‘Dear Heywood, I hear Mollie is leaving at the end of next week, in which case so am I. Yours ever, Nancy.’ So wrote my ever-direct aunt, Nancy Mitford, to her employer Heywood Hill, the founder of the famous Mayfair bookshop, on 17 May 1944. Whether or not Nancy’s threat had some effect, she continued to work at the shop for another year.
Here I should declare a strong interest in the fate of independent bookshops. I am the proud owner of a modest chunk of Heywood Hill, which is currently celebrating its 75th year. Not a bad milestone for any business. But can bookshops really survive in a retail world overgrown by Amazon? (Perhaps Leylandii would be a more accurate name.)
Long before the internet or the Kindle, or the financial crisis, bookselling was not exactly easy. Heywood established his shop in 1936 in the teeth of the Depression and for the first few years profits were non-existent. When the war came things looked even bleaker. Heywood left for the front not knowing whether the shop would still be there when, and if, he returned.
An unintended consequence of the war made a big difference. When rationing really took hold, books were one of the few items that could still be bought, by the wealthy at least, in unlimited quantities. But it was a stroke of headhunting genius that really saved the shop. Heywood recruited Nancy Mitford to help his wife Anne in his absence.
Aunt Nancy was a powerful social magnet, and soon the pavement from St James’s to Curzon Street was worn down with the tread of returning officers on leave, keen for some intelligent and witty chat, and of course an informed view on what to read. The shop became a pilgrimage site for the well read, and so it has remained.
But that was a long time ago. Surely these old-fashioned shops will disappear beneath the electronic tide? Strong evidence points to the extinction of independent bookshops in about ten years or so — 30 per cent have shut in just five years and only just over 1,000 remain across the country. Almost all the old-school bookshops that once peppered Manhattan have gone. London may be next.
And yet I don’t think so. The capital retains a core of high-quality and passionately run independent bookshops, which collectively amount to a barrier of sorts, and one that has a fighting chance of withstanding the digital flood. Why? When it comes to choosing books to read, give or collect you still can’t beat courteous, knowledgeable service from a human being. The very best bookshops help sustain literary culture.
Discerning people have always valued authoritative help, and there are plenty of imaginative and hardworking booksellers out there. Near my flat in Chelsea we are spoilt for choice between John Sandoe and Slightly Foxed — both run by Heywood Hill alumni. Single-shop operators such as Daunt and Foyles have expanded to create mini-franchises and, outside London, various talented booksellers are making a successful go of it.
All eyes are watching developments at Waterstone’s, which has taken a relentless battering in recent years. James Daunt has the herculean task of restoring quality and profits at the only truly national bookshop chain. All independent booksellers and their customers must hope he succeeds, so that publishers continue to produce the largest possible range of physical books.
There are positive signs. The recession hit Heywood Hill at a difficult time, and like many the shop suffered. But it feels as if a corner has been turned: for the past six months sales have been rising, and significantly so.
I inherited my interest in the shop from my father, Andrew Devonshire. With the unfailing help and advice of John Saumarez Smith, Heywood Hill’s longstanding managing director, he created an impressive library of old and new books that became his sanctuary at Chatsworth.
My father loved the shop and from 1995 to 2004 generously supported a uniquely under-reported literary prize that was ‘awarded for a lifetime’s contribution to the enjoyment of books’. Past recipients include Michael Holroyd, Jane Gardam and Michael Frayn, and The Spectator’s own Mark Amory.
It gives me a lot of pleasure to reveal here, therefore, that Heywood Hill is sponsoring the prize again, albeit in a slightly different guise. We’re linking up with our neighbours in Mayfair to create the London Library Life in Literature Award, sponsored by Heywood Hill. At a joint Christmas party, Sir Tom Stoppard, president of the London Library, will be announcing the 2011 winner to recognise heroic contributors to the enjoyment of books.
The London Library remains one of the country’s literary citadels. Not all libraries and bookshops are in decline.
Seventy-five years ago, Heywood Hill produced his first catalogue of Old Books. In it was offered for sale a copy of Ulysses, one of a limited edition of 1,000 copies, the first edition of the book published in England, bound in linen buckram with a gilt design by Eric Gill. Another copy from the same edition is for sale at Heywood Hill today. Good books endure, and always will. The best bookshops and libraries can too.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 3, 2011