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Heffers bookshop: Nominate your most characterful bookseller or customer [winning blog idea November]

Each month BookMachine offers a community member, with great ideas, the chance to write on the site. This month, publisher and author of ‘This book is about Heffers’, Julie E Bounford, writes on bookshops and their unique sellers and customers.

The 140-year history of Heffers of Cambridge, demonstrates that bookselling is as much about people as it is about books. As Janette Cross says recently in The Author, bookshops have people who know their customers, who read books and who live in the real world. I couldn’t agree more. People are smarter than algorithms.

In researching, writing and publishing ‘This book is about Heffers’, I interviewed over sixty past and present staff, customers and authors. What stands out about this remarkable bookselling phenomenon of the twentieth century is the character and style of its people.

For example, bookseller, Duncan Littlechild, a pacifist, disapproved of Winston Churchill and would say to customers, “You don’t want to buy that old rogue.” Littlechild began his 54-year career at Heffers in 1903 and was a WW1 prisoner of war. Considered old school by the 1950s – he had a reputation for kowtowing to academics – his favourite customer was the English comedian and character actor, Cyril Fletcher.

It wasn’t just the booksellers who were characters. Author Julian Sedgwick, who worked at Heffers from 1991, fondly recalls the parade of “influential, cosmopolitan, charming, grumpy, famous, notorious, odd and downright weird” customers.  He shares his most memorable in the book.

At Heffers many idiosyncrasies were accommodated. In the 1970s the Children’s Bookshop had a big round red seat, on which one adult customer liked to curl up and go to sleep. Another would play the violin in the main bookshop, and yet another would always wear a lifejacket (in Cambridge?). Mr Doggett, who still comes in every week, would stand at the front of the shop yelling the cast names from the 1947 film production of Oliver Twist. Recalling the multitude of interesting and eccentric characters, bookseller David Wilkerson describes bookselling as being ‘edgy’.

It strikes me that characters inhabit all aspects of the book world. We know that a well-told story will feature convincing characters. Unsurprisingly, many authors are themselves notable characters. Indeed, publishing and bookselling is, and always has been, populated by characters. Even the letters that form the words in a book are termed, ‘characters’.

So, where can we find characters in an online world of algorithm dictated bookselling? In a bookshop environment, characters contribute to the essence of the tangible book-buying encounter. Intelligent conversation with a knowledgeable bookseller can lead to rewarding discoveries that no algorithm could discern (and why on earth do the algorithms think that once I’ve bought something, I’ll want to buy exactly the same thing again?).

The book about Heffers is inspired by my childhood memories of visiting Heffers Children’s bookshop every Saturday morning. There was always time during the family routine for choosing books. I wrote about choosing books, living life in 2014 – http://jebounford.net/choosing-books-living-life/

If we stop using bookshops, we’re in danger of losing our connection with bookish people that have real expertise and character.

Who is your most characterful bookseller or customer, and why?

Dr Julie E Bounford hails from a Cambridge ‘town’ stock of booksellers, bakers and college bedders, and lives with her husband, Trevor, in a Cambridgeshire village. Julie spends her time on research and writing, and on running Gottahavebooks, the Bounford’s small indie publishing operation. Julie is the author of ‘This book is about Heffers’, published 21st October 2016. She’s available for talks on the history of Heffers and commissions in social history research and writing. Julie regularly publishes a blog on her website at http://jebounford.net and can be contacted via julie@gottahavebooks.co.uk

 

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Comments (2)

  • How about a bookshop in a stripy half-timbered building that has its own dungeon? Where the proprietor moonlights as a not-so-secret Santa (on account of his lustrous white Wenceleslas beard)? Which has its own radio show, recorded between the stacks after the shop closes? Which has employed many a bookish teenager as Saturday help, from which they have progressed to bookish careers? Which has persuaded many a reluctant reader to discover a love of words and print? Where you might meet the wife of a rock legend, or a nervous author on their launch day, or a publisher on work experience ‘to understand how people buy books’? I give you Peter Snell of Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead, Surrey, winner of the Muddy Stilettos Award. (Ask him what he keeps in the dungeon.)

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