mr Reuben Heffer had cannily put me in the Science Department. It was the only part of the shop where I wouldn’t read the stock. This could hardly be called a preparation for the sophisticated carriage trade in the West End, and I had little inkling of what would be expected of me. At my interview with Handasyde Buchanan, Heywood’s long-term partner and my future boss, it appeared that he considered himself the doyen of London booksellers and that he was pleased that, like him, I had had a Classical education.

Heywood Hill himself was going to retire from full-time work in the week before I arrived. For the next year he came in for two days a week but stayed largely in the basement where he banged away on his ancient typewriter and looked after any customers for prints, botanical and architectural. I was not encouraged to fraternize with him.

Handy opened the shop at 8.30 a.m. He didn’t expect customers for half an hour but he liked to arrive early – it was easier to find a taxi from Earls Court at that hour – and to wait for the post. Much importance was attached to his opening the letters. He divided them into those that were handwritten, generally orders for books, and the typed envelopes that contained publishers’ bills. Our own bills were handwritten – a tradition we kept until a couple of years ago when our accounts were finally computerized – and customers’ cheques came back to us in the same style, sometimes accompanied by a chatty letter. If I felt somewhat excluded from the magic circle of long-standing account customers, this was hardly surprising when there had been no change in the upstairs staff since 1946: Mollie Buchanan, Handy’s wife, had done the accounts since 1943 and Liz Forbes had dealt with the orders for new books for almost as long.

If I was going to be of any use when the Christmas rush started, I would have to learn fast. Sitting at a desk in the front of the shop, opposite what used to be the front door, I needed to recognize as many custom

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About the contributor

John Saumarez Smith has just edited the letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill. They revived many memories of his early days of bookselling.

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