The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

A Bookseller At Seventy

by N.R.M. Fowler-Wright

The Retail Bookseller
June 1956


Photo: From 'Poetry & The Play' - Joan (Yolande) F-W giving flowers to G.K.C. on Behalf of the Empire Poetry League.

        'THE Adventures of a Bookseller' was what the editor requested. Well, I've certainly had plenty in our shop, which I helped to run. But I must mention my family, as I didn't come on the scene until much of the fun was over. However, there are hundreds of stories, press-clippings, and letters which add up to a wonderful tale. Perhaps I had better start at the beginning.

        January, 1885, and father, just eleven years old, was attending King Edward's famous Grammar School in Birmingham. Coming home one afternoon, he informed my grandfather that he reckoned that he'd had enough. There was nothing more that they could teach him, and he thought it was time he got out into the world. For better or worse, he was allowed to find his own feet. Don't ask me how, but within twelve years he had a flourishing; accountancy practice in the city. No examinations, no qualifications; just a good head for figures, and plenty of wise advice to give his clients. He was not only rich, but he owned a prosperous business. Maybe he thought that he'd had enough again, because within a few years, before the age of thirty, the whole thing was thrown up. He retained just a few business clients whose books he intended to continue auditing as he believed that this would entitle him to be always recognised as an accountant, however hard the Institutes and Societies might try to squeeze unqualified men out of the profession.

        To London and to the world of books. Would it be publishing, distributing, printing, retailing, editing books, or simply writing them? Perhaps a magazine editor or Literary agent? I am not sure which of them he chose first, but during the next fifty years father was to do all these things. Oddly enough, retail bookselling came at the end - or very nearly so, as books are still being written - when a seventy year old gentleman opened his first bookshop in London in the midst of the recent war. I was twelve.

        This means that all that went before is based upon the memory of what I have read or been told. Nevertheless, I think that the earlier days are worth mentioning here, before I deal specifically with the bookselling period, in which I took an active part. For instance there had been the Poetry League, founded and run by both my parents, and presided over by G. K. Chesterton, a frequent visitor to our home. The League was to encourage the writing of poetry by any one who felt like it. There are many well known writers today whose early works appeared in the poetry magazine which father edited. Not all of them turned out to be successful as poets. H. E. Bates and A. G. Street are two of the members who have become famous as writers in a far different sphere and who come readily to mind.

        Unfortunately, the literary minded members of the Poetry League were keener on writing poetry, which they showered into the editorial office, than they were on mailing their subscriptions. The magazine, the critical services, and the hire of a London hall for meetings made father carry an increasingly heavy financial loss, which he was only able to bear by using the earnings of his own books. In the end, the League had to be disbanded, though a branch, which a member founded in Jamaica, continues to this day.

        1927 saw the publication of a romance called "Deluge." The book was based on The Flood. Nobody would publish it, and so father brought it out himself. Shortly afterwards the book was published by Harrap in London and The Cosmopolitan Book Corporation in New York.

The sales exceeded one million copies, as did those of "The Island of Captain Sparrow," which first appeared during the following year.

        Then followed twenty years of solid writing. Crime stories under the name of Sydney Fowler, and serious works of poetry, prose, and fantasy under the name of S. Fowler-Wright. Often three books a year, invariably of different character and class. (Publishers were seldom kept for long, as father would exasperate them and their readers by following a crime story with a translation of Dante's Inferno, a fantasy with a biography of Sir Walter Scott, or a historical novel with a book of poems.) But these were years of roaring success and pot-boilers. The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times led the praise practically every time, whatever the type of book. "Deluge," as well as one of the thrillers, was filmed. Father went over to Hollywood to arrange for the filming of "Deluge," where he explained his ideas to Sam Goldwyn, from whom he received the warm-hearted reply, "I'll play ball, F. W." What a pity father didn't! The film went to some smaller company, whilst M.G.M. were delaying over details. (Even so, the family still gets complimentary tickets to press-shows over here! )

        I certainly missed a lot during the early 'thirties, at which time I could do little more than kick in a cot. Arnold Bennett - until he died in 1931- raved over S.F.W. books in the London evening press. Vans shot around the capital bearing placards: "Read S. Fowler Wright in The Standard Tonight." In 1935-6 my parents made an extensive tour of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, which was financed by the press. The result was a book called "Prelude in Prague or The War of 1938," which was published in 1937. It estimated that the war would start in 1939 and kept to this throughout the book. From a sales point of view, the publisher thought that 1938 looked a lot better, anyway on the cover! Once more the placards screamed at the public, this time from the walls of the London tubes: "War is coming says S. FW. - Read The Sunday Dispatch." The sight of the horrible drawings which accompanied these words, depicting what was to come, made mother feel quite ill. But at £250 for every instalment in the newspaper,

        I don't think father was upset by anything! The book was translated into practically every European language, and promptly banned by the German Foreign Office.

