Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Leo and Philippa Bernard

Leo and Philippa Bernard

[Leo Bernard] I started my working life in publishing, and was always interested and mildly involved in bookselling. My father was a close friend of Ben Marks and Jack Joseph, and I also knew Alan Thomas quite well. During the War I came on leave from the Royal Marines and went into Marks & Co. simply to browse – and stayed on to work for a short time. Helene Hanff’s book portrayed the shop at a slightly later date. Somewhere I still have a few letters on 84, Charing Cross Road writing paper.

In 1973 Philippa and I saw an advertisement in The Times for Chelsea Rare Books, which Robin Greer wanted to sell. We went to have a look at the shop with no serious thoughts in mind. Robin invited us to a very good dinner and, after a couple of bottles of wine, we undertook to buy the shop – and never looked back.

Robin had come to the point where he wanted to concentrate on catalogues and book fairs and be spared the distraction of running a shop. He was also ready to specialise in children’s books and travel. We took the shop as Robin left it, with much of his general stock, his lovely umbrella stand and other benefits of that kind.

There was also a comfortable armchair. Unfortunately it was very popular with one or two of the local bores who would sit down and take up my morning. However I managed to train our spaniel, Tess, to jump into the chair when I gave the signal.

At the time the basement had not yet been opened up. We developed it at a later date to accommodate the Beaufort Gallery for our art books, prints and water colours that became an important part of the business. In the early years Philippa was not quite so much involved with the shop. She had started an Open University degree in History just before we bought the business, and was in the throes of examinations by the time we had the shop up and running.

[Philippa Bernard] As a husband and wife team, Leo and I occasionally argued but never came to blows. It’s very useful to have two minds to discuss things, and we each have our own areas of responsibility. Leo has always been more involved on the book side, while I tended to look after the administration. Of course the arrangement was not without difficulty – for example, in times of illness. Leo had a heart problem in the late ’70s. I wanted to be at home looking after him, but I couldn’t leave the shop. At the time we were on a waiting list to exhibit at the ABA June fair. When we finally got to the top of the list, more or less at that very moment Leo had a heart attack. The ABA office rang to offer a stand, and I replied, ‘give me half an hour’, while I tore over to the hospital. It was outside visiting hours, but I persuaded the nurses to let me on to the ward. We agreed that I should do our first book fair and, with some additional help, I also managed to keep the shop open.

Having a bookshop in Chelsea was more like being in a small country town. It was very much a local shop supported by local people. We got involved in Chelsea events, joined the Chelsea Society and always had a special window display during the Flower Show. I wrote a guidebook, Chelsea. A Visitor’s Guide, which was sponsored by Cadogan Estates. They were forming an important collection of books, maps and prints and bought a large amount of local topography from us. Everybody from members of the Royal Family to the local dustman came into the shop. We were as happy to sell a £10 book to a Chelsea Pensioner, as we were to sell a four-figure book to a Duchess.

Without wishing to sound pretentious, the shop did have quite a remarkable character – not because of us, but because of the location which led to many interesting purchases. On one occasion we bought a book from a dustman who had found it in a local skip. It was a Royal Navy pamphlet of around 1910. After a little bit of research, we discovered that it contained the first photograph of a submarine. We gave the dustman a fair price and he nearly fell over.

We had some good buys locally, but this was before the auction houses became so dominant. Leo had a very good manner with the old ladies. One day he was asked to look at a good collection of military history. He offered the General’s widow a sensible price and was surprised to hear that she would have to consult her husband. Clearly she was in some sort of spiritual contact with him, and, the next day, Leo received the message, ‘the General says that you may buy his books’.

We also bought a lot from runners – a breed that hardly exists today. Mr Howlett was one of the great runners, with his battered cardboard box tied with string. A small man, he was understandably proud of having run a complete set of the Nonesuch Dickens by hand in ten boxes from Curzon Street to Berkeley Square.

Above all and of great benefit to us was Andrew Henderson, one of the great eccentrics of the book trade. He was immensely knowledgeable and had a spectacular memory. He could not only remember what a book last made at auction, but who the underbidder was. I think Andrew sold quite a lot of our books to Quaritch. But he was very fair and would never put on an extravagant mark-up.

A customer that we ought to mention arrived unexpectedly one Saturday afternoon. Two huge cars with black windows drove past the shop, and then turned back and parked outside. A couple of burly minders jumped out, their pockets clearly bulging with guns. They opened the car door and out stepped an immaculately dressed Imelda Marcos, with her ‘lady-in-waiting’. Apparently they had been on their way back from another bookshop where they hadn’t liked the irascible owner, and had spotted our shop quite by chance.

By the end of the afternoon, books were piled up all over the floor. Mrs Marcos opened a beautiful crocodile handbag, stuffed with American dollars, and gave us $10,000 on account, promising to return on Sunday with the balance. Leo slept that night with the money under his pillow – the only time he has ever done such a thing.

