A Year With Books - With Literary Review
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.
A Year With Books - With Literary Review
Luke Edward Hall Greco Slipper
Yoko Trench Coat
A Year in Books - Hardback Twelve
Crocodile porcelain stapler
Hugo Guinness Scarf
Reade Table Lamp
The Story of Art
Tizio Micro Desk Lamp
Tool the Bookworm Quill
Vintage French Farmhouse Dining Table Oak
Far from the Madding Crowd
Inside Heywood Hill
Step inside London's most iconic bookshop. With all the publications inside, you could see Heywood Hill as a portal to many alternative universes.
The Bookseller's Bookshelf
Nicky is part of a team that collectively reads more than 600 books a year. These are his all-time favourite books. Amongst his selection is The Magus by John Fowles which has been a favourite of his for a long time "one of the first books I ever read as an adult and it resonates still." Discover the bookshelf of the bookseller here...
From Nicky's literary heroes to Heywood Hill's most loyal subscriber "I was in New York in May and I met someone who has received a book every month from Heywood Hill for 25 years. She said we had changed her life" this selection of quickfire questions will help you get to know the iconic bookshop a little better.
“Marcel Proust or Lord Emsworth, take your pick.”
“Water. Tea is the most over-rated drink in the world.”
“Every book should shift your perspective. Only bad books don’t.”
“Dancing, until I get upset with the DJ.”
"À la recherche du temps perdu. We are awash with delusions about our illusions. Beware status, and money, even love, is not everything."
"Byron’s copy of Frankenstein kindly lent to me for the day by Peter Harrington."
"The era of printing."
"Historically I would guess The Pursuit of Love by our former colleague Nancy Mitford. More recently we sold tons, literally tons in weight, of Artemis Cooper’s wonderful life of Patrick Leigh Fermor."
"Both. One subscriber in Connecticut has received a subscription from us every month for 25 years. People who love having their own bookseller, year-in year-out, adore our range of subscriptions."
"Our booksellers are the best in the business, reading 600 books a year between them. It is the most personalised subscription anywhere and with the biggest international reach. We have subscribers in over 75 countries. And each subscriber has a bookseller they can rely on. It can be a wonderfully nourishing relationship. The beauty of it is that it is like Christmas every month."
How to Choose a Book
"With an overwhelming amount of publications in the world, it can sometimes be very difficult to choose your next read... Luckily, Nicky is a professional and - as they do for their many subscribers - he has detailed the questions they ask new customers when they choose a Heywood Hill subscription."
“Which three books have you loved and why?”
“Who are your favourite authors?”
“Which writers do you loathe and why?”
“What are your interests outside of reading?”
“What do you enjoy about reading?”
Nicky's first listed necessity was the Heywood Hill team "We are 16 people devoted to good books and good service. Our book subscription team read around 600 books a year between them. Each and every subscriber is given a huge amount of attention. And this is why we have subscribers of all ages all over the world". Sadly we can't list the entire Heywood Hill team for sale, but we can list their bespoke subscription service...
Around the Literary World with Nicky Dunne
You've heard of a bar crawl, well... Here is Nicky's alternative. A list of the best bookshops/libraries from all over the world, or the perfect route for a book crawl, if you fancy it?