Colclough Lecture 2019

It is an enormous pleasure to be here, and to be talking about a subject that means so much to me, in a place I am so strongly connected to! I am an academic product of Bangor University: I did all my degrees with the School of English, and during those times, and around them, I worked in bookshops. During my gap year, before coming to Bangor in 1987, I worked for a chain called Hammicks Bookshops, and continued to work for the shop in the branch closest to my parents’ home in Tunbridge Wells during every vacation. When I did my MA, I worked for Galloway and Hodgson, in Upper Bangor. Anyone remember them? We had an academic bookshop in Bangor once – it’s now the purple Oriental Grocery Food Store. Completing my MA away from Bangor, in Reading, I worked at the Blackwells on the Whiteknights campus. So, bookselling is something that has always been a key part of my life, and now that I am an academic in publishing and book trade fields, I have the opportunity to make this a main research focus, something Eben and I have been talking about for over ten years.

This paper will explore some of the histories of more recent booksellers, and bookselling initiatives, putting the case for why they should be seen as a more active influence in areas like reading practices, literary culture, and book history.

When Frank Mumby’s mammoth work,The Romance of Bookselling, was first published in 1910, its subtitle proclaimed it to be a “History from the Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century.” In the preface Mumby explains his rationale for attempting such an ambitious task: “no one else has attempted to write an adequate history of English bookselling and publishing”, he says, going on to quote the essayist Alexander Birrell, who complained that “no great trade has an obscurer history than the book trade. It seems to lie choked in mountains of dust which it would be suicidal to disturb.”[1] Never one to duck a challenge, I, like Mumby, am disturbing that dust, but in this lecture am mostly focussing on dust that has settled since the periods Mumby dealt with, ie the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Mumby was a literary journalist, and a historian, publishing several works on historical topics, as well asThe Romance of Bookselling, which underwent several major alterations, including title changes, in subsequent editions, until its final iteration asMumby’s Publishing and Bookselling in the Twentieth Century, sixth edition, written with Ian Norrie, published in 1982. On his death in 1954, the TLS eulogised Mumby as someone who had “an unequalled knowledge of the publishing world”, and this particular description is revealing. Mumby’s Romance of Bookselling“has an exceedingly attractive title” said a review,[2] but,“he has almost exclusively devoted his attention to the branch of bookselling which is now known as publishing.”[3] So, before we go much further, let me set out the parameters of my own interpretation of that evocative title: I will be focussing on bookselling as we understand it today, ie the profession (and I call it that very deliberately) of curating, managing, and selling books. Bookselling requires the application of specialist and wide-ranging knowledge, and has been, and still is, an occupation requiring training. Of publishing history, and of book history, we have a growing body of research, but of bookshops and bookselling, very little. As Rick Rylance has pointed out,(SLIDE 2)

The role of the bookshop in British literary culture . . . may have been under-appreciated and certainly under-researched.[4]

Well, Eben and I are certainly trying to fix that gap, and the work we’ll be doing with other colleagues and partners during my Visiting Fellowship here will hopefully help establish a bookselling research network, and continue to develop the research we’ve already started, on all kinds of bookshops, from second-hand to online. It therefore felt fitting to use Mumby’s title as the link to this paper, as his work was the first substantial effort to try to capture some of the histories of bookselling. There are other sources prior to Mumby, like Henry Curwen’sHistory of Booksellers: The Old and The New[5] and Charles Knight’sShadows of the Old Booksellers[6] , but the former, as Mumby has noted, is less a history than a collection of articles, and the latter is “not always trustworthy,”[7] and both also feature more figures on the publishing side, less as mainly booksellers.

I was also attracted by his use of the term “Romance”: theRomanceof Bookselling. My medievalist side immediately interpreted this as meaning fantastical adventures, whereas it is, in fact, more of a history, even if that history is peppered with really colourful book trade characters! However, as a book trade researcher, the collocation of romance and bookselling is intriguing: I’ve found this cropping up in other places, too, not just as Mumby’s choice of title, (including a history of Foyles, calledThe Romance of a Bookshop,[8] which will prove to be a neat link to a later section of this talk…) and so, as a bibliophile, it feels familiar. The OED gives another sense of “romance” which might go some way to explaining why:

The character or quality that makes something appeal strongly to the imagination, and sets it apart from the mundane; an air, feeling, or sense of wonder, mystery, and remoteness from everyday life; redolence or suggestion of, or association with, adventure, heroism, chivalry, etc.; mystique, glamour.

Now, this brings us closer to what a bookshop CAN be, or at least hold the promise of being, which is partly why bookshops are different from other retail spaces. That sense of anticipation, and of space outside of everyday life, are abstracts, but so important that they are articulated in the Bookselling for Britain Manifesto published by the Booksellers Association in 2017:(SLIDE 3)

Bookshops are havens for everyone, building community character and contributing to the distinct flavour of a neighbourhood as literary and cultural hubs. Booksellers give substantial support to local and national causes and events, including reading groups, schools, libraries, arts organisations, festivals and charities. Bookshop events are well known to attract consumers to the High Street, especially families, and they increase ‘dwell time’.[9]

Bookshops as refuges, places where reading is encouraged and fostered, where ideas are discovered and explored, and where events create networks: all these aspects work within the bookshop space, sometimes with tensions attached, as we shall see later. In terms of value, then, they have a lot to offer. So why are booksellers and bookshops not accorded the same attention and interest as publishers, writers, and the books they produce? Without booksellers, books cannot get in the hands of readers. I’d argue that even – perhaps especially -- today, when writers can self-publish, and when publishers could use the internet to sell direct to the reader, booksellers still have a vital role to play. With all those titles competing for attention, how do you navigate through to find something you want or like?

