Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

John Francis Phillimore

[The Twenty Thousand Pound Question]

John Francis Phillimore

I’m never interested in anything for more than two weeks. As a result I have an extremely superficial knowledge of a large number of subjects. Perhaps this is ideal for a bookseller. Many of the books in the shop are the result of my flighty enthusiasms which end up decanted on to the shelves. I can’t say I have ever been particularly interested in books as divorced from their contents.

You won’t find this a very noble story. I used to live in Italy and not do very much, except a bit of translating. One year I was over for Ascot and met by accident the Italian correspondent for a magazine called The British Race Horse. He appeared to be a total lunatic. At a lunch party that day I met - again by chance - the man who ran the magazine and asked him if the other chap was indeed a complete prat. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘I’ve just had the most frightful row with him and I'm longing to sack him’, which he did and I got the job.
I was married to an Italian at the time, a Veneziana. We got married in San Giorgio Maggiore and eventually divorced in Florence. In 1982 I came back to England, thinking it would be easy to get a job in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain. As I had just won £4,500 in the Arc de Triomphe, there was no particular hurry. Time went by and I began to think that it would be nice to work for a wine company. So I wrote to various people, saying ‘I like drinking and speak Italian. Why don’t you employ me?’

One or two bothered to answer and suggested I should get some sort of qualification. So I went on a course at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and learnt all about the constituents of whisky, grape varieties and things like that. On the strength of this, I landed a plum job as second barman at the Café St Pierre in Clerkenwell Green. I stayed for six months and was drunk most of the time. Actors used to come in from the Barbican, ‘wanting a dozen bottles of wine five minutes before last orders. I had to stay till they finished drinking, so there was nothing else to do but increase my knowledge of the wine list.

It wasn’t a good idea to carry on like this. So I went to see John Saumarez Smith at Heywood Hill. I had been a customer there and, as John knows everybody, I thought he might be able to think of a job for me. Preferably I wanted something that didn’t involve falling off my bicycle at three in the morning. As it happened, Charles Priestley was leaving Heywood Hill and I moved straight in. 
When I was in Italy, Heywood Hill used to send books out to me. I once made the frightful mistake of asking for anything by Naomi Royde-Smith. I was living with her niece, or even great-niece, at the time and thought it would be an idea to take an interest in her writings. They turned out to be novels of a quite singular lack of distinction. Anyway, for six months, these ghastly books came deluging out of Florence post office.

The first thing the junior boy does at Heywood Hill is to carry heavy bags round Mayfair, as part of the free delivery service within walking distance of the shop. Any number of callow youths have gone into Heywood Hill. John Townsend at Brackley and George Ramsden, now in York, prove it’s not a bad academy. But first we all learnt the location of pubs on our walks and developed longer arms.
Customers were always asking us what they should read. John encourages the staff to read a lot - though not on the premises - and they are very knowledgeable. I didn’t really become much involved in the antiquarian side which John looked after. I remember going to my first book fair and buying a copy of The Mint, which is probably still sitting on the shelves at Heywood Hill. It must be one of the commonest second-hand duds around. But when you’re learning, it’s easy to think that a limited edition of a famous author must be a good thing. but you learn from these mistakes - often at someone else’s expense... At the moment I’ve lent myself back to Heywood Hill on a temporary basis. As far as the customers are concerned, my absence has largely been unnoticed. When you’re 95 and someone’s been missing for a few years, it hardly registers.

I did six years at Heywood Hill which is longer than I have done anything else in my life. It certainly beats my first marriage by two years. For some time before I left in 1991, I had been thinking that my part of Clapham would be a good area to open a book shop, in particular this little bit called Old Town. Of course I’m now told by the experts that the shop should be on the other side of the road. I could always have a sandwich board saying, ‘Look over here, you bastards!’

There used to be a bookshop in Clapham Park Road before the War. The oldies are always referring to it wistfully - no doubt wishing I was it. Anyway Old Town Books opened in September 1991 and has managed to attract some good regular customers. For quite some time I had been salting away books, so that I did in fact start the shop without having to buy much stock. Of course a lot of the books were rather generously arranged sideways on the shelves and, at the last moment, I did panic and Angus O’Neill filled a stack which I sold on commission for him.

Soon after opening, I started doing HD book fairs at the Royal National Hotel. Nowadays I do the Russell every month. The type of books I sold at the Royal National I could equally sell in the shop, whereas the better books do well at the Russell. I would like to be able to sell books like Veronica Watts - good books, difficult to find and in nice condition. Although the Royal National gets bigger every month, I don’t think the books get better, although they now have quite a lot of deserters from the Russell.

