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2007-03, 353, Book Reviews, Bookshops, Colin Steele

Book Review- A Spy in the Bookshop

A Spy in the Bookshop: Letters Between Heywood Hill andJohn Saumarez Smith, 1966-74.

Edited by John Saumarez Smith. (Frances Lincoln). 175pp. $35.

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between NancyMitford and Heywood Hill 1952-73.

Edited by John Saumarez Smith. (Frances Lincoln). 191pp. $35.


In an era when bookshops such as Border’s and Waterstone’s, fill their windows with paperback “3 for 2” offers, the Heywood Hill Bookshop, at 10 Curzon Street in the heart of London, stands out as an exceptional independent bookshop. These two volumes of  letters, edited by John Saumarez Smith, provide a fascinating glimpse into literary London over three decades through the perspective of a distinguished, if often dysfunctional, book-shop staff. 10 Curzon Street is now almost as famous as 84 Charing Cross Road was as a result of Helene Hanff’s books.

Heywood Hill, an old Etonian and contemporary of Cyril Connolly and Harold Acton, opened the shop in Curzon Street in Mayfair in 1936. Nancy Mitford ran it from 1942-1945, while Hill was away during the Second World War. During her time, a customer apparently told her:  “Less of darling and more of service would be welcome!”

After the War, the gentle mannered Heywood, was joined by Handasyde (Handy) Buchanan, who had 35 identical Old Rugbeian ties which he used in rotation depending on the differing conditions in the shop! His thick lensed spectacles, slightly humped back, and two pairs of hand-knitted woollen socks, to ensure that his feet would never sweat, make him almost a Dickensian figure. Handy possessed all “the concealed malice of the underdog”, according to Evelyn Waugh.

Saumarez Smith says that Handy, who “suffered from natural dyspepsia”, departed for the pub at 11.30 each day – “the half hour after his lunch, which was largely liquid, was the worst possible time for colleagues or customers to ask him any questions”. Handy often expressed his disdain to customers who were interested in subjects like music, Victoriana or children’s books.

Mollie, Handy’s wife, was responsible for the shop’s accounts. Nancy Mitford recalls receiving a bill from Mollie “which is one of the most brilliant works of fiction I ever read … Many of the books I am supposed to have bought I have never even heard of”. Mollie is described by Saumarez Smith as exhibiting a “malignant jealousy” of the other staff, while Hill describes her as resembling “a character in some early Verdi opera”, with “her remorseless vendetta and smear campaign” against him. Mollie was apparently sacked five times during Hill’s time at the shop but always turned up the next morning!

Hill sold up in 1966 rather than endure the Buchanans any longer. His main contact thereafter being his young “spy in the bookshop”, John Saumarez Smith, educated at Winchester and Cambridge, who had joined in 1965 straight from university. Saumarez Smith’s sympathies were clearly with the Hills but he had to put up with the Buchanans who made his life the veritable bookshop misery. The letters between Hill and Saumarez Smith are full of anecdotes, enhanced by fascinating insights into the bookselling and publishing scene of the time.

Hill’s and Saumarez Smith’s correspondence concludes with Handy’s retirement in 1974, since which time Saumarez Smith has run the shop. On the shop website (http://www.heywoodhill.com/about.php), Saumarez Smith says he “has weathered three recessions and enormous changes in the book trade, but continues to believe in an independent bookshop’s important contribution in its knowledge and experience”. The majority shareholder of Heywood Hill is the Duke of Devonshire, which may help!

The letters between Mitford and Hill from 1952 to 1973 were originally published in 2004, but have been reissued with the publication of this ‘sequel’. After the War, Mitford, a legendary letter writer, lived in France, but she maintained a close interest in the shop’s events until her death in 1973. Hill is the perfect dry foil for Mitford’s racier literary gossip. Mitford longed to hear news about the bookshop and especially about its eccentric customers, such as disgraced spy Guy Burgess, who continued to buy books from the bookshop even when he was in Moscow.

Hill recounted incidents such as the occasion when a “customer even dottier than most”, Lady Theo Cadogan, locked herself in the shop on a Saturday afternoon, with her smashing of glass leading to the rescuing police being soaked in “pools of blood”. Mitford describes Violet Trefusis as “the spit image of Stalin”, after Trefusis had “tottered to the table, scooped up all the fish and all the potatoes, left half and threw cigarette ash over it. I could have killed her. Lady Montdore exactly.”

Mention is made of the Queen Mother’s penchant for drink and her habit of taking “a ham sandwich to bed every night—no matter how big the banquet”! Saumarez Smith hilariously describes the annual bookshop panic to find a suitable Christmas present for Osbert Sitwell to give to the Queen Mother.

Writers, like Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark and Graham Greene wander through the pages, alongside aristocratic bookbuyers and the wealthy, such as Mrs Paul Mellon and Jackie Kennedy and “a couple of young Astors”. Underneath the bookshop acrimony and the society gossip, however, the letters reflect a deep and abiding passion for books and the pleasure to be derived from providing customers with the right book at the right time. The current website notes that staff are often able to discourage customers “from buying something that has been well reviewed”. It is to be hoped that this practice is not applied to the two excellent collections under review here!

Colin Steele



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