Philip Pullman recently called bookshops the “lantern-bearers of civilisation.”[10] (SLIDE 4)Already, before barely scratching the surface of different sources, it’s easy to find bookshops being described in ways that combine lofty ideals and pragmatic local impact: and a more detailed historical exploration proves this has always been the case.

Image of the Temple of the Muses, Finsbury Square, London 1809A quick diversion back to the eighteenth century will illustrate this:(SLIDE 5)James Lackington, that famous son-of-a-shoemaker-turned-bookseller who created the first remainder bookshop, combined cheap books, cash-only, no-credit policies with a physical space that had reading lounges, a domed ceiling, and a ground floor so spacious it was apparently big enough to drive a coach and four around it. Lackington was a great self-publicist, made himself many enemies within the book trade for his (highly successful) business model, and his own lowly beginnings were neatly contrasted with his bookshop in Finsbury Square, which he called The Temple of the Muses. Lackington’s own autobiography deliberately courted controversy, defiantly rejecting accusations from other booksellers that he lowered the reputation of the book trade, and claiming, proudly, that he had greatly increased people’s access to books, saying that:

. . . it affords me the most pleasing satisfaction, independent of emoluments which have accused to me from this plan, when I reflect what prodigious numbers in inferior or reduced situations of life, have been essentially benefited in consequence of being thus enable to indulge their natural propensity for the acquisition of knowledge, on easy terms: nay, I could almost be vain enough to assert, that I have thereby been highly instrumental in diffusing that general desire for READING, now so prevalent among the inferior orders of society.[11]

Lackington’s articulation of success, in its focus on the spread of reading, needs more examining to test the truth of what he says, but it also proves that booksellers, over 200 years ago, saw themselves as more than just retailers. As the nineteenth century progressed, the roles of bookseller and publisher diverged more distinctly, and tracking the names of the significant booksellers becomes more challenging. Antiquarian bookselling, another area that should not be forgotten, even if I haven’t got the space to do more than include a nod to it here, also grew significantly during this period; these booksellers deal in a different kind of value, a different kind of romance. Theirs is the realm of the rare, the out of print: custodians of and dealers in books of the past, they undertake quests of sometimes legendary status. You only need to read Rick Gekoski’sTolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Booksto be completely seduced into wanting to know more about that world!

Books can be awe-inspiring, in this kind of rare and special, context. Yet for many people, even ordinary, easy to come by books are objects beyond their reach. In the Bookseller Association’s 2017 Bookselling for Britain report, it states that 5.1 million adults in England struggle with literacy, and only 50% of people in the UK read on a weekly basis.[12] Beyond these barriers, however, are the harder to quantify ones: how people view a bookshop, and who they think can use them.

For many people brought up with books, bookshops are an accepted, expected part of life. But, for others, bookshops are seen as inaccessible places, welcoming only to those perceived to have intellectual skills. Back in 1935, when Penguin paperbacks were launched, Allen Lane told The Bookseller magazine that Penguins were Designed primarily to reach those people, where they congregate on railway stations and in chain stores, with the hope that when they see these books are available in the regular bookshops, they will overcome their temerity and come in.[13]

Lane had a mission to bring cheaper (but still well-designed) books to the masses, and to do that he had identified a real challenge with the physical spaces where these books would be available.

In the first half of the twentieth century, booksellers saw their role as a very serious one indeed. Reading through articles and books written about bookselling during this period is to find a fiercely protective, evangelical rhetoric about the vital part bookshops played in the spiritual and cultural well-being of the country. For instance, look at this extract from a paper about bookselling by writer and publisher Michael Sadleir, called ‘Servants of Books’, from 1924:(SLIDE 6)“The essence of this job, of course, and it is the best job in the world, is loyal service to the book itself. The books demand from their servants not only enthusiasm, not only loyalty, but also practical good sense. No country is the happier for being governed without economic reason, and we are governing one of the most important spiritual countries within the British Empire—the country of the mind. If we govern with obstinate wrong-headedness, with personal jealousies, or with foolish prodigality, we fail in our duty to the public and also insult the majesty and lower the dignity of the sovereign book.”[14]

If that sounds awkwardly jingoistic, then remember that the interwar period saw a determination to create a world where another war on the scale of 1914-1918 would never happen again. Literature was seen as an effective tool in that effort: Paul Fussell reminds us that before the First World War, people read Kipling, Hardy, Conrad, and “frequented worlds of traditional moral action delineated in traditional modern language.”[15] In 1921, the Newbolt Report was published, which looked at the teaching of English across all age ranges. Included in it is this passage on the key part bookshops and booksellers play:(SLIDE 7)

“An educated bookseller is in a position to render great service to the community; and we believe that the English teachers of the near future will, in turn, be glad to lend such a benefactor all the assistance in their power to encourage their pupils to become his customers. In every town the bookselling shop should become, what in University cities and in one or two other favoured spots, it is already, a centre of literary and artistic interests and enlightenment; a place where the best books, old and new, can be inspected at leisure.”

