Slightly Foxed on the Gloucester Road could not be easier to find. Come out of Gloucester Road tube station, turn right, and you will see it on a corner on the opposite side of the street.
There had been a very well-regarded second-hand bookshop here for many years (known simply as Gloucester Road Bookshop) before the niche publisher, Slightly Foxed, celebrated their sixth successful year by taking it over in 2009. Since being taken over the shop now sells new books as well as old.
Unusually for an independent bookshop, the Slightly Foxed website is excellent and kept right up-to-date. At the time of my visit, a newly-appointed assistant manager, Charlotte Colwill, who had been in post for less than a month, was already included on the website’s informative staff info page. Charlotte had been appointed to take over from Aimi Gallienne, who is leaving the shop to have a baby but plans to return, albeit in a different role.
The shop is managed by Tony Smith, who began his bookselling career at Hall’s second-hand bookshop in Tunbridge Wells. He was reading English Literature at York University and the vacation job meant he could find texts for his course and be paid as well. Tony began working there in 1987, just after the death of well-known antiquarian bookseller Harry Pratley, who had been at Hall’s for many years and whose personal collection was sold at Sotheby’s for more than £3 million.
Smith graduated in 1989, but continued working at Hall’s until 1994, when he enrolled on a diploma course in antiquarian bookselling at UCL, run by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. The course required work experience and Smith approached Heywood Hill, whose manager, John Saumarez Smith, he already knew from his buying tours in the South East. As luck or fate had it, a Heywood Hill bookseller had just left and Tony found his fortnight’s work experience turned into a full-time job.
He stayed at Heywood Hill for nearly fifteen years, and clearly remembers his time there fondly. “The customers at Heywood Hill were tremendously loyal and enjoyed the atmosphere of a literary cocktail party deftly managed by John. The staff were notable for their steadfastness (John was there for 43 years and two of my colleagues clocked up over 20 years each). We each had our enthusiasms and provided a bespoke service to a wide-ranging clientele from Hong Kong, Sydney, Santiago, New York and all parts of the UK.”
John Saumarez Smith had left Heywood Hill in 2008. As a cousin of John Murray, he was acquainted with Gail Pirkis, an editor at John Murray before leaving to set up Slightly Foxed, the literary quarterly. John also knew Nick Dennys, a nephew of Graham Greene, owner of the Gloucester Road bookshop, who was keen to move out of London at just the point when Slightly Foxed was looking to own a bookshop. John brought things together and Gail offered Tony the role of manager, which he eagerly accepted.
Tony leaves new stock selection to his assistant manager, and concentrates on curating the second-hand and antiquarian stock. The high-ceilinged, big-windowed ground-floor of the bookshop is full of light, with its corner aspect allowing it to suck in sunlight from two directions. In contrast, the basement, where the majority of second-hand titles are shelved, gets no natural light at all – but the artificial lighting illuminates the stock very invitingly (and that can’t be said for a lot of second-hand bookshop basements).
“One of the best things about my job,” Tony says, “is the unpredictability of when and where the stock will come. I never know if the next phone call, email or visitor will lead to the chance to make an offer on some wonderful books.” The shop is situated in an affluent, bookish neighbourhood and this means that he can be selective in what he buys. “Any independent bookshop’s stock will reflect the enthusiasms and prejudices of its staff and this bookshop is no exception. I buy all the second hand and antiquarian stock and continue the routine we inherited from the Gloucester Road bookshop of marking the books with a letter code to identify how long it has been here. When a section is tired or overflowing, any of us can mark down the oldest stock to try to encourage the customers to buy it. I don’t consider my pricing to be the highest in the business – far from it – but, clearly, if the customers have been refusing my idea of its worth for six months or a year, then it needs to come down and be turned over.”
On the afternoon of my visit there was a varied mix of sporadic visitors. One lady was looking for a black-and-white A-Z. A man checked the art stock downstairs, but had been drawn into the shop by a title in the window display, which he asked to see before leaving. He popped back outside to point to it, so that Charlotte (pictured below) could fetch the right one. Book sold!
The shop continues to be owned by Slightly Foxed publishing company, which is now much more than merely a publisher of a literary quarterly. The shop stocks back issues of the magazine, and also copies of the Slightly Foxed growing catalogue of books. Tony’s own favourite is A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins, a love letter to the magic of France.
The synergy between shop and publisher is one reason the website is so impressive. As Tony puts it, “We benefit from the association and have shared the costs as the websites (shop and publisher have two separate but connected sites) have changed and developed. We try to make the online experience as attractive and simple as possible.”
The shop has been Slightly Foxed for five years now. The quarterly, on the other hand, celebrates its 10th birthday this year.The publisher’s website says, “During the past decade we’ve acquired enthusiastic readers all over the globe, and we’re delighted to say that we still have a good number who’ve been with us since our very first issue. Once people start taking Slightly Foxed they tend to become addicted… Perhaps this is because Slightly Foxed is unashamedly about enjoyment – 96 entertainingly written and elegantly illustrated pages of personal recommendations for books that have influenced, touched or perhaps simply amused the people who write about them – the kind of books people keep beside their beds or take down from their shelves from time to time, just for the pleasure of re-reading them. It’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine, introducing its readers to forgotten books and giving them refreshing new angles on old favourites.” Pick up a back copy when you pay the bookshop a visit, or go online and order the latest issue.