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The Tiny London Shop Behind Some of the Very Best Libraries

8 February 2016

From The New York Times:

Let’s say you need some books. Maybe you have recently acquired a big fancy house, boat or plane with a big empty library, and you want to fill it with real books, not those things that look like books but are actually built-in fake book spines engraved with ornate titles.

One lazy solution would be to employ a decorator to acquire an aesthetically pleasing instant collection. Another would be to visit an estate sale and hoover up someone else’s, caveat emptor. Or you could do what the smartest bibliophiles do: Put yourself in the hands of the staff at the London bookstore Heywood Hill, who promise to go to the ends of the earth to hunt down the books you need — the rare, the old and the out of print as well as the newly published — to build your perfect custom library.

‘‘It’s not that we’re selling by the yard,’’ said the store manager, Nicky Dunne. ‘‘But if they’re interested in a subject’’ — 19th-century French topiary, Brutalist architecture, salmon husbandry or something more obscure — ‘‘and haven’t properly explored books on that subject, then they come to us.’’

When Dunne, 45, says ‘‘us,’’ he is referring to a lovely old Mayfair shop with a rich history. John le Carré set a scene there in his great novel ‘‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.’’ Real-life characters associated with the store include Heywood Hill himself, who opened it in 1936; his successor as manager, the delightfully named Handasyde Buchanan; Nancy Mitford, who worked there during World War II and filled it with her gossipy society friends and immortalized it, in her way, in the novel ‘‘The Pursuit of Love’’; and John Saumarez Smith, the deeply intellectual and beloved manager from 1974 until 2008.

. . . .

Requests are as varied as the world of books is wide. Dunne has kitted out a hotel, at least one cruise ship and a fleet of private jets. For the Bulgari hotel in London, Heywood Hill supplied about 3,000 books: volumes on business, travel, history, politics and the like for the boardrooms; fashion, art, design and fiction classics in the guest rooms.

Then there was the customer, a regular, whose wife had taken up marathon running in her 40s; he surprised her with a gift of 300 books on the subject of endurance. The topic had a pleasingly broad scope, comprising everything from a book about the founding of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece to a book on fell running (also known as mountain or hill running) in Cumbria. Another customer, an Englishman living in Switzerland who flies his own plane, wanted every available aviation memoir from the First and Second World Wars — about 1,000 books in all, Dunne said.

. . . .

The cost for such literary curation can run into the six figures, depending on the size of the library, but for people who don’t want or can’t afford to purchase complete libraries, the shop offers preselected ‘‘book boxes’’ of five to 10 volumes, intended mostly as gifts. They’re arranged by themes, some with help from friends of the store: Edmund de Waal’s ‘‘The Books That Made Me’’; A. A. Gill’s selection of cookery writing; Simon Berry’s starter library for the young wine connoisseur.

There’s also a program called A Year in Books, in which readers receive a book a month for a year. The customer pays a set fee — about $515 for hardcovers — and the store chooses the exact volumes after interviewing the recipient about their likes, dislikes and idiosyncratic interests. ‘‘We get attuned to our customers,’’ Dunne said. ‘‘These are human rhythms as opposed to algorithms.’’

. . . .

Heywood Hill’s customers hail from 60 countries (about a third of their customers are from the Unites States), and have been known to throw themselves entirely at the mercy of the staff, such as the ‘‘nice American lady’’ in the Hamptons who was renovating her house. ‘‘She said, ‘I’m sick of seeing the same glossy rubbish books in my friends’ houses; please send me some good books,’ ’’ Dunne recalled. She lucked out, receiving, among other non-glossy, non-rubbish selections, John Julius Norwich’s ‘‘Sicily’’; A. N. Wilson’s ‘‘Victoria: A Life’’; some volumes of philosophy by John Gray; ‘‘Hall of Mirrors,’’ Barry Eichengreen’s book about the Great Depression and the 2008 recession; and what Dunne referred to as ‘‘a nice chunk of fiction,’’ including works by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Books in General

9 Comments to “The Tiny London Shop Behind Some of the Very Best Libraries”

  1. If I were some pretentious twat who cared too much about what people think of me and had some throwaway money, I might hire this company to create a library for me.

    Then again, I don’t buy print books to show off my supposed reading habits, and I doubt that would change even if I had loads of extra cash. I buy print books because they’re books I think I’d like to read but don’t come at a reasonable price (or at all) in e-format.

  2. So, 84 Charing Cross Road on steroids.

    Dan

  3. Is it now de rigeur to be dismissive of differences? They have a business, presumably it works, and yet – bingo – it’s immediately consigned to twatsville.

    Hey, I’d like to find a copy of the 1882 edition of Boys Own Paper – maybe someone like this would hunt it out for me – if I was not hesitant because of the cost. [My grandfather’s year of birth, in case you are wondering].

    But why be dismissive?

    • Ashe Elton Parker

      I just honestly don’t see the point in throwing money away on a complete library of books I probably won’t read anyway–which I’ve purchased only to decorate my home or to impress visitors. If I cared that much about what other people thought of my reading habits, I wouldn’t have purchased an ereader, I’d never have started reading sf and fantasy, and I’d never have started writing.

      I may love books, and I may spend lots of money on them, but I do it only because I have determined I want to spend my time reading those books, not because I’ve asked some people who don’t know me (even if I’ve provided answers to an in-depth questionnaire) well enough to be able to pick books I have a chance of liking.

      If they’d even be interested in helping me acquire a roomful of sf and fantasy books. Or could find enough of them in hardcover to fill a library.

  4. I’m not being dismissive. The search capability is wonderful. The motives of buyers…who cares.

    Dan

    And I loved the movie and the book.

  5. I think the point of this was that they don’t do the send me a mile of books decorator trash. The ‘‘nice American lady’’ may come close but I have a feeling she actually also wanted some “good books” and will read some of them. These people can pay for knowledgeable people to select books they have genuine interests in but not the time to spend finding them. I love working in libraries but this would have to be one of my 2 dream jobs.

    I too loved 84 Charing Cross Road, movie and book!

  6. If I had the space and money I could have fun sending them out to hunt down out of print classic sf. I wonder if they do comic books?

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