As educational access began to expand, and as publishing began to adapt to all these new contexts, bookshops saw themselves as crucial quality control agents. Major G. Brimley Bowes, a great nephew of Daniel and Alexander Macmillan, who ran the bookshop they had set up in Cambridge, was a frequent commentator on bookselling during this period. He pushed the Bookseller’s Association to establish more formalised training programmes, saying:

“if a licence is required to mark those qualified to dispense medicine for those who are or may be sick, and to prevent the misapplication of what may poison their bodies, why not a licence to mark those who are qualified to dispense healthy and good literature for all readers, and prevent the dissemination of books which might poison their minds?”[16]

I have researched bookseller training in this period and found that exams set for booksellers were quite formidable. In one 1929 paper, on English Language and Literature, for example, this was one of the tasks:(SLIDE 8)

Two questions only to be answered in this section.

  1. Give a short account of the development of the Drama up to and including Shakespeare.
  2. Trace the history of ONE of the following: a) Blank Verse b) The Sonnet c) Heroic Couplet
  3. Give an account of the life and work of Chaucer. In what ways isThe Canterbury Talesa commentary on the period?
  4. State briefly how Literature was affected by the Renaissance.

Another paper, set on Bibliography, included these two question choices:(SLIDE 9)

1. Give an account of EITHER –

a) The work of the contemporaries and immediate followers of Caxton


b) Provincial printing before 1500

2. Explain the term “Incunabula” and mention any FOUR important books from this class saying why you think them important.

The demands of exams like these help to explain why, perhaps, booksellers were keen to assert the level of their knowledge and expertise, and why their perception of their role was so strongly aligned with the crucial part literature was seen to play in the integrity of the nation. It may also explain why bookshops could be seen as intellectually unfriendly places, intimidating to those without the knowledge of the bookseller themselves. Booksellers saw themselves as patrons to readers: unfortunately this often meant they became patronising towards them. Further on in the Sadleir piece quoted from earlier, he says booksellers:(SLIDE 10)

“must fit ourselves for the task. It will be slow work, but it can be done. And once the public are taught to be less muddle-headed on the subject of books, the production of trashy books will surely decrease. Trash thrives on muddle-headedness..”

There is so much to unpack here in terms of readership, high and low brow fiction, gatekeeping roles within the book trade. For the purposes of this paper, however, I want to concentrate on this obviously earnestly felt but breathtakingly dismissive pronouncement on the general reader. In a volume produced in 1935, calledThe Book World,there is a chapter on Bookselling in London, written by J. G. Wilson, who was the managing director of the wonderfully named bookshop, J. and E. Bumpus Ltd., whose roots go back to the eighteenth century. Wilson writes that a bookseller should not give in to the temptation to stock his shelves with quicker selling, cheaper stock because this would be to go against his “true function of presenting to the public the best works of his time.” He goes on, “Following this practice is the sure way to blurring of a bookshop’s personality; because the display made by a bookseller dictates the kind of customer he attracts; and these in turn dictate the range and character of his stock. . . The bookseller is the purveyor of ideas, which can neither be produced nor assimilated by machinery.”[17]

Film poster for The Bookshop(SLIDE 11)If any of you have read the novel, or seen the recent film adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s,The Bookshop, set in 1959, you’ll have seen how Fitzgerald explores this space, filled with books and new ideas (like Lolita, which causes an actual traffic jam when Florence puts copies of it in her shop window), and how it disrupts the life of a small town. Ultimately, the darker, determined powers of privilege win over the plucky bookshop owner, and Florence is forced to shut the shop. Whilst Florence tries to make her bookshop accessible – even bringing in “cheerfully coloured, brightly democratic” paperbacks, which she “had” to approve of, whilst remembering “a world where only foreigners had been content to have their books bound in paper,”[18] she manages to go against the wishes of the powerful Mrs Gamart, who wanted the shop space for her own planned cultural centre. Ideas of culture, therefore, permeate this novel. A bookshop, Fitzgerald reveals, run by the most determined of booksellers, cannot, in fact, defeat very embedded and prejudiced ideas about culture and who should control it. This novel shows how society itself can sometimes be the body pushing to make bookshops and cultural spaces inaccessible and elitist, and asks us to reflect on that.

So – back to real bookshops. Fitzgerald’s inclusion of that description about the paperbacks, surely a reference to Penguins, does highlight the reality of what was happening during the 1935 – 1960 period. I’ve already mentioned Allen Lane’s desire to see Penguins make it easier for people to go into bookshops, and to emphasise just how big a shift this was, we need to remember that Lane could not get bookshops to stock the first Penguins at all! So much so that the launch looked like being a complete disaster: according to Lane’s biographer, Jeremy Lewis, “many booksellers refused to allow Penguins into their shops or, if they condescended to place an order, confined the offending items to a bin on the pavement outside.” Not even W H Smiths (which, as the legend goes, were the railway station booksellers who inspired the new publisher) put in an order. Things were not looking good – Lane had had twenty thousand copies of each of the initial ten titles printed, and he had to find a way to shift them. Then, in another one of those stories that sound as though they must be made up, so crazy do they seem, three weeks before the publication date, a despondent Lane visited the head office of Woolworth’s. Lane spoke to the head buyer for the haberdashery dept, Clifford Prescott, who was not at all enthusiastic. However, Mrs Prescott arrived, “fresh from shopping and eager for lunch”, according to Jeremy Lewis. All hail Mrs P, because she took a look at the Penguins, liked the titles, and suddenly Mr Prescott was persuaded to give them a trial. 63500 copies were ordered, and other shops soon followed Woolworth’s lead.