When I first started, the rent here was £12,000 a year, which was far too much. I got it down by about £2,000 and have sublet shelf space to some guys who call themselves Pronk and deal in philosophy books. Part of the deal with the philosophers is that they do one day a week in the shop. I also have an absurdly over-qualified assistant called Andrew Railing who speaks Russian and Chinese, though he doesn’t get much opportunity in the shop. And I’ve just gone into partnership with Simon Cobley, the archivist for Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Running a shop is fine as long as I don't have to be in it all the time. On the whole I prefer buying books to selling them. In South London I find Charles Dixon a very useful source of supply. He claims to do more than 365 house calls a year. Heywood Hill are very kind about passing me crumbs from the master's table. For example, they might go into a house and take five boxes of books for £5,000. Then I go in and take twenty-five boxes of cheaper stuff for £500. Somebody once said that the secret of successful bookselling was ‘gut wrenchingly low offers’. I hasten to say this has not been my guiding star.

Ideally I would have read every book in the shop and only have books that I enjoy. For example I always try to have at least one copy of Roger Longrigg Daughters of Mulberry, which is the greatest book ever written in any language by anybody. Everyone who has read it agrees with me. Longrigg’s a fascinating writer with several aliases including Rosalind Erskine who wrote The Passion-Flower Hotel. The cover has a picture of a rather unlikely looking woman facing the other way - presumably Roger in a wig.

I don’t know what can be done to make people read more books - beating perhaps? It’s obviously the fault of the schools. Most of the children who come into the shop are incredibly ignorant. There was one who used to come just to make a nuisance of himself. One day he said something very sad. I had been telling him that he ought to work hard, go to university, make friends and so on. All he said was ‘What do you want friends for? They’d only know when you done a burglary’.

Actually we get more lunatics in the shop than criminals. So-called ‘care in the community’ is becoming a real problem for everybody in the retail trade. People come in, looking quite normal and then suddenly break down in verbal diarrhoea. At least once a day someone walks quickly to the middle of the shop and then rushes out looking stunned. I want to shout after them ‘What did you expect to find in a book shop?’ Then there’s the lonely man with the wrecked gut. I think I’ve heard more about it than his doctor.
At the moment I’m trying to learn about Japan and Japanese literature. During the summer our Oriental cousins come into the shop, mostly asking directions to the Soseki Museum. Natsume Soseki spent a few miserable years at the turn of the century living in a house round the corner in The Chase which is now a museum.

Meanwhile the trade hardly ever come here, although I sell to them quite a lot at book fairs. Perhaps they can’t be bothered as there is no other bookshop near me. A fellow from Sotheran’s comes regularly, but there is a catch. They once told me that the firm has a system of only drawing cheques twice a month - a phrase which I found particularly irritating.

I can be quite short with customers, particularly if they ask for the occult section just as the horses are coming into the final furlong. (I keep a little black and white telly near the desk for the racing.) Luckily there’s a shop down the road stuffed with all that kind of rubbish, to which I direct them fairly firmly. I have a number of strong dislikes and New Age stuff is one of them. Unfortunately people ask for it all the time.
I never think about the future, beyond wondering how the hell I’m going to pay the rent. Actually the financial uncertainty doesn’t really bother me - perhaps that’s one aspect of having been a gambler. I’ve been portrayed on the London stage in Mel Smith’s The Gambler. He put in most of his friends from the race course. After the play I shook hands with myself which was quite exciting.

For the long-term I do have a plan of buying into some major West End book shop. I would also like to put together one really brilliant catalogue. Every now and again I put a nice book away at home with the catalogue in mind. I would love to do regular catalogues but it’s such a leisured activity and difficult to combine with a shop, unless you have more staff.

There’s always too much to do. I suppose I’m not very organised and really can’t be bothered with all the paperwork. I’m terrified of VAT - it must be coming on books sooner rather than later and the outcome will surely be wholesale criminal dishonesty. I’m sure people’s turnover will suddenly dip below the VAT threshold and they will start dividing their shops into different entities. The fiction section, for example, will become a separate enterprise with its own turnover. Then you simply ensure that no one entity goes over the threshold for VAT registration.

I’m not disillusioned about bookselling as such, it’s just so difficult to make enough money at it. Of course this may have something to do with my own incompetence. I don’t think it’s the recession. If anything, people probably buy more of my type of book - priced at a fiver or a tenner - during a recession when they can’t afford perhaps to buy a three-figure book. All the time the business does get fractionally better, but so fractionally it’s painful. If somebody said ‘Would you like to be racing correspondent for The Times? You can have £20,000 if you come now, this second’, I might walk towards the door and throw the keys in the bin - and then again I might not.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in January 1995

John Francis Phillimore

A Poland & Steery Co-production