First Class Mail

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During my early years as a bookseller, much of each day’s business depended on the post: not just brown envelopes enclosing cheques or less welcome envelopes with publishers’ bills, but orders and gossipy letters from customers and friends. In a minor way I kept up several correspondences, more often with those who lived abroad because I was very unlikely then to contact them by telephone. When Helene Hanff published her 84 Charing Cross Road, we cannot have been the only booksellers who reacted by saying that we had hundreds of such letters in our files. Although I’ve managed to keep some of the most interesting ones, it never occurred to me to suggest that our customers should keep my replies. In fact it would have been extremely presumptuous.

How fortunate, then, that I have been able to edit two two-way correspondences about the bookshop: first, the letters exchanged between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill, and more recently, those between Heywood and myself from 1966 to 1974. In both cases, the enjoyment comes from the striking of sparks: it would be less than half as effective if only one side had been preserved.

This is perfectly illustrated by two collections of the letters of the novelist and short-story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. The first, Letters, edited by her literary executor William Maxwell (himself a novelist and editor at the New Yorker), was published in 1982; the second, The Element of Lavishness, w

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About the contributor

John Saumarez smith has been looking at letters from his early years at Heywood Hill, from which he has assembled The Spy in the Bookshop, published in 2006.

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