Slowly, things began to change. Rick Rylance explains how bookshops came to be seen as unfriendly places to readers lacking in confidence:

“conventional bookshops were not much help. Almost to the end of the 1960s most bookshops were rather daunting places for many, with austere atmospheres, shelving in the windows which blocked visual access from outside and eliminated daylight from dim interiors where lurked gloomy, patronising or censorious proprietors and badly paid, but equally patronising, assistants.”[19]

This perception, that bookshops are somehow places of intimidation, still persists. (And anyone who has seen the television series Black Books has at least one hostile bookseller they can call to mind!) – indeed, so common is this view still that the Booksellers’ Association attempted to dispel it by launching a Civilised Saturday campaign a few years ago – an initiative that backfired, causing it to be rebranded after two years as Sanctuary Saturday, and now abandoned altogether. As one commentator said when the event was announced:

“Now the question is, are we in 2015 or extras in a "Downton Abbey" Christmas special? My initial reaction at reading this news was to cringe, eye-roll and choke back a laugh... because of that awfully cultured name for it… For an industry increasingly notorious for its cosseted cultural snobbery, is Civilised Saturday a wise branding exercise?"[20]

This was not a universal view, of course, and many booksellers reported that Civilised Saturday was a big success for their shops and their readers, but for an industry-published piece in 2015 to highlight the continuing “cossetted cultural snobbery” of the book trade shows how pervasive and enduring a view it still is.

Photograph outside Foyles in the 1950sIn the next section of this paper, therefore, I’d like to use two case studies of booksellers to explore these issues around class, accessibility, and professionalisation of bookselling further. Una Dillon and Christina Foyle ran two of the most iconic bookshops in London during the middle of the twentieth century; both were highly respected, for different reasons, within the book trade, and both left legacies which illustrate the romance and the value of bookselling. Of the two, Christina Foyle is the better known.(SLIDE 12)Born in 1911 in Highgate, London, Christina was one of Gilbert Foyles’s three children. Gilbert, with his brother William, had set up the successful Foyles bookshop, starting, in 1903, from their kitchen table, selling second-hand textbooks after both failed their civil service exams as teenagers. By 1906 they had opened on Charing Cross Road, describing themselves as “The Largest Educational Booksellers in London;”[21] by 1912 they were able to move to another site on Charing Cross Road, a big space with 6 floors, and expand their subject coverage and include new books. By 1929 they were buying an average of 40 thousand books each week and employed 140 staff. They went on to launch Foyles Educational, an off-shoot that supplied schools with books, and then the Library Dept, which supplied the increasing amounts of public libraries appearing all over the country. There is a link to Wales, too: in the 1920s, when the Welsh population in London was said to number around 200 thousand, with 36 churches and 60 literary societies which used Welsh as their main language, Foyles established the Foyles Welsh Company, and in 1927 the Foyles Welsh Press, to publish Welsh books. Its first title, a book of Welsh lyrics by Eifion Wyn, sold 3000 copies in 4 weeks. In 1928 Foyles bought a van to travel to Wales and deliver books from door to door. This is definitely something I’m hoping to find out more about whilst on my Fellowship!

Foyles also launched their own magazine,Foylibra, in 1927, which survived until 2000; Foyles Music Company in the 1920s, and in 1930, the Foyles Art Gallery, as well as Foyles Educational Films. In 1934 Foyles Libraries Ltd began, twopenny libraries that aimed to place “good, sound” fiction within the reach of the reading public.[22] As we’ve seen above, this was exactly in line with those calls for booksellers to help support and serve readers, as at twopence a subscription, this was a far cheaper, and therefore more accessible, option for people than had been available before. In 1937, Foyles launched the Right Book Club, which diversified in the 1940s into several clubs each covering different genres, including a Catholic Book Club. William Foyle claimed that the Pope joined this, payments being made under another name, and that Foyles sued him unwittingly for an unpaid invoice! In 1944 Foyles took over the Lecture Agency, which, according to Penny Mountain, “provided a sparkling list of top-flight speakers to address luncheon clubs and other groups all over Britain.”[23]

Photograph of Christina FoyleFoyles was, as you can see, very much a family business, with a great many interconnected initiatives to run. William’s son Richard worked for the business until his early death in 1957, and his other daughter, Winifred, worked in the Music Dept until she married. It was therefore Christina who became a company director in 1940, succeeding her father as managing director when he died in 1963. Foyles was a behemoth of bookish activity: Christina joined it in 1928, when she was 17. She had had an unusual childhood: contracting TB when she was 7, she spent 6 months in a sanatorium, where shell-shocked soldiers had also been sent to recover. This experience deeply affected her ability to trust people, and although she had many admirers and acquaintances she made very few close friends during her life.[24] She was sent to boarding school and then a finishing school in Switzerland, returning to London a “good looking and self-assured young woman”, according to her DNB entry. Here she is(SLIDE 13). You can see immediately why she became such a society hit. Christina’s upbringing was spent either away at school, or at the bookshop, where she met people like Aleister Crowley, Conan Doyle, and Compton Mackenzie. It is no surprise, then, to learn that with her father’s blessing, Christina began the Foyles Literary Luncheons in 1930. Here’s a picture of one of the early ones:(SLIDE 14)– I hope you can just make out how huge these events were! (up to 2000 people at a time attended).

