There are London establishments, and then there’s Heywood Hill. Over 80 years in business, it has rewritten the codes of bookselling; flung into fame by the indomitable Nancy Mitford’s reign at the store mid-WWII, Heywood Hill now brims with a prestigious client list longer than the latest Booker-Prize winner. Much has been made of the monolithic giants such as Amazon—the Goliaths to Davids such as Heywood Hill—nudging out competitors with sheer brute force (read: free deliveries). But, from its townhouse spot in a Mayfair-that-time-forgot, Heywood Hill, run by its chairman Nicky Dunne, has nimbly dodged the same fate so many independent bookstores have suffered. Nicky Dunne spoke with Semaine, sharing his secrets on keeping the written word alive.
A chandeliered store, nestled amid a street of icons, nothing is normal about Heywood Hill (even its hold music, which is not hold music at all, but rather a charmingly brief précis of its history). John Le Carré set a scene there for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. It was dubbed the “centre for all that was left of fashionable and intellectual London” by Evelyn Waugh. Where some stores jostle word art and tie-in paraphernalia in storefronts, Heywood Hill’s reads like the reading list of a trusted friend (the one who juggles several equally intriguing books on the go). Walking past recently, the line-up featured “The Gardens of Corfu”, a book on Raphael, and the Scrapbooks of Eric Ravilious. It’s eclectic, but seems to make perfect sense when seen side-by-side. Nicky attests this fine balance is due to “our interesting group of booksellers, about half a dozen of them—between them they read about 600 books a year, which is a hell of a lot!”
If being a bookseller in 2018 is a Sisyphean task, Heywood Hill climbs a steeper ascent than most, with a delivery service which knows no bounds. Whether zooming out to Gatwick to hand-deliver a book to a travelling subscriber, or the store’s owner (and Nicky’s father-in-law), Stoker Devonshire, hand-delivering a sought-after book to Anna Wintour’s very own offices at Vogue, service is part of Heywood Hill’s secret: “We have to work very hard to make sure that A Year In Books is the best kind of service in its field. We call it the most personalised book subscription in the world.”
Gift-giving is a crude sport, still, no matter the polished sheen of countless advertorials. Giving books is an act apart (it reveals as much about you as about the reader); by a stranger, your views of the world can be fleetingly united, dovetailing together into something unknown. “A Year in Books”, Heywood Hill’s subscription services, bests any Amazon algorithm with its cabal of London’s most devoted readers: “their magic formula is listening to what our subscribers tell us about themselves— it’s a bit like therapy, having to stop and listen to that person and consider them properly.” The proof is in the pudding, with one woman in Connecticut subscribing for over 25 years, receiving the iconic Heywood Hill package every month.
Alongside this service is Heywood Hill’s library assembling business; it summons all the literary wizardry of the staff, and then some: “We’ve just completed a project on the history of capitalism for a hedge fund manager and the history of architecture for a developer— they usually take 3 months to a year depending on the breadth of the project.” No two are alike, this belief both the diversity of a Heywood Hill client, and of its merry vigour to tackling new projects: “I think there’s also real affection and interest overseas in the literary ecology of London and what’s being published in Britain— you can access that through a very experienced bookseller, appealing to the heart of a reader, but also to the head”. Talking to these readers, in fact, is at the heart of what they do; as Nicky told us: “Every day you’re running into people and talking it’s not a chore, it’s fun.” This Semaine, we pore over the shelves of Heywood Hill, unwrap its blue ribbon, and step into this small square in Mayfair, to hear some new stories from the biggest little bookshop in the world.
By Jonathan Mahon-Heap for Semaine.
Photography by Benedikt Frank.