Reflections from IPG president Jonathan Harris on the company at which he started out in the books business
The news that Foyles is to be bought by Waterstones
has caught me by surprise and affected me surprisingly. Like many of my increasingly elderly publishing generation, my first job in the book trade was a temporary position at Foyles. In the summer of 1980, fresh from university, I responded to an ad in the Telegraph
, attended the briefest of interviews, with Christina Foyle herself, I subsequently realised, and agreed that I liked dogs and could play the piano, and was told to start the following Monday.
So began what turned out to be nearly three years of intensive education in the book trade, or at least the trade as seen through the idiosyncratic, sometimes brilliant, often bonkers, lens of 1980s Foyles and of Christina. Along the way I met my wife, learned to work unbelievably hard, and discovered the challenge of working on the front line that is the general public.
Christina was the daughter of William Foyle, who had founded the bookshop with his brother Gilbert. She worked there as a young woman and took over the running of the shop in the 1940s. For many years it claimed to be the largest bookshop in the world, and was exceptionally successful, making Christina a very wealthy woman. She ran it defiantly her own way, with the support of her husband Ron Batty, and was for decades a key player in the London book scene. Her monthly literary lunches were a magnet for authors, great, good and eccentric, her book clubs at their peak brought books to many tens of thousands of readers, and her mail order department sent books all over the world. Behind the scenes her library supply department serviced academic and public libraries, her publishing business sold pet handbooks to WH Smith and pet stores, her speaker agency helped to promote authors and their books, and her rare books business enabled her to indulge her own passion for collecting unique and valuable books.
By the time I came to work for her, Christina was probably beginning to lose the plot, but she remained extremely sharp in many aspects of the business, and her shop still dominated the London bookselling landscape. Yes, she employed staff on temporary contracts to avoid any accrued employment rights, she banned union membership, she insisted on arcane payment methods that required customers to queue twice, she only allowed young women to work on cash desks because she didn’t trust men (but ironically allowed men to manage the shop on her behalf, which eventually she had cause to regret), she would send trusted members of staff (women, of course) to Fortnum and Mason to buy smoked salmon for her cat, and she allowed much of the shop to display books arranged by publisher rather than by subject or author. But customers continued to flock there, and many of the staff valued the leg up that a brief stint at Foyles provided. In sharing the experience of having to deal first hand with mad, and often plain wrong, business practices and decisions, we forged a camaraderie, made friends and learned the hard way.
Since her death the business has been revitalised by her family and the hard work of many staff, properly employed. The magnificent new shop, just a few doors down Charing Cross Road from the address on the top floor of which Miss Foyle had her penthouse flat, is a huge success, and she would have been proud of it. But the fiercely independent businesswoman would not have approved of the business being sold, and especially not to Waterstones. (Which is not to say that the sale is a bad decision: I’m sure Christopher Foyle and team have agonised over it and reached a wise conclusion). In the early 1980s, as Tim Waterstone was just getting going, Foyles took the decision to close the smaller of its two shops either side of Manette Street, on Charing Cross Road. And who should acquire the premises and open up there but Tim Waterstone?! Christina was indignant that this upstart should open right next door, and one had to admire his nerve and delicious boldness. She could never have imagined that nearly 40 years later her father’s shop would be owned by the business bearing Waterstone’s name.
For members of the IPG, independence is a prized quality, and our ability to make our own decisions and run our businesses in our way is fiercely protected. Christina Foyle was just such a person, and she passed that independent spirit on to her family and to many of the people who worked there. But it is good for us to remember that with independence comes responsibility, and the privilege of running a business independently doesn’t give us the right to make extreme or unreasonable demands of staff, customers and suppliers. That Foyles will no longer be truly independent is sad, but let’s celebrate the independence that built it, and the independence that had the vision to re-imagine it and transform it, in and for the 21st century.
Jonathan Harris is president of the IPG and founder of Learning Matters.