People’s memories of Foyles, the major bookseller on Charing Cross Road (with some branches elsewhere) vary according to age. The modern reader will know a smart bookshop geared up to an international customer base that pours through its doors. The elderly overseas reader of the past might have been one of those who sent 35,000 letters a day to them in the 1950s, when they were the pre-eminent English language mail-order bookshop in the world. The reader in the 1960s might remember a rather bitter strike. In the 1970s the reader with time on their hands will have queued to hand over the book of their choice, be given a slip to go somewhere else – never nearby – to pay for it, before returning to queue again to pick up their book… that is if you had not just walked out of the shop because it was impossible to find anything, or anyone to ask in what was then its old warren-like building.
Bill Samuel has written (and self-published) an entertaining, old-fashioned memoir of the firm, his own rather adventurous life before joining the family business and his successful attempt to rebuild the finances and reputation of Foyles, both of which had been destroyed by his aunt Christina Foyle. His aunt had run the business from its glory days when she took over until it had become the shambling wreck it was at her death some fifty years later.
There was no love lost between the author and his aunt who he describes as “beautiful, charming, witty and intelligent” and “self-centred, ruthless and vindictive”. Among her many sins was to sack workers just as they would have become eligible for employment rights. The bizarre payment system she invented – which inspired a poem by Wendy Cope – was partly because she did not trust her staff. But her complete lack of financial controls meant that some of the senior workers were taking bribes from publishers’ reps to overstock their books, and were syphoning off, it would appear, millions. When the author came into the business he found one worker with a complete non-job (running a speakers’ agency that had not booked anyone out for years), uncashed cheques all over the place and an unsent cheque to the tax people for over a million pounds. Christina also refused to allow computers in the business. Or to allow the phones to be answered, leaving just a recorded message with opening times.
Christina treated the firm’s income as her own private account, and her country house drains were once found to be blocked by financial records she had tried to flush away.
So how did the shop survive, the shop whose origins stretched back to one George Foyle who set up a wholesale grocer and drysalter in Hoxton in 1843? Well, it was an entrepreneurial family – one member invented the folding cardboard box – and William Foyle, the author’s grandfather – put the firm’s profits into property during the period when his firm was selling about 8% of all books sold in Britain.
After Christina Foyle, Bill Samuel had the job of rebuilding the firm. He sacked the corrupt staff, appointed people who knew what they were doing and, along the way, bought in Silver Moon Feminist Bookshop and Ray French’s Jazz shop, both of which were due to close due to rapacious landlords elsewhere on Charing Cross Road.
It’s hard to imagine now the importance of Foyles in the past, but their customers included Bill Clinton and one Nelson Mandela. And in January 2003 the US Embassy bought their entire stock of road maps of Iraq. Work that one out, but just the thought of there being a bookshop that did have a stock of road maps of Iraq.
To a bookseller, it’s all fascinating but the book might be of interest to anyone interested in how family firms grow and wealth gets passed on or dissipated by subsequent generations.
Towards the end the author is a minority of one on the board in, for example, allowing charitable use of the Foyles Gallery for events, and clearly there is more going behind the scenes on than we are told. But he was in agreement with the decision to sell Foyles off to Waterstones and their American owner. So ends the life of Foyles as an independent bookshop, though Waterstones promises to keep Foyles as Foyles.
And Bill Samuel – no longer young – can develop his own interests which includes planting olive trees in Ramallah. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go to The Book Trade Charity, another area of the author’s charitable interests.
And the firm’s fortune? Well, Christina, who, while living, had no love for her family or for charity, did leave her money to establish the Foyle Foundation which supports charities working in arts and literature. So she finally did something useful!
Strangely, this £14.99 book is on sale at Foyles website for £20 – perhaps the ghost of Christina is at work.