Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

John Saumarez Smith

John Saumarez Smith

As a young man, I thought that I was going to become a publisher. Sir John Murray, Jock Murray’s uncle, was a cousin of the family, and my father sent me to see him when I was eighteen. Sir John sat me down in his wonderful, Byronic room in Albemarle Street, but it soon became clear that he was not a person who talked very often to the young. He was also very deaf, and I was beginning to despair of the conversation when I noticed an interesting collection of old books. It was a complete run of everything that the Roxburghe Club had ever published. Sir John’s family had been members since its foundation; we looked at the books together and, to my relief, he became quite animated. When we sat down again, Sir John said that he had no job for me but, as I was going up to Cambridge, he would have a word with his friend Reuben Heffer, the University bookseller.

In 1962 Mr Heffer offered me a temporary job at seven pounds and ten shillings a week. He put me in the Science department where he knew that I would not be tempted to waste time reading the stock. It was an excellent training to master a section of books about which I knew nothing. After a few weeks, Mr Heffer asked if I would like to move to the Secondhand department. I decided that I should stay where I was for a little longer. He applauded my decision and gave me a rise of ten shillings a week.

When I came down from Cambridge in 1965, an opening at Heywood Hill appeared. Handasyde (‘Handy’) Buchanan did nothing as vulgar as advertise the position, but simply put it about that Heywood was retiring and, for the first time for many years, the shop was looking for a young hopeful. No mention was made of a crown prince, nor indeed of the traps that lay in wait.

Heywood Hill had worked for Chas J. Sawyer for about six years before opening his own shop in 1936 at 17 Curzon Street. (The present shop at 10 Curzon Street opened in 1943.) He learnt the rudiments of the antiquarian trade from Sawyer, whom he probably had to pay for his apprenticeship. Apart from old and new books, Heywood had a lot of antiques and curiosities, including musical boxes and automata, which he loved. He was able to sell anything that interested him, and had a great capacity to ignore anything that didn’t.

In 1938 Heywood married Anne Gathorne-Hardy, with whom he had opened the shop. He was called up for military service in 1942 and Anne, by then four months pregnant, kept the shop going with help from Nancy Mitford. Nancy had already written three or four novels, though nothing quite so good as Love in a Cold Climate. Her writing improved extraordinarily in the period between Pigeon Pie, which came out in 1940, and The Pursuit of Love in 1945. You could make a good case that while Nancy was at Heywood Hill she discovered the art of novel-writing or, at least, what people liked to read. In 1946 she left the shop when the great success of The Pursuit of Love enabled her to settle in Paris. However she remained a partner of Heywood’s until his retirement in 1965, and collaborated with him in buying French books for the shop. Over the years they engaged in an extremely amusing correspondence, which I am preparing for publication in 2004 to celebrate Nancy’s centenary.

In 1945 Handy Buchanan joined the firm, having previously worked for Michael Williams, another antiquarian bookshop in Curzon Street which was bombed in 1940. Heywood came back from the War in 1946 and, although the two men got on perfectly well, their taste in books could not have been more different. They divided the customers for new books into three camps: highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, looked after by Heywood, Handy and their assistant, Elizabeth Forbes.

Handy had no patience with Heywood’s customers who read books like Leonard Woolf’s autobiography. He equally had no time for James Lees-Milne, who was a very old friend of the shop and had been briefly engaged to Anne Gathorne-Hardy. Handy preferred his customers to be retired military men or politicians of a Tory temperament. The word ‘crusty’ comes to mind, but I must remind myself that he was exactly the age that I am now when I first met him.

I came to be interviewed in May 1965, and made the grave mistake of mentioning to Handy that I was vaguely related to Heywood Hill – his nephew had married a first cousin of mine. I had no idea that a state of guerrilla warfare existed between the Buchanans and the Hills, or, at least, between their wives who worked in the shop and were at daggers drawn. During the interview, Handy asked me to confirm that I was not a blood relation of the Hills, as he wanted nothing more to do with their family.

Heywood stayed on part-time for about a year after I arrived, and I got on very well with him and his wife. By the time they retired to Suffolk we had become good friends and I would occasionally visit them in deep disguise so as not to incur the wrath of Mollie Buchanan. Heywood died just short of his 80th birthday in 1985.