Photograph of Foyles Literary Luncheons showing a very large crowd of people sitting and eating at tables.There were 664 literary luncheons during Christina’s lifetime, according to the DNB, and she attended 662 of them. Because of her upbringing, she knew authors, politicians, and entertainers and so there was never a shortage of big names to draw in ticket buyers. Her self-confidence meant that she also gave talks in her own right (unusual for a businesswoman of her generation). In an interview she gaveThe Timesin 1993, she told how she often accompanied her father to dinner with authors and publishers when she was young, as her mother didn’t much like socialising, and how he’d use her to bid for lots at book auctions, because she looked cute, and would often therefore get the books cheaply.[25] Although she married, she was always called Miss Foyle, and her husband, Ronald Batty, who also worked at Foyles, “was always more than content to allow his wife to be the ‘front-woman’ of the enterprise” although “at nearly all the literary occasions they organised his was usually the hidden hand behind the scenes.”[26] There were no children, but she revealed in the 1993 interview she kept a dog, a dozen cats, peacocks, budgerigars, ducks, geese and seven tortoises, because “Animals are always loyal and love you, whereas with children you never know where you are.”

When she wasn’t at her country house, Beeleigh Abbey in Essex, she lived above the shop: and she became known as the Red Queen of Charing Cross Road(SLIDE 13)for her autocratic ways of running things. By all accounts, she was an awful manager: as one obituary noted,

Christina Foyle calculated that even though she could not afford to pay her staff well, there would always be a pool of literate people in London willing to work for low salaries because books provide a more congenial working atmosphere than most retail items.[27]

So poorly were staff paid (and so often fired for random reasons) that Foyles staff were known to strike to protest at the way they were treated. Christina’s reaction? – “I think they are silly. They have lovely jobs. They beg on bended knees to come here. I think they are being stupid.”[28] Forty women in the postal dept were sacked in 1956, simply for talking too loudly.[29] Her imperious stance, coupled with her refusal to allow improvements such as cash registers, computers, and even calculators understandably infuriated many: but, despite this, she had many fervent admirers, and could be generous and empathetic, inviting staff down to Beeleigh and giving spontaneous and expensive gifts. Ian Norrie, in his obituary of her inThe Bookseller, said that “those who paid for the privilege of attending her literary lunches where she would appear smartly coiffeured and regal, adored her. Those more eminent who spoke at the lunches for love also held her in high regard.”[30]

Her achievements? To continue her father’s legacy and further establish Foyles as a bookshop not just of epic proportions and services, but of “almost unbelievable idiosyncracy: its eccentric retail practices, such as books displayed by publisher rather than by author or subject, and a payment procedure that involved queuing twice, at two separate tills, to make one purchase, charmed and antagonised the customers in equal measure.”[31] She was such a celebrity of her time that she was included in a collection of cigarette cards, In Town Tonight(SLIDE 15),and kept going to the Literary Luncheons until the year she died.

In 2014, to celebrate the reopening of Foyles in its new space at 107, Charing Cross Road,Publishing Perspectivesran a piece which celebrated 107 Reasons to Love Foyles.[32] Number 22 repeats the legend that one frustrated customer once wrote of the Foyles, “Imagine if Kafka had gone into the book trade. . .”

Photograph of Una DillonIn contrast to this chaotic rule, Una Dillon stands as a marked, but no less interesting, bookseller.(SLIDE 16) Unlike Christina, photographed frequently at various stages of her life, pictures of Una have been incredibly hard to find, so please forgive this very grainy one, taken to accompany an article she wrote in The Bookseller in 1967.[33] Una was born in 1903 in Cricklewood, the third of four daughters and the fifth of the six children of Joseph Dillon, a company secretary, and his schoolteacher wife, Teresa. One brother died in the First World War, and the other emigrated to India, and one of her sisters became a nun, but it is astonishing that the three remaining sisters all achieved highly in very different careers, Tess Dillon becoming Head of Physics at Queen Elizabeth College, London, and Carmen Dillon becoming one of Britain’s first women film art directors, winning an Oscar for her work on Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film ofHamlet. Una, after working for the Central Association for Mental Welfare (which later became MIND), and enjoying the contact with books and publishers she had when putting together bookstalls for them, decided she wanted to buy a bookshop in Store Street, Bloomsbury. Her father loaned her £600 and she borrowed another £200 from a friend, and she bought 9 Store Street when she was 35, in 1938. “Looking back,” she said, “I would say that I was almost irresponsible in setting out to start a bookshop with a total capital of £800 and little knowledge.”[34] But she had good contacts with the University of London, very close by, and soon literary minded students around Bloomsbury found her little shop and began to use it. However, when the Second World War began, and the university colleges emptied, she travelled large distances to take books to places like Knebworth House, Cardiff, and the Froebel Training College in Roehampton, and she says that through the War years, as she rode around London trying to pick up orders, her “battered bicycle became a familiar sight” to the publishing trade counters, and that friendships made during this time stood her in good stead later on. Her DNB entry rather more colourfully describes how she “quickly established herself as a formidable businesswoman, becoming a familiar sight flying around London on an old bicycle – a tweed-suited Valkyrie determined to fulfil a customer’s order within eight hours.”[35]

