By Kate Whitehead
At a time when bookshops around the world are struggling to stay afloat, one enterprising bookstore in London has come up with a novel approach to expand its reach: it has appointed its first bookseller-at-large.
Opened in 1936, Heywood Hill sells new, old and antiquarian books. It occupies two floors of a Georgian townhouse on Curzon Street in Mayfair and oozes charm and literary heritage. It’s a one-off gem that book lovers travel many miles to visit. There will be no attempt to replicate the physical store — instead there is Charlotte Merritt. Based in Hong Kong, she will be the face of the brand in Asia.
Merritt is a natural fit for the role. She has a master’s degree in literature from Edinburgh University and spent three years as marketing manager at Bloomsbury Publishing during the peak years of Harry Potter hysteria. From there, she moved to Hodder & Stoughton as head of marketing where she promoted authors such as Booker Prize-nominated David Mitchell and commercial heavy hitter John le Carré.
“Although Heywood Hill has a very loyal customer base in London, it also has thousands of customers around the world, in more than 60 countries. It likes to think of itself as the world’s smallest global bookshop,” says Merritt.
The charming Mayfair store has plenty of celebrity connections. Novelist Nancy Mitford worked in the store in the 1940s, soon after it opened, and wrote a couple of books there — The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949) are both thought to be influenced by her years at the store. Mitford’s presence ensured that it became a hub for literary London and caught the attention of the Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire — Nancy’s elder sister Deborah was married to the duke. Cavendish took a stake in the bookshop and in 1991 became the majority shareholder.
Today the bookstore counts Queen Elizabeth among its regulars — although it’s Heywood Hill staff that visits the Queen, she doesn’t go to Curzon Street — and in 2001 it received the Royal Warrant.
“It’s exactly how you want an English bookshop to be — all squeaky floorboards and curated shelves. And the people who work there are infinitely well read,” says Merritt.
It’s the knowledgeable and bookish staff that is Heywood Hill’s winning card and the store makes smart use of this talent by offering a wide range of services matching customers to books.
Take the “Year in Books” service, that for £200 ($310) will see one of the shop’s bibliophiles carefully select a paperback each month on a client’s reading tastes and send it to them beautifully gift-wrapped. This tailored literary service isn’t something that has been recently added to the business to counter competition from ebooks, but a long-standing part of the business. A woman in Connecticut, who has only spent half an hour in the London shop, has been receiving a book a month for more than 40 years.
Readers interested in the services can request a literary consultation to brief Heywood Hill staff on the books they have enjoyed or disliked and can make requests for particular books or genres.
“We are now in a world where all book recommendations are generated by digital algorithms from Amazon — this is the opposite of that,” she says.
The Web as a Window to the World
The store’s old-world charm may be what draws international visitors in, but it’s the website, www.heywoodhill.com, that keeps them coming back and enables this relatively small London bookstore to have such a large global footprint.
The tailored services extend to book searches, gift-buying services and even the creation of private libraries for homes or hotels. A recent request from a client in Geneva saw staff tracking down World War II memoirs with a focus on aviation for a very specialized private library of 2,500 books.
Merritt is convinced that despite the challenge posed by ebooks, there is still a healthy demand for old-fashioned paper books.
“We are all so bombarded with digital information that it’s quite nice to take refuge in the printed word. Heywood Hill is bucking the trend and sales are up 25 percent for the first half of this year, it’s flattened out,” says Merritt.
At a time when bookshops around the world are closing, it’s refreshing to see an independent bookstore buck the trend and prove a success thanks to its dedicated, widely read staff who truly love books and want to share that passion. The move to further expand its reach with a bookseller-at-large in Hong Kong looks like another smart move.
“I’m their first bookseller who isn’t based in Curzon Street. I think Hong Kong seemed right as the next step. It’s a thriving business centre with a very well educated and culturally engaged audience, and yet there are so few bricks-and-mortar bookshops — and they are increasingly diminishing,” says Merritt.