Slightly Foxed on the Gloucester Road could not be easier to find. Come out of Gloucester Road tube station, turn right, and you will see it on a corner on the opposite side of the street.
There had been a very well-regarded second-hand bookshop here for many years (known simply as Gloucester Road Bookshop) before the niche publisher, Slightly Foxed, celebrated their sixth successful year by taking it over in 2009. Since being taken over the shop now sells new books as well as old.
Unusually for an independent bookshop, the Slightly Foxed website is excellent and kept right up-to-date. At the time of my visit, a newly-appointed assistant manager, Charlotte Colwill, who had been in post for less than a month, was already included on the website’s informative staff info page. Charlotte had been appointed to take over from Aimi Gallienne, who is leaving the shop to have a baby but plans to return, albeit in a different role.
The shop is managed by Tony Smith, who began his bookselling career at Hall’s second-hand bookshop in Tunbridge Wells. He was reading English Literature at York University and the vacation job meant he could find texts for his course and be paid as well. Tony began working there in 1987, just after the death of well-known antiquarian bookseller Harry Pratley, who had been at Hall’s for many years and whose personal collection was sold at Sotheby’s for more than £3 million.
Smith graduated in 1989, but continued working at Hall’s until 1994, when he enrolled on a diploma course in antiquarian bookselling at UCL, run by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. The course required work experience and Smith approached Heywood Hill, whose manager, John Saumarez Smith, he already knew from his buying tours in the South East. As luck or fate had it, a Heywood Hill bookseller had just left and Tony found his fortnight’s work experience turned into a full-time job.
He stayed at Heywood Hill for nearly fifteen years, and clearly remembers his time there fondly. “The customers at Heywood Hill were tremendously loyal and enjoyed the atmosphere of a literary cocktail party deftly managed by John. The staff were notable for their steadfastness (John was there for 43 years and two of my colleagues clocked up over 20 years each). We each had our enthusiasms and provided a bespoke service to a wide-ranging clientele from Hong Kong, Sydney, Santiago, New York and all parts of the UK.”
John Saumarez Smith had left Heywood Hill in 2008. As a cousin of John Murray, he was acquainted with Gail Pirkis, an editor at John Murray before leaving to set up Slightly Foxed, the literary quarterