A Real Reader

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Almost thirty years ago I paid my first visit to America. Heywood Hill had always had a strong American connection, despite Nancy Mitford’s scathing view of the species, and friends had suggested that we might open a branch of the shop in New York. This needed some careful research and very hard thinking but it was, of course, enjoyable to meet fellow-booksellers and to put a face to the shops there, both new and antiquarian.

A long-standing customer, who still orders books from us every week, asked me what was the purpose of the visit. When I told him and added that I was also meeting friends in various cities from Chicago to Boston, he said that it sounded like a modern version of Parnassus on Wheels. This 1917 novel by Christopher Morley meant nothing to me, so he lent me a spare copy.

For those who share my ignorance, its main characters are an unusual couple, Roger Mifflin and Hilda McGill, who join forces to drive a horse-drawn caravan full of books round the villages of the eastern shore, buying and selling their wares at a gentle pace. (At the time I found it charming; when I came to reread it a few months ago, it seemed rather dated.)

In the end we decided against opening an American branch of the shop but I was reminded of the discovery of Parnassus on Wheels last July when I was asked to buy the books of someone who had been both a real reader – she had all the issues of Slightly Foxed published up to the time of her death – and a distinguished bookwoman. She’d worked in the library of the Linnaean Society, had helped Wilfrid Blunt to bring out an illustrated herbal (and been given many of his earlier books), had worked on several dictionary projects for Oxford University Press, and had written two of the splendid catalogues, Sylva and Pomona, of Mrs Paul Mellon’s marvellous collection of flower books. Her name was Sandra Raphael, and she owned copies of several novels by Christopher Morley.

She had clearly been bookish from an early age and she liked the company of other bibliophiles. Of a pre-computer-educated generation, she had a passion for the printed word and for the accuracy of any text:

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About the contributor

In John Saumarez Smith’s Spy in the Bookshop, he pretentiously suggested to Heywood Hill that he was defending Parnassus against the forces of Philistia. Plus ça change . . .

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