The Tiny London Shop Behind Some of the Very Best Libraries – The New York Times

London’s Heywood Hill curates impressive collections for discerning customers in 60 different countries — and specializes in the obscure.

The late Duke of Devonshire napping in the lower library at Chatsworth. He was a patron and part-owner of Heywood Hill, the bookstore where his wife’s sister Nancy Mitford once worked. Today the shop is owned by his son, the current duke, Peregrine Cavendish

London’s Heywood Hill curates impressive collections for discerning customers in 60 different countries — and specializes in the obscure.

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.

From left: the shop’s exterior; Nancy Mitford (left) and Anne Hill, wife of the shop’s founder, who ran it together from 1942-45 while he fought in World War II.CreditFrom left: Carlotta Cardana; the Mitford Archive at Chatsworth

‘‘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.

Nicky Dunne, the son-in-law of the Duke of Devonshire and the store’s current manager.CreditTom Parker

As it happens, Heywood Hill is currently owned by Dunne’s father-in-law, the 12th Duke of Devonshire. (The duke’s mother, Deborah, known as Debo, was Mitford’s sister, giving the enterprise a pleasing historical throughline.) The duke, whose name is Peregrine Cavendish, though his friends call him Stoker, also owns (among other things) Chatsworth, one of Britain’s grandest estates. In the scheme of things, Heywood Hill is far from a cash cow for Devonshire Inc. — it made a respectable but relatively modest profit of about $200,000 in 2013, according to Dunne — but there is sentimental attachment: The duke’s parents, Debo and Andrew, the 11th duke, lived around the corner from the shop and were among the first beneficiaries of its build-a-library service. ‘‘My father’s collection of books on Ireland was an early example,’’ the duke wrote in an email. Until several years ago, the duke was part of a consortium of owners; he bought the store outright because, he said, it allows him and Dunne to manage it the way they want to.

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 shop’s interior. CreditChristopher Simon Sykes/The Interior Archive

Others have asked for selections of books they should read before they die, or for books about Western engagement in the Arab world, or polar exploration, or Modernism, beginning with German Expressionism and ‘‘following every strand — painting, photography, sculpture, design, literature and art as a whole, from the 1920s to the present,’’ Dunne said — maybe 4,000 titles, in that particular case.

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.

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.’’

And though much of their business is conducted by phone or over email, Heywood Hill is also distinguished by its actual physical presence. Bookstores these days can be dispiriting places, with their novelty merchandise and beside-the-point coffee bars, their groaning piles of discounted thrillers and dwindling numbers of customers. Heywood Hill is a joyful corrective for even the most discouraged and reluctant book lover. The two-level shop is small but airy and elegant, featuring wood builts-ins, a fireplace, stately chandeliers and stacks of books piled enticingly on tables.

Walk-ins tend to be the sort who walk in often. ‘‘Sometimes they recommend books to me; sometimes I recommend books to them,’’ said William Salomon, 58, who runs an investment business nearby and reckons he drops by about four or five times a week. Every Christmas, he chooses a book and orders multiple copies from the shop to send to his clients. Then he likes to sit down for a chat. ‘‘It’s very welcoming and very cozy, and the people are very friendly,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s not like going into a shop. It’s more like going into a club.’’ It seems to be common knowledge that the queen shops there (or has someone do it for her), though the subject is rather off limits. ‘‘We don’t really talk about her,’’ Dunne said, and that was that.

On a rainy day, a succession of elegant customers trailed in and out as Dunne chatted about the store, providing a fine snapshot of the typical customer: well-turned-out, well-read, well-spoken. (‘‘Dare I say — not tourists,’’ Dunne said.) To a person, the men were wearing ties. At one point, a customer added his name to a waiting list for ‘‘A Year on the Moor,’’ a coffee-table book about grouse written and photographed by one Tarquin Millington-Drake. Apparently, it’s the perfect house present to bring along to a grouse-shooting weekend.

‘‘Everyone who goes grouse shooting wants that book,’’ Dunne said.

Source: The Tiny London Shop Behind Some of the Very Best Libraries – The New York Times

%d bloggers like this: