Ron Ben Israel

In the Heart of Mayfair, John Saumarez Smith presides over what many consider the best little book shop in the english-speaking world.

“Try that,” he says, extracting a book from a messy, tempting pile as if he’d been expecting me, though it’s months since I’ve been in London. “I think you might like it,” John Saumarez Smith adds in the confidential tone of a literary tipster parting with an urgent piece of otherwise inaccessible information. I’m in Heywood Hill, probably the best-loved—and best—bookshop in the English-speaking world, and John, as everyone calls him, is its managing director, though he calls himself, simply, a bookseller. Reading greed comes over me.

Along with the book, which the heavy odds are I will like, there will probably be some tasty gossip about a new author, a new gardening book, a new thriller. “The Shop,” as it’s called by its regular customers who depend on it as a kind of club, is on Mayfair’s Curzon Street, and it is ineluctably English. Saumarez Smith, thin and elegant in his bespoke suits, spectacles often perched on his nose, would be recognized anywhere as an Englishman at a hundred yards.

As soon as you walk inside, you could be in no place but London. As a kind of hangout—part literary, part social—the Shop has always had a reputation, especially when Nancy Mitford ran it during World War II. She used to ship books to her sister’s husband, the Duke of Devonshire, wherever he was stationed; and in 1991, the duke became Heywood Hill’s major shareholder—he now calls it “the family bookshop.” In the BBC’s version of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the late Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley pays a call on Heywood Hill, as Guinness did in real life; Le Carré was also a customer. But Heywood Hill also has a peripatetic clientele, most of them American, for whom reading is an addiction, for whom books are the old rock and roll. The only time I met Jackie Onassis was at a cocktail party given for John Saumarez Smith in New York. Every year, John travels to the United States at least once, and in the world of people who adore books these visits are state occasions. Brooke Astor is a devoted “friend of the Shop,” as its 2,000 or so regulars are known. So are Gore Vidal and Dominick Dunne, David Tang in Hong Kong, Larry McMurtry in Texas, and film producer Sam Goldwyn in Beverly Hills. Peggy Elliott, the writer who is married to Goldwyn, recalls her first visit. “It was in 1971, the first time I went to London with Sam; I don’t think he’d been there since 1960. We walked into Heywood Hill and one of the women who worked there said, ‘Oh, hello, Mr. Goldwyn, I haven’t seen you in a while. I think I have a book that would interest you.’ She dug down into one of those big round tables and sure enough, it did interest him. Talk about British understatement.” “I actually first went to Heywood Hill in 1946,” Goldwyn says. “It’s a wonderful bookshop—there’s nothing like it anywhere—and John really knows what he’s doing. Sometimes I see a review and I call up for the book and I get a note back saying, ‘Are you sure you want this?’ ” Heywood Hill, at 10 Curzon Street, next-door to the old-fashioned barbershop Trumpers, is very English and very discreet. There’s a front door you could easily miss. The first room you enter is, literally, jammed with books. Books on the shelves. Books behind glass-fronted cabinets. Books on big round tables. Paperbacks in racks. There are novels, biographies, architectural books; there’s history, cookbooks, new books, secondhand and out-of-print books. Horticulture is a specialty. There are good editions of authors the Shop deems “standard”; you can be sure of getting anything by Evelyn Waugh (who was a customer), P.D. James, or Anthony Trollope. In the back room, a desk is crammed in, and everywhere are books waiting to be shipped. These are wrapped in the inimitable Heywood Hill style: heavy brown parcels tied up with string, and labels addressed by hand. Packages that are destined for stately homes in England and penthouses in New York, but also for ordinary people. I first went to the Shop about 20 years ago, and I have been going ever since; I never get over the thrill of a Heywood Hill package coming in the mail, those packages which, says Michael Thomas, a writer, “are so sturdily wrapped as to be virtually unopenable without a tool kit.” In the basement is one of the best collections of children’s books I’ve ever seen. Upstairs again, and I’m glued to one of the round mahogany tables, unable to decide what I want, while a man in a hat is crouched nearby, peering at some dusty tome. Saumarez Smith is busy with a customer, following her around with a pad and pencil, discussing what she wants for vacation, what she should take as a gift on a weekend visit. He seems to have read pretty much everything, but so does everyone else who works here. Heywood Hill is about as far as you can get from the anonymous warehouses that pass for bookstores these days. You may find latte and bestsellers and plenty of magazines, but sometimes it’s hard to find anyone who’s ever read a book. And there’s no one who gets as thrilled as Saumarez Smith over a new find. As one of his fans says, “Just between you and me, I love the way John quivers with excitement over a book, a bit like one of my adored golden retrievers.” At 57, John Saumarez Smith really is the heart and the head of Heywood Hill. He has never had another job since he first entered the Shop in 1965 straight out of Winchester (the brainiest of England’s private schools) and Cambridge University. “When I first joined,” he says, “the average age of people working here was very high; there had been no change of staff for seventeen years. My then boss hated clubs, and if people said Heywood Hill was clubby, he hated it.” He pauses to adjust his glasses. “But I don’t think I had ever seen the equation of books and people so refined that you found you were becoming the ‘book friend’ of a huge group of marvelous people.” Harold Acton bought his