Handy had clearly cast me to succeed Heywood in looking after the high- brow customers, which had a profound effect on my own reading. He encouraged me to learn about my customers’ tastes in order to recommend the right books to them. I always ask new customers to name six books that they have genuinely enjoyed, rather than what they were told to enjoy. I find the equation between books and people perpetually fascinating. My memory for nugatory knowledge has been very helpful in this respect.

I realised early on that Heywood Hill was very special and that I would be extremely lucky if I ever got the chance to take it on. On his retirement, Heywood had sold the shop to Henry Vyner, a gentleman of leisure and the majority share- holder in Marlborough Rare Books. After a few years, Mr Vyner was showing signs of boredom with the shop: perhaps it wasn’t quite the literary club or social whirl that his wife would have liked. In 1971, David Bacon, a customer of the shop and an accountant by profession, bought the shop from Mr Vyner. When Handy retired at the age of 69 in 1974, I replaced him as manager.

I was worried that a lot of the middlebrow camp would take their custom elsewhere: many of them would not have relished the prospect of being served by a mere thirty-one year old. Handy himself was quite convinced that it would be a case of après lui, le déluge. In my early days of running the shop, David Bacon’s financial expertise was a great help. As the years went by, however, it became clear that he wished to become more involved and, in 1990, he announced that he would spend two days a week in Heywood Hill being a bookseller. Six difficult months followed, during which he tried to apply the lessons of corporate business to a small shop. We had monthly meetings to discuss strategy when, in fact, decisions in the shop are made on the spur of the moment from day to day. We don’t plan ahead to spend more money on, say, colour-plate books. If they come our way, then of course we’ll buy them, but it hardly requires a strategy meeting.

Things inevitably came to a head and in mid-May 1991 David instructed me to find a buyer for the shop by the end of July. If I failed, I would be asked to leave on 1st August and thereafter David would run the shop. When Henry Vyner had sold the business to David, the Duke of Devonshire and Lord Lambton had been disappointed not to be offered it first. They were both very good customers and would love to have supported the shop. When I began my fund raising, my initial plan was to find about ten minority shareholders of whom I would be one. It was a very worrying time, but I soon found that there were plenty of customers who were interested in supporting the business. When I contacted Lord Lambton, he said that I could have a cheque for his share the following day. The Duke of Devonshire responded that he would prefer to be the majority shareholder. Thereafter I raised the money in no time at all, and Heywood Hill was acquired from David Bacon in August 1991.

The Duke of Devonshire is exceedingly bookish, and knew the shop well from the time when Nancy Mitford worked here. He owns a house a few hundred yards away and has been a tremendous friend of the shop. I have been involved with his book collecting on two different fronts: antiquarian and new books. The Duke keeps his favourite books in his study at Chatsworth, where he feels happiest. He likes to arrange the books himself, and to amuse himself with different categories. He has, for example, a ‘disaster shelf ’ on which he will put a biography of King Edward VIII for six months of the year, and then move it to the Royalty section for another six months. He always takes the greatest care in providing appropriate bedside books for his guests, and will often ask my advice. I was rather flattered when I first stayed at Chatsworth to be told that the Duke had given up when trying to choose books to put next to my bed.

People often ask if it is difficult to combine the selling of old and new books. Since the end of the Net Book Agreement in 1995, I do feel that we are swimming against the tide in every respect. Before the Agreement collapsed, our customers would buy all their books from us, from a Dick Francis paperback to a Humphry Repton Red Book. As soon as the discount culture came in, we had to work extraordinarily hard to stay in the same place. We are living in a three-for-two culture (even though all three books may be unreadable, or even shortlisted for the Booker Prize). As a lifelong optimist, I believe that there will always be a place for a bookshop that offers service and knowledge. When the dust settles, people will surely decide that they would rather buy two worthwhile books.

I may seem eccentric to some of my colleagues in the antiquarian trade, but I do believe that books are intended to be read. If you don’t read the books, you can make expensive mistakes. Someone offered me a copy of Trollope’s Rachel Ray in original cloth – a great rarity, but certainly not worth the asking price of £8,000 fifteen years ago. Why? Because it’s a poor novel. I don’t think that should be irrelevant in pricing a book.