        When the war came, father had offices in Fetter Lane, just of Fleet Street, the home of practically all British newspapers. Here he ran a literary agency, a distributing house for various publishers' books, besides storing and marketing his own books and articles. Paper was in desperately short supply. Crime stories, such as "Dinner in New York" and "Too Much for Mr. Jellipot" sold out within days, if not before publication. It is a tragedy that "The Siege of Malta," which was a two volumed historical novel based upon an unfinished manuscript by Sir Walter Scott, should have suffered in this way. Muller had sufficient paper to print six thousand copies, and that was that. But the war was to deal a more serious blow.

        Walking up Fetter Lane one morning, with my sister, who was acting as his secretary, Father found that his offices had disappeared, bombed beyond recognition or salvage value. Among the unpublished manuscripts which had been lost was a nearly completed new rendering of "The Arthurian Legends," a book which he had always regarded as his life's work, and which had already taken thirty years. Along with thousands of others, a war damage claim was filed. Fortunately, a small portion of the work had been published some years earlier, and this was sent to the War Damage Commission as some indication of the merit and value of the whole. After two years' argument and discussion, trying to establish a fair compensatory sum. the Commission decided to call in an Oxford professor to express an opinion. His report referred to the book as "a work of art which had been lost to the nation," words that were to cost the author much, for works of art should have been stored in places of safety and as such were not eligible for compensation.

        However, the bombs did not flatten father for long. Within a week he had fresh offices, this time in Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum, where at least there was one complete collection of all the books he had written and had had published (In the British Museum Library). Since the downstairs room of these offices opened onto the pavement, and since it had two useful windows, both room and windows were filled with books. He who cared to enter was in a bookshop!

        The war, of course, was a boom-time for publishers and retailers The combined wholesale and retail business soon outgrew the small premises, and father planned to expand both sides. My mother had always been promised a bookshop as a gift and a hobby. This was her chance, because the new buildings in the Old Brompton Road contained two enormous shops. One was converted into a bookshop, and the other, with the rest of the buildings, was used by the wholesale business. Not only mother's but my own adventures in a bookshop had truly begun.

        We sold every kind of book, though not magazines or anything which was at all shady! The latter kind of book was always rejected, mother not even being willing to keep some of the best sellers which were also dirt. I am sure that this policy paid in the end, as did that of never refusing to trace a book for anyone who asked us for it. "All I can tell you, ma'am, is that the binding's red, and there's a guy chewing gum on about page fifty . . ." We soon e learnt that it was essential to charge a deposit on all these orders, unless they were placed by the most regular customers. Otherwise we were left with hundreds of obscure works, which were never claimed or paid for.

        I like to think that this bookshop was in some way unique. It sold books and nothing else. There were none of the usual supporting lines of stationery, greeting cards, fountain pens, or magazines. I believe that before the war there were less than twelve such shops, and wonder if there are any left now. Neither did we handle second-hand stock, unless it was especially ordered by a customer. I don't think that our policy was what you might call financially sound, but, anyway, I was too young to judge such a serious consideration!

        Books and people are fun, and in what better way could I spend my vacations from College, than by working among both? You could meet the famous and the infamous: Bernard Shaw, Peter Cheyney, Valentine Dyall - British radio's 'Man in Black' - Ann Todd, and Jessie Matthews were among our clients. There was a charming man called John George Haig to whom my sister was delighted to sell a Bible. Shortly afterwards Haig was tried at the Old Bailey, and convicted of the murder of a woman whose body he had tried to dissolve with acid. One of his victims - there were nine in all - included a delightful lady who was one of our best customers, and who lived in the same hotel as himself. The building was just round the corner from the shop.

        Like most London booksellers, we suffered greatly from book thieves, though we never managed to catch any. The cash till was raided on two or three occasions by gangs of boys. They would enter the shop and waylay every assistant by involving him in some copious research for books which in all probability never existed. One of them would then make a dash for the till, and that would be that, as far as most of the contents were concerned. By the time the police arrived there was no sign of the youths, but if mother liked to spend a Saturday afternoon driving round in a squad car, trying to recognise the culprits in the playgrounds or parks, she was welcome to do so, as the guest of Scotland Yard. But Saturday afternoon was the best trading time of the week, and so, in the end, Scotland Yard came to us, in the shape of two plain clothes detectives who concealed themselves under a counter which stood at the rear of the shop. There they lay, in discomfort and readiness, for the law-breakers. When tea time came, we suddenly realised that we had no milk with which we could make the national brew. This was a tragedy, as the local dairy closed at mid-day. The situation was too much for the kind-hearted coppers, who were no doubt suffering from severe cramp by this time. They insisted on leaving their post of duty and going back to police headquarters, where they said they could steal some milk for us . . .