On Sunday morning Mrs Marcos duly returned with the money, and six Daimlers full of boxes and some men who did the packing very carefully. The books were delivered to a private jet and taken to Manila where Mrs Marcos was opening a library. When our assistant arrived on Monday, she took one look at the half-empty shop and burst into tears – she thought that we had been burgled. Max Reed had witnessed the black cars and came racing in and wanted to know if Arabs had bought the shop. Helpful though it was, Mrs Marcos’s visit was rather like having all the flowers in your garden picked at once. In fact it took us about two years to stock up fully again.

While we were in the shop, holidays hardly existed. But our summers in Aldeburgh were great fun and an important part of our bookshop history. We were very friendly with Cyril Fry, a Jermyn Street dealer in water colours who had a summer gallery in Aldeburgh. In the late ’70s he offered us the use of the back room so that we could do some bookselling, pay for our concert going and come home with a little bit of profit. We were also very lucky to stay in a beautiful house on the sea front for a nominal rent. It slept nine and we filled the house during the Aldeburgh Festival with booksellers, family and our assistants past and present. Strafford House had quite a literary history; Thomas Hardy visited it, and Edward Fitzgerald is supposed to have done some of his translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám there.
We always advertised in the Festival programme and this produced a number of opportunities to buy locally. Peter Pears came into the shop from time to time. Benjamin Britten was already quite ill, though Leo saw him in the audience for the first night of Death in Venice.

Over the twenty-five years or so that we had the shop, we were enormously fortunate with our assistants, all of whom became good friends. Some are now highly placed in the book trade. Our girls were a great asset to us. They not only got on well with the customers, they also brought us business, as they all came from well-established families from whom we were able to buy books. The local policeman slightly fell in love with one of our assistants, and used to inquire after the ‘girl with the green eyes’. When we sent her to deliver some books to an Arab customer, he wanted to buy her. One of our girls had a beautiful house in Gloucestershire and we went down there with Angus O’Neill, our co-editor, to work on the finishing stages of Antiquarian Books. A Companion for Booksellers, Librarians and Collectors, published by Scolar Press in 1994.

The book was largely aimed at the working bookseller, particularly those who did not have access to a big reference library. It was used as the set book for the diploma in antiquarian bookselling at London University. I taught the course on Bookshop Practice, which was very informal and concentrated on the nuts and bolts of running a bookshop. Of course every bookshop is different, and I wanted to explain to the students that you make your shop what you are. Every bookshop takes on the character of the person running it. There were a lot of applications for the course from foreign students, because England was still considered as the centre of the old-style antiquarian book trade. But London University rather spiked it by asking such enormous fees from them.

[Leo Bernard] Philippa and I are both very sad that our style of bookselling hardly exists any more. When we bought the shop, the rent was £700 a year, and King’s Road was full of interesting little galleries and antique shops. There were also a lot of booksellers in Chelsea with shops, or working from home: Robin de Beaumont, John Boyle, the Harringtons, Richard von Hünersdorff, Francis Marsden, Peter Murray Hill, Julian Nangle, John Sims and Alan Thomas are names that come to mind. Some years after Alan’s death, his daughter offered us a big collection of his catalogues, which were works of art in themselves. We sold them mainly at the Chelsea Bookfair in aid of Trinity Hospice where Alan died. Nowadays there isn’t a single secondhand bookshop in King’s Road. If we were still there, the rent would be in the region of £60,000 a year.

Most of the little shops disappeared during the recession of the mid-’80s, when most of the shops in our parade were empty. Then Terence Conran arrived in the area and people began to realise that Chelsea was coming up again. Gradually all the empty premises were taken over by expensive designer shops. Issey Miyake, a Japanese fashion designer, now occupies our shop.

We liked to think of ourselves as the top of the second division of booksellers (this was before Premiership days). But increasingly the middle has disappeared from the trade. You still have the Simon Finchs and the Bernard Shaperos of this world – extremely able and successful fellows. And you still have more modest businesses outside London, where overheads are lower. But the area that we occupied has all but disappeared.

Although the overheads largely prompted us to leave Chelsea, we were also finding the journey to and from our home in Totteridge increasingly tiring. It’s about eighteen miles cross country and got a bit much six days a week.

But we have by no means given up bookselling. We exhibit at Biblion, which also means that our stock is accessible on the Internet. We are very fortunate in having a handful of old established customers who have been close to us for years and still want us to represent them in the sale rooms. Philippa is delighted to have more time to spend working in the garden. When people ask how we are getting on, I like to tell them the story of the elderly Oxford don, who was stopped in the street by a friend and asked if he was enjoying retirement. ‘Well, I miss the vaca- tions’. There’s a great deal of truth in that.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in May 2001


On 15 September 2003, Leo died after a short illness. We had continued to buy and sell books from home after we left King’s Road, missing the friendship and bustle of the shop, but enjoying the peace and quiet of Totteridge. Leo’s colleagues and friends in the book trade have spoken of the warmth and affection they had felt for him and for his old-fashioned bookselling ways. I hope that Chelsea Rare Books will continue in a modest way to represent Leo’s attitude to the trade.

Afterword added in 2004

Leo and Philippa Bernard

A Poland & Steery Co-production