books at the Shop; so did Graham Greene. “Nothing was written down,” Saumarez Smith recalls. “Everyone knew everyone’s voices on the phone.” They still do. You can now order books by e-mail, though the place still makes you think there must be some guy with a quill in the back doing the accounts. John and his wife, Laura, live in a pretty Georgian house in Islington in North London and spend their weekends in a house in Dedham, a country village where Constable lived and painted. They’ve got two grown sons: Joe, a journalist who’s become an Internet business whiz, and George, who’s an architect. In the literary world, Saumarez Smith and the Shop also have real clout. The Shop sends out newsletters suggesting titles its customers might like, and publishers compete to get their new books noticed. Saumarez Smith was an early fan of the late Canadian writer Robertson Davies. Before long, most of his customers were reading Davies’ novels. People got hooked; Davies’ books sold. Word of mouth is still a potent tool in the book world. The Shop was opened by Heywood Hill and his wife, Anne, in 1936. It isn’t snobbish or forbidding, although it is probably the only bookshop on earth with its own tie—the name “Heywood Hill” beneath an open book. You can as easily pick up the new Dick Francis as some heavyweight (and heavy to lift) volume on some obscure aspect of 17th-century British architecture. You’ll probably also run into someone you know or hear that a friend has just touched down in London and dropped by. Books are John Saumarez Smith’s passion. He loves reading them, he loves selling them and people who read them. He loves the physical business of the books themselves, old, new, secondhand. He likes to figure out what someone will read, as though he were a kind of literary shrink. Feeling lousy? John will know what you need to read. Invited to the Palace? He will know what to take. Need a special birthday gift for your cousin who lives in Oklahoma? He will suggest a list of books published in the year of her birth and then find a first edition from it. He also helps people collect, noting, “the hunt is as important as the kill.” When he’s not selling or giving advice, Saumarez Smith also “looks” at libraries, often valuing them for estates. Sometimes you call the Shop to discover he’s on a ladder somewhere in Cornwall, gazing raptly at a collection of ten thousand books. He’s been known to buy whole libraries for the Shop. Sometimes he is even asked to “make a library,” as in the case of the Connaught Hotel Bar. Nina Campbell, the British decorator, said to Saumarez Smith, “I’ve been asked to jazz up the front of the Connaught—especially the bar. I’ve put in two bookcases. What are you going to put in there?” Not a man to miss a joke, he came up with a list of books that included A Long Draught of Cold Water by Patrick Campbell and an autobiography by Molly Berkeley entitled Winking at the Brim. He added Alec Guinness’ autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, because the late Sir Alec had been a regular at the Connaught. Maybe nothing is more revealing about this eccentric bookshop than the Heywood Hill Literary Prize, which the Duke of Devonshire dreamed up in 1995. He let Saumarez Smith decide that it would be awarded for a lifetime’s contribution to the enjoyment of books, and that it could go to a writer, a publisher—even a librarian; past recipients include Patrick O’Brian, Penelope Fitzgerald, and John Nicoll of Yale University Press. An invitation to the annual prize-giving is coveted by friends of the Shop. It takes place every June at Chatsworth, the duke’s stately home in Derbyshire, in the north of England. “The duke and duchess love giving a party,” Saumarez Smith says. “It brings together customers, English friends, American friends, a marvelous mix.” On a hot June morning, this marvelous mix of people boards the train in London for the long journey north. Acquaintances are renewed, books discussed, gossip exchanged. At the end of the road is Chatsworth, one of England’s most ravishing houses with its gardens, its fountains, its grand cascade. When we arrive, there’s a band playing ragtime. The duke and duchess are ineffably glamorous, the duke in a white suit and two-tone spectator shoes, the duchess in linen and just enough diamonds. There’s the prize-giving, with witty speeches and a lot of good-humored camaraderie, then lunch where one might meet the mystery writer P.D. James or Tom Stoppard, the playwright. Afterwards, everyone troops off for a walk around the grounds. Later, I find myself in a small group of people being given a private tour of some of Chatsworth’s paintings and books by the duke himself. Saumarez Smith recalls the first time that he was asked to go “look” at the books at Chatsworth. He mentioned to the duke that it was difficult for him to come on a weekend because his kids were still small. “I really do think, John,” he remembers the duke saying, “that Chatsworth is big enough for your children.” On another occasion, Saumarez Smith was taken into a vault. He was shown rare books that will be on view this fall in a traveling exhibition called “Treasures from the Library at Chatsworth.” “I could only stand about fifty minutes of it,” Saumarez Smith recalls. He remembers looking at an original copy of Palladio’s Architecture that had belonged to Lord Burlington and that had, interleaved in it, Burlington’s own handwritten comments from 1728. “My knees began to tremble,” he laughs. “My blood pressure soared.” Back at the Shop, Saumarez Smith gets just as worked up over finding a period cookbook I’ve been desperate to get hold of, or because he has read something that he absolutely loves and is saving for a particular customer he knows will love it too. Then the door to the Shop opens. The customer in question appears. John Saumarez Smith looks up and says, “I think I’ve got something for you.” He holds out the book. “Try this.” Heywood Hill, 10 Curzon Street; London W1J 7FJ; 44-20-7629-0647.

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