In recent years I have greatly enjoyed developing the idea of tribute catalogues. We have handled the libraries of Enoch Powell, A.L. Rowse and John Fuggles, and the catalogues undoubtedly contribute to an aspect of their characters that might escape the biographer. Our catalogue of John Fuggles’ library developed from Nicolas Barker’s brilliant obituary in The Independent. Nicolas’s portrayal of a true bibliomaniac was reinforced by the extraordinary range of books in our tribute catalogue.

In the antiquarian trade, supply and demand are utterly different from the new book business. One of my best friends in the trade was A.W. Howlett, who died in the late 1980s. Known as a runner, Mr Howlett’s service to us was unique. Three times a week he would come to the shop with a cardboard box filled with exactly the type of books that we could sell. His method was simple: he would turn up at a railway station and say, now where haven’t I been for some time? He had a very retentive memory, a sweet nature, and his books were always fairly priced. There was also Mr Montanana who was a well known runner in the West End. His prices would start very high, but could be persuaded down. Andrew Henderson’s forte was not so much running – although he did a lot of scouting for us – as being an expert eye in the auction rooms. He had good judgement, though I still have one or two of his mistakes, which I look on as old friends.

The second book in Larry McMurtry’s Berrybender Narratives is dedicated to ‘the secondhand booksellers of the Western world, who have done so much, over a fifty year stretch, to help me to an education’. Larry was brought up in Texas as a cowboy, but a cowboy who read books. His parents and grandparents had herded cattle but Larry wanted to herd words. A successful script writer and film director, he is also a bookseller with Heywood Hill taste. When I first visited him, he had an attractive shop in Georgetown, Washington DC, called Booked Up. All booksellers know the feeling when they visit a shop and find a kindred spirit.

Neither of my two sons, though keen book collectors, wanted to become a bookseller. This is in no way a criticism of colleagues who found dynasties. Bookselling is extremely hard work, and I have certainly put off as many as I have taken on to work in the shop. You have to be like the proverbial swan unruffled and skimming along on the surface, but paddling like crazy below. It’s not easy to be agreeable to customers all day long.

84, Charing Cross Road has a lot to answer for. It certainly increased the number of letters that I received with news about the weather in Maine or preparations for Thanksgiving. There are customers who have read about the shop and come here expecting me to give a performance. I don’t exactly learn my lines, but Heywood Hill is in certain respects a stage. We’re bookselling in front of the lights.

I have always liked what I do and have been extremely lucky with the people who work for me, and with my health. Journalists often think that the shop is me, but actually I do delegate. For one thing, I can’t type and I’m computer illiterate. But I tend to do the jobs that I think I do well. I particularly like buying secondhand books and finding the right home for them. People tend to forget that booksellers are essentially book buyers.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in December 2003


Sheila’s interview finished with my describing Heywood Hill as a bookseller’s stage, from which I departed in 2008 when I reached my 65th birthday. Deprived of my stage, I was extremely lucky to be invited by Maggs to have a desk in 50 Berkeley Square, where I continued as a bookseller, but with unfamiliar independence. The two shops had always been friendly neighbours and had shared several customers.

   I had to re-invent myself and decide initially whether I should concentrate on new or secondhand/antiquarian stock. By 2008 the new book trade had had to face the competition of the dreaded Amazon; in any case I could hardly work at Maggs with a stock of new books.

   Self-employment meant that I had to acquire a computer and teach myself to type. This did not come naturally to me, but I had been spoilt by having had a secretary at Heywood Hill and younger colleagues who were not just computer-literate but expert in its advantages.

   I had kept in touch with a lot of my customers and realised that they often had libraries which needed to be down-sized. Since 2008 I have sent out about thirty catalogues full of the books that I had read myself or recognised as likely books for my bibliophile friends.

   Various friends and fellow-booksellers have been marvellously helpful in the nine years since I left Heywood Hill, Kirsty Anderson, James Tindley and Anthony Smith. John Murray offered a wonderful haul of his books in Albemarle Street, which contributed to my first catalogue, codeword ‘ALBEMARLE’.  I’ve just issued ‘SWANSONG’, my last catalogue in the present format. When the Swan has Sung, I very much hope to keep in touch with those who have supported me since my departure from Heywood Hill. Booksellers don’t retire but hope to continue to share their pleasure in books with their bookish friends.

Afterword added in 2017

John Saumarez Smith died on 15th November 2021

John Saumarez Smith

A Poland & Steery Co-production