After the War, Una Dillon’s drive helped her partner with the University of London to take on a new bookshop site on Torrington Place, which opened in 1956. She said her dream was to create “a really good general shop with an academic slant,”[36] and gradually, in the new premises which stretched along Malet Street, Torrington Place, and the corner of Gower Street, this was realised. A keen advocate of the Booksellers Association Charter scheme, Dillon spoke on behalf of booksellers at key events like the BA’s annual conference. The Charter scheme committed bookshops who signed up to maintaining standards in training their staff, good stock levels, display and other matters. In exchange, publishers gave Charter bookshops better terms. Dillon actively sought to improve the bookseller’s lot, especially academic booksellers. Michael Seviour, a bookseller who worked for Bumpus, Better Books and then Dillons University Bookshop, said that he thought she cared about book trade affairs because, “she could see that there was going to be a big expansion in university bookselling.”[37] She was right: the UK-wide expansion of universities in the 1960s, following the Robbins Report, brought new opportunities for academic bookshops, too. In 1964, Una Dillon published a paper in the Journal of Documentation, entitled, “The New Look in University Bookselling”. In this article, Dillon discusses what makes academic bookselling different, what the challenges are, and how to tackle them.(SLIDE 17) She is very insistent that these shops should not just carry academic textbooks and specialist works:

The university bookshop must be a general bookshop too, in the sense that there must be space allotted to a large range of paperbacks . . . to books on art, books of general cultural interest, new poetry, and student magazines etc. These are of great importance for the shop should be an attraction not only for the university population, but also for the general public.[38]

She goes on to stress the importance of making sure a university bookshop does not become “wrapped up in a kind of academic cocoon.”[39] Dillon wants bookshops, even academic bookshops, to be accessible to all readers, and to offer something for everyone. As you read this article, which gives advice about academic bookselling with pragmatic thoroughness, there is a sense that here is someone who really knows about her profession, and who sees it as such. Dillon talks here as well about the Charter group, and explains why publishers must work more closely with booksellers on terms so that more books can be sold to the benefit of all parties. She concludes,

“There is no doubt that university bookselling is in a period of great expansion, and with the growth of higher education the general bookseller can also look forward to a bright future. The children of the present generation of those receiving higher educations will surely be more book-minded and better informed at a young age then were their parents.[40]

The Bookseller reported that over 150 people attended Una Dillon’s retirement luncheon at the Connaught Rooms in September 1967; Mr Ivan Chambers of Bryce’s Bookshop, in Museum Street, just round the corner from Dillons Bookshop, said that “he felt sure he had with him all the booksellers in the land, when he said that far from stealing trade from them, Miss Dillon had, in fact, so far improved the image of the bookseller that they all benefitted.”[41] The obituaries in the main newspapers also reflect someone who was deeply respected for her hard work: The Times reported that

Dillon had great powers of organisation and the capacity to inspire and encourage enthusiasm in others. Her selling philosophy was based on the importance of personal service. . . even after her retirement she continued to work for booksellers.[42]

However, there were some things that she definitely did not approve of as the century wore on: Dillons was bought out by the Pentos group in 1977, and in 1986 rebranded all the stores. In an interview with Publishing News in October of that year, Una Dillon told the reporter that she hated the new logo, and disliked the change of term from bookshop to “store”. She also really disliked the jab at Foyles in the marketing campaign, which has the slogan, “Foiled Again? Try Dillons”(SLIDE 18).“I wish they would stop digging at Foyles”, she said. “I know Christina Foyle is very stately and Queen Victoria but I’ve always liked her myself. And her shop has such a lot of books. Everything, really, if you know where to find it. . .” I do wonder, given Foyles’s reputation for being a maze, and given that Dillon’s DNB entry mentions that “she found comparisons with Miss Christina Foyle, who ‘inherited’ her empire, odious”, not to mention that her obituary in The Guardian says that if she were ever compared to Miss Foyle, “Miss Dillon liked to point out: ‘I did it from nothing’”[43] how tongue in cheek that comment is.

Una Dillon’s name is now almost obliterated in bookselling today, as, when the Dillons bookshop chain was absorbed by Waterstones, all the shops were renamed. I was therefore thrilled, a couple of years ago, to see that a small homage had been made at what is now Waterstones Gower Street, where the original Dillons University Bookshop opened. Here is a picture of the café(SLIDE 19).I am hoping that through more research, work of booksellers like Una Dillon can be recovered and set against a more usefully articulated mapping of what booksellers of the twentieth century did, and what impact it had on book buying and reading habits. Christina Foyle, the Scarlett O’Hara of the bookselling world, trying to ignore the need for progress in equipment, staffing training and treatment, whilst charming her way through high-profile Literary Luncheons with the cultural elite, blazed across the middle of the twentieth-century London book trade. She left a mark that reveals both the glamour and the grime of Foyles’s history; she had status because of her father and uncle’s success, and that gave her cachet with all those in the book-connected world. She created the romance around her name, and her Lunches, and they will be remembered.

Una Dillon is the counterpart to Christina Foyle. Where Foyle inherited her bookshop, Dillon had to build hers from scratch; Foyles started as an educational textbook and second hand bookshop, but transformed into a general, all-purpose one, whilst Dillons was a university bookshop, catering mainly for academic needs, but with the addition of general stock. Una worked with professional bodies to try and effect change for the benefit of all booksellers; Christina, as far as I can discover to date, did not engage very much with those bodies. Both shops occupy significant sites in London, and have become destination bookshops. Both, ironically, are now owned by the same company, Waterstones, even though Foyles has retained its name, a nod to its iconic status.

