‘I sold my first book in 1914 when I was eight years old. After school, I went to work for my father in Porchester Road. It never occurred to me to do anything else. I was born into the book trade and, in those days, you just got on with it. My father marked the books and I sold them, learning as I went along. If you want to shoe a horse, you watch a good man doing it. But I was born with a nose. Sorry that doesn’t make good interviewing!’
Bill Fletcher is now 85 years old, and in full command of his formidable nose, which has never been interviewed at any length before. Most dealers can tell their own stories about Bill. I called on a busy day and filled most of my tape with the sound of his door bell, till and telephone:
‘Do you buy books?’
‘Have to, to sell them.’
‘I’ve got an encyclopaedia.’
‘This is no good.’
The shop of H. M. Fletcher, 27, Cecil Court, is a masterpiece in the deceptive art of disorganisation. Most of the fittings have become collectable. Bill likes it that way – nothing pretentious, just solid old stuff built to last, from the bakelite telephone to the hairy string and the brown lino. The stock is arranged entirely at random beneath the most enormous waterstain. They’ve had several floods – problems upstairs – but the books mostly survive. And anyway, the better things go in the glass case.
‘When Winnie Myers decided to specialise in autographs, she sold most of her father’s bookcases. This one was too big for the auctioneer, so I bought it for a tenner. The shop’s a bit like Topsy. It just growed. In the old days, the floor was piled high with books, and people used to think, “I bet he doesn’t know what he’s got in there”. When I had to swap things round to fit in Winnie’s bookcase, I sold more books in the chaos on the floor than when the same books had been neatly shelved. This is the kind of shop I like to visit.
‘After Porchester Road, my father took Charlie Sawyer’s old shop at 23 New Oxford Street in 1927. I spent six months in Paris in 1930, working for Gumuchian for whom I had bought a great many of the books in his famous children’s catalogue, Les Livres d’Enfance. This was shortly after the Great Crash, when we went out of business, bankrupt – couldn’t pay the overdraft or anything else much. My father closed 23 New Oxford Street and tried to start again from home in Enfield. Somehow we kept our nerve and carried on, and by 1937 we were in Cecil Court. During the Depression we were extremely lucky to pick up a contract with an American department store, and that really started us off again. They wanted bindings, which we used to supply at 1s. 6d. each. I went all over the country filling a secondhand Morris Oxford with books for the Americans. We polished and invoiced them, waited for the money, and then off in the car again.
‘Although we survived, those days certainly left their scar. Today if I can’t afford a book, I don’t buy it. All this credit business! I used to expect to be paid at once, but I’m getting a bit fed up with it now. And I tend to forget how much it costs me to give credit. All I know about the business side is that I pay money into the bank and take some out. That’s all there is to it. I’ve never been hungry and I’ve had some good books.
‘My father always said, “If you don’t specialise, you’ll never do any good”. I started to think about this in the 1920s, and I still haven’t thought up a subject! I love being a general bookseller – I can buy whatever I like, and the choice is much greater.
‘Perhaps it sounds as if I have no regrets. Actually, I do have one – I should have married my wife a long time before I did. But I suppose you want to hear about books! There were a couple that got away. I remember a dealer in modern first editions coming here with a 1543 edition of Copernicus, which I bought for £300. It had a long Greek inscription and Zeno in Denmark Street translated it for me. Apparently it said something like, “The learned man is speaking to the ignorant man. And the ignorant man asks, ‘What is in this book?’ And the learned man replies, ‘All that is new.”’ It went on and on, and finally it was inscribed by Aurifaber to Camerarius, two of the greatest scientists of the sixteenth century. Aurifaber had been given the copy by Rheticus, who is known to have shown this work to Copernicus on his death-bed. I sold this book to the Robinsons in Pall Mall for £2,000, and they kept it for a long time. In 1974, it made £44,000 at Sotheby’s, some 20 years after I bought it. Someone said to me, “Don’t you wish you’d kept it?” But actually I didn’t, because £2,000 was the biggest lump of money I’d ever had in my life. But when it sold again for £250,000, I really should have kept it!
‘Then there was the Fouquet manuscript, which I sold to an American for £7,000. I found it in Paris and thought there was a chance it might be by the great master. Someone at Christie’s agreed it looked very much like his work. Anyway my customer really did his homework. It was Fouquet, and worth half a million pounds!
‘Basically I’m only interested in selling to someone who wants to buy. We did catalogues till about 1967, but I much prefer selling to a customer in the shop. If I’m asked a question, I’ll answer it as fully as I can – even to the point of saying, “No, you don’t want that one”. But I’ll also say, “If you miss it, you’ll never get another!” I’m an enthusiast for books, and that’s what I hope to impart.
‘I never worry about stock not shifting. It usually means the right person hasn’t come along and one day he’ll walk in and say, “I’ve been looking for that for years!” And I’ll say, “We’ve had it for years! Where’ve you been?” I suppose we could have sold more books if we’d done more catalogues. I was never very enthusiastic about them. It’s a mistake to over-describe. Of course I want to know the facts, but you should always leave a little bit of excitement for someone else to discover. I can buy books well without knowing a thing about them!
‘It’s the emotional impact of the book, rather than the bibliographical aspect -rather like the rapport with certain customers. They come in here for two minutes, and I know they’re serious. Just after the War, I corresponded with a great Rackham collector in the States. He was a real enthusiast and I just supplied and supplied him. It turned out that he had kept all my letters and one day his daughter came in and returned them. I know you’re thinking about 84, Charing Cross Road, but I’m not going to do anything with them!
‘Helene Hanff glamorised everything. That’s her prerogative. But I know Charing Cross Road and Marks & Co. intimately, and the book just doesn’t ring true. Of course there were a lot of wonderful characters. Take old man Joseph, and his wife who stood in the front shop with an apron for all the money. Old Joe gave away four or five overcoats to the winos every winter, and told his wife he lost them. Jack Joseph was just the same. He would spend half an hour in here arguing over sixpence, and then give ten shillings to a wino on the make.
‘Then there was Joe Edwards. He came up to see my father when he had just opened in Porchester Road. There wasn’t much stock and Joe was a bit concerned: “Not much doing here, Fletcher. Come down to Marylebone High Street. I’ve got a mountain of books that want moving.” “Sorry, Joe. Can’t afford them.” “How much can you afford?” “25 pounds.” “Just the bloody price!” So the books were moved up to Porchester Road and, a week later, Joe came back and spent £45. That’s the way to do it !
‘There was another occasion when my father and I were shifting a library of calf and morocco to a very good customer near Watford. We got as far as The Bell at Hendon when our van caught fire. Nobody knew if the books were insured in transit. My father was extremely worried till he found out they were insured. Some time later old man Joseph called in to see if everything was OK, and gave my father a list of all the booksellers who were going to pay up if there had been a disaster.’
On Friday the thirteenth of March 1992, the Fletchers began to move books from Cecil Court for the last time. The lease is up, the shop is closing, Sotheby’s are coming for Winnie’s bookcase, and Bill is retiring to ‘play’ in his warehouse. ‘Of course we’re sad to go, but it’s the right time. Keith doesn’t want a shop anymore. He’s moving to Shad Thames. It’s a Victorian warehouse with cast iron pillars all in the wrong place for our bookcases! He’ll be doing catalogues again, and specialising in incunabula. At least someone’s taken my father’s advice. As for my wife and I, we’re young enough to start another routine.’
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in March 1992
Bill Fletcher died on 17th December 1996