        Every now and then, father would pop into the shop from the wholesale house, and maybe sell a few books. He delighted in recommending one of his own thrillers to anyone who asked him to choose a book for him. Sometimes his choice was met with quite shatteringly unfavourable criticism, but he never hesitated to agree with whatever was said, always keeping his identity a secret, and usually managing to sell the book anyway.

        With the ending of the war-boom and a general easing in the paper shortage, the wholesale side of the business began to take a turn for the worse. Though father was distributing books all over the country, the turnover rapidly fell. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that in normal times there is no room for middlemen in the English book-trade. Both publishers and retailers have a difficult enough time as it is, trying to make ends meet. After all, there is no trade which has such a high mortality rate among would-be members. At the time of writing, several very well known British publishing houses have found it necessary to seek the shelter of amalgamation with the largest concerns. Very wisely, therefore, father sold the premises and his part of the business to one of the chain booksellers and newsagents over here, retaining the bookshop, which anyway belonged to his wife.

        The purchasers insisted on buying the entire premises, and so quite suddenly and very quickly, we were forced to find a new home for a stock of over thirty thousand volumes. Fortunately we did not have to move it far, because we found a delightful shop in Kensington High Street on the fringe of London's West End. We now had a red carpet, plate glass windows which were curved, and overhead of about fifty pounds a week. Quite obviously, we should have to increase our turnover to something like treble that of old, if we were not to go bankrupt.

        For the first time we experimented in publicity. It was, I think, excellent advertising though it tended to serve the cause of literature rather than the bank-book. In the January of 1951 when the new shop was opened, the ceremony was officially performed by Ngaio Marsh and Ernest Dudley - the arm-chair detective. They did it with great success, autographing numerous copies of their books for members of the public who asked for this to be done. This idea led to asking other authors who were in the news to come to the local town hall and lecture about their books and themselves, on behalf of the bookshop. The author's works were displayed in front of the audience, the lecturer sitting just behind them. Eric Williams of "Wooden Horse" fame, and W. Macqueen Pope, an authority on the British theatre, were exciting enough, and the audience applauded loudly. But, alas, they bought few of our books when the talk was over and the authors were free to sign copies. We were not the only ones who felt disappointed, for some of the lecturers were obviously disheartened. One, I remember, got over the difficulty by inscribing dozens of copies with affectionate messages dedicated to nearly every member of the family. We had no option other than to accept the gifts for which we should also have to pay!

        After four years in Kensington, it became clear that an exclusive bookshop could never pay, even though father was now giving most of his time to the business as well as my mother.

        Except for the year of 1951, our sales graph made a steady decrease. The stock grew larger and larger. It was only last year that the Bookseller's Association permitted, for the very first time, such a thing as a book-sale. I don't think that there was any other retail trade in this country which suffered from such a monstrous restriction. Now there is to be an annual sale, and the first two have met with surprisingly good results.

        Thus it was, early in 1954, that my parents decided to call it a day. Sales just weren't good enough, and yet in that same year British publishers brought out no less than 19,000 editions, an all-time record. It would seem that there are two main channels by which the increasing number of new books are being absorbed: the export market, which has grown enormously since the war and where the British Nett Book Agreement doesn't restrict prices and competition, and the public and private libraries, which are being used by more borrowers than at any time during their history. It is estimated that in 1939 under 56 million books were taken out of the country's Public Libraries by borrowers. The figure for 1954 was over 370 million!

        So once again we were forced to sell. There wasn't a bookseller who was interested in the shop, and what was a bookshop is now a travel agency. We were fortunate in being able to divide the various stock, so that it was bought at very satisfactory prices by those who specialised in the different kinds of books which we had carried. Perhaps the fact that we had aimed at serving everybody rather than a selected few had also made it more difficult to make a reasonable profit. Just when my days as a bookseller might have been starting, they came to an end. Did I think of opening my own shop, of becoming a publisher, distributor, editor, or literary agent? No. Like father, I have come to the conclusion that it's better to stay at home and write, trying to make money rather than lose it!

The End