Tim Waterstone described his original vision like this:(SLIDE 20)

“Our object is to have the best literary bookshops in the land, staffed by the best, happiest, literary booksellers.” Tim Waterstone’s advertisement in The Evening Standard, July 1982.[44]

When Terry Maher, head of the Pentos group that bought the Dillons bookshops, wrote his autobiography, he explained how the Dillons vision differed from the Waterstones one: (SLIDE 21)

“Waterstone’s aimed at a more literary market and its shops sought a more literary feel; . . . Dillons’ objective was the more difficult one of ‘widening the market for books’. Dillons stores were designed to be welcoming and to break down the traditional resistance on the part of many, if not most, people, to crossing the threshold of a specialist bookshop; they were meant to be an integral part of the modern retailing scene . . .”[45]

In these two statements, it’s easy to see how, still, in more recent history, bookshops differed in their approaches. Waterstones started off with an emphasis, an unashamed, promoted emphasis, on appealing to booklovers, people who were university educated and who already felt comfortable in a bookshop space. Dillons wanted to make itself more appealing to the person who might not normally consider going into a bookshop; treating it more like other retail outlets, and not as something different, or special. Now that the two companies are merged, and James Daunt is running everything, his vision is changing bookshop culture again.

Daunt came to Waterstones after running his own very successful small chain of boutique bookshops in London, Daunt Books. Famously seen as a bookseller of the old school,[46] with a public image as “a cardy-wearing defender of the old-fashioned bookshop”, according toThe Telegraph, he has shown himself far from being stuck in the past: “indeed, rather than talking romantically about dusty shelves, he talks of computer systems and staff training programmes.”[47] In an interview with The New Statesman he explains his strategy to pull Waterstones back into profit: reduce staff, stop heavy discounting, with offers like 3 for 2s, and reduce dramatically the amount of unsold stock that had to be returned to publishers. In addition, Daunt has put back autonomy for managing stock into the hands of the bookshop managers, rejecting the idea that a chain has to use a template look to succeed, and acknowledging that this meant relying on staff knowledge and expertise.

“In the old days, there would be very much a template of what a good bookseller was,” he says, but points out that Waterstones shops are hugely varied. “We’re in shopping centres, metropolitan cities, the smallest villages, the high streets of Middle England. What you need in each of those is bespoke to that shop.”[48]

!Mr B's Emporium Crowdfunding Message: Book lovers, reading addicts, future readers, Mr Bs customers, generous crowdfunders let us prestn the new spaces at Br open...This is a view I think Una Dillon would have approved of; and in pushing forwards with an emphasis on the importance of the skills of the individual bookseller, linked to an understanding of each bookshop as a community hub, distinctive and effectively serving its book buying public, a new era in bookselling is here. For as well as Waterstones’ renaissance, the independent bookshops are on the rise again, too:The Bookseller reported a 1.7% increase in numbers in January this year – and this is the second consecutive year of uplift.[49] In addition, research has shown that community bookshops, run via a range of different business models, are also popping up all over the country. Hannah Smith concludes that “Aside from their alternative business structure, community bookshops are set apart from other businesses by their active seeking of reluctant buyers. This passionate desire to see peoples’ lives changed through literature is what makes community bookshops so significant.”[50] (SLIDE 22)People are supporting new bookshop initiatives via crowdsourcing, so that existing bookshops, like Mr B’s Emporium in Bath, can expand with exciting new spaces for bibliotherapy sessions, and a children’s Imaginarium. Or so there are spaces catering for those who desperately need more bookshops stocking books of relevance to themselves, like Knights Of’s new venture in Brixton, opening tomorrow, called Round Table Books, for young BAME readers.(SLIDE 23)In April, Paddox Primary School in Rugby wrote to James Daunt requesting a bookshop in their town, because at the moment: “we can only really buy books in supermarkets”. They go on to plead: “A bookshop in our town will mean more people can access a wide selection of books without having to turn to online shops.”[51] In a context where bookspaces are shrinking, with libraries being shut, and school budgets slashed, a bookshop really does become Pullman’s lantern bearer of civilisation. Or, as Neil Gaiman put it, “a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”[52]

Bookselling, as Sian Cain has pointed out in The Guardian, is the “most over-romanticised job in the world”. Think Meg Ryan’s Shop Around the Corner, inYou’ve Got Mail, or Hugh Grant’s impossibly muddly Travel Bookshop inNotting Hill.

(SLIDE 24)Cain muses,

Why we have such emotional links to bookshops, and what distinguishes them from, say, a shoe shop or a supermarket, is hard to define. Perhaps it is the inherent value of books and, more widely, knowledge, or the sense that reading can better us. . . perhaps it is that bookshops, like libraries, feel like sanctuaries. . . . A good bookshop is not just about the books – at last we realise that.[53]

In her monograph on booksellers as ‘Reluctant Capitalists’, Laura Miller explained that “Booksellers try to reconcile their devotion to books, those expressions of the life of the mind and the human condition, with their active involvement in the book’s commodification. And as consumers, we try to reconcile the act of acquiring commodities for the self with a need to make meaning, which sometimes includes a commitment to bettering the human condition.”[54] (SLIDE 25)Or, as another Booksellers Association Report asserts,

