Cara/Andrea here, carrying on the library/books theme that Nicola began on Monday . . . If you’re like me, any bookstore sings a Siren song—I find it hard to pass one by without poking my head inside and exploring. Shops that carry old books are particularly intriguing, for one never knows what marvelous (to me, and not anyone else) treasure might be hiding on the shelves.
So I was delighted to stumble across a wonderful article on a very special bookshop called Heywood Hill in the New York Times this past weekend, and can’t resist sharing its story. (Oh, that I could be in London to “stumble” across it in person! It’s first on my To-Visit list for the next time I’m traveling across the Pond.)
Heywood Hill founded the small shop that bears his name (it occupies two floors of a Georgian townhouse, complete with a fireplace and chandeliers) in 1936. To say that it has an impressive pedigree is no exaggeration on many levels. Hill loved books and literature, and according to the shop’s website he liked “to sell not just the best books, old and new, but other beautiful objects and curiosities—a tradition that continues to this day.
During World War II, Nancy Mitford, author and one of the celebrated Mitford sisters, worked at the shop. Her famous wit and family connections attracted the intellectual set, making it a hotspot of literary and social life in London. (John Le Carre set a scene at the shop in Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy.) Her younger sister “Debo”, also an author, was married to Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire. Their London residence was right around the corner from Heywood Hill, and the Duke, an avid bibliophile became a lifelong customer.
“Life is too short to waste time on bad books. Allow us to sort the wheat from the chaff.”
Today, the shop remains true to its original mission of offering a carefully curated selection of books to a discerning clientele. They say three things set them apart: “our mix of books, catering to all tastes and sensibilities, from highbrow collectors to knotted-brow newborns; our loyal customers around the world, all linked by a shared appreciation for good books; our determination to maintain our style in the digital age.”
One of the things its customers love about the shop is that it will not only track down an specific “wish list” book, but that it will also go above and beyond—it’s known for being able to assembling any special collection, be it for stocking an entire library (should you lucky enough to own a country estate like Chatsworth) or creating a unique group of bibliographic treasures to suit a special interest. For example, the NYT article mentions that Heywood Hill put together a 300-book collection on the subject of “Endurance” for a customer who wanted to surprise his wife, who had taken up marathon running. Then there was the man who wanted to assemble aviation memoirs from the First and Second World Wars—which came to over a thousand books.
I can’t wait to visit the shop in person, but for the moment I’ll simply daydream about a long, leisurely afternoon spent perusing its shelves. However, the thought of ordering a special wish list book got me to thinking . . .
So let’s all have some fun. If you had the Duke of Devonshire’s fortune (estimated at £800 million) what rare book would you ask Heywood Hill to find for you? I could easily cobble together a VERY long list, but my top choice would be the Kelmscott Chaucer, published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, and considered by many to be the most beautiful book ever printed. And now I turn the page over to you. Please share your dream book treasure!