“Booksellers are ‘cultural agents’, providing the public with unbiased, reliable and informed personal advice; promoting literacy and reading – the fundamental basis of a knowledge society.”[55]

I hope that this paper has gone a little way to help reveal some of the booksellers who have contributed to our bookish landscape, and what impact they have added to the reading lives of many as cultural agents. Carrying this research forwards is an endeavour The Stephen Colclough Centre and UCL’s Centre for Publishing are keen to pursue. This links, tangentially, to Stephen’s own work on reading spaces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and we hope will place the bookseller into wider explorations about the value of knowing where texts are encountered and read.[56] (SLIDE 26)For as that great publishing legend Stanley Unwin once said,

“To write books is easy, it requires only pen and ink and the ever-patient paper. To print books is a little more difficult, because genius so often rejoices in illegible handwriting. To read books is more difficult still, because of a tendency to go to sleep. But the most difficult task of all that a mortal man can embark on is to sell a book.”


[1] Alexander Birrell, ‘Old Booksellers’, inIn the Name of the Bodleian, and Other Essays(Scribner, 1905) p.149.

[2] Orlo Williams, ‘The Story of Bookselling’,The Times Literary Supplement, 17 Nov, 1910, p. 448.

[3] Ibid, p. 449.

[4] Rick Rylance,Literature and the Public Good(OUP, 2016) p. 133.

[5] Chatto and Windus, 1873.

[6] London, 1927.

[7] Mumby, p. vii.

[8] Gilbert H. Fabes,The Romance of a Bookshop(Privately Printed, 1938)

[9] Bookselling for Britain,Booksellers Association, 2017, p. 8.

[10] Philip Pullman, ‘Bookselling in the UK’, 1 August 2017.

[11] James Lackington,Memoirs of the First Forty-Five Years of the Life of James Lackington(1792) p.351. Available:

[12] Bookselling for Britain, p. 12.

[13] Quoted in Jeremy Lewis,Penguin Special(Penguin, 2006) p88.The Bookseller, May 1935.

[14] ‘‘Servants of Books: Their Privileges and Duties’’,The Bookseller and the Stationery Trades Journal (October 1924) p. 80, andThe Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record(October 4th, 1924) p. 469.

[15] Paul Fussell,The Great War and Modern Memory(OUP, 1975) p. 23.

[16] ‘‘Education and the Book Trade’’, The Bookseller and Stationery Trades Journal (August 1920)

[17] J. G. Wilson,‘Bookselling in London’, in The Book World(Thomas Nelson, 1935) p. 123.

[18] Penelope Fitzgerald,The Bookshop, ch. 3.

[19] Rylance, p. 51.

[20] Nick Coveney, “#Civilised Saturday? Publishing Beyond Parody”,The Bookseller, November 26, 2015.

[21] Penny Mountain, Foyles: A Celebration, (Foyles, Books, 2003) p. 13.

[22] Foyles: A Celebration, p. 21.

[23] Ibid, p. 21.

[24] Ibid, p40.

[25] The Times, January 23, 1993, p46.

[26] The Times, June 22, 1994, p.19.

[27] The Times, June 10 1999, p. 25.

[28] The Times, May 20, 1965, p. 7.

[29] DNB entry.

[30] Ian Norrie, ‘The Iron Lady of the Book Trade’,The Bookseller, 18 June 1999, p.12.

[31] Foyles: A Celebration, p. 46.


[33] Una Dillon, ‘Looking Back and Forward’,The Bookseller, Sept 16th, 1967, p. 1714.

[34] ‘Looking Back and Forward’, p. 1714.

[35] DNB entry.

[36] ‘Looking Back and Forward’, p. 1715.

[37] Sue Bradley, ed.,The British Book Trade: An Oral History (British Library, 2010) p. 119.

[38] Una Dillon, ‘The New Look in University Bookselling’, Journal of Documentation, Vol 20, Issue 4, p.198.

[39] Ibid, p.199.

[40] Ibid, p. 202.

[41] ‘Farewell luncheon for Miss Dillon’, The Bookseller, Sept 16, 1967, p. 1698.

[42] Una Dillon,The Times, April 20th, 1993, p. 21.

[43] Obituary: Una Dillon, The Guardian, 23 April 1993, p?

[44] Tim Waterstone, Prologue,The Face Pressed Against a Window: A Memoir(Atlantic Books, 2019) p.1.

[45] Terry Maher,Against My Better Judgement, (Mandarin Paperbacks, 1995) p.76.

[46] ‘Waterstones starts a new chapter of bookselling under James Daunt’, The Telegraph, 2 Oct 2011.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Will Dunn, ‘How a new attitude to work saved Britain’s bookshops’, The New Statesman, July 10th2017.

[49] Heloise Wood, ‘Indie Bookshop numbers rise for a second consecutive year’, The Bookseller, Jan 6th, 2009.

[50] Hannah Smith, UCL MA Publishing Dissertation, p. 51.

[51] Twitter, @PaddoxSchool, April 8th2019.

[52] Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

[53] Sian Cain,The Guardian, 19 Dec 2018.

[54] Laura J. Miller,Reluctant Capitalists: Booksellers and the Culture of Consumption(University of Chicago Press, 2006) p. 229.

[55] Bookshops in the Cultural Life of the Nation, Booksellers Association. See:

[56] Stephen Colclough, ‘Representing Reading Spaces’, inThe History of Reading: Methods, Strategies,Tactics (Palgrave, 2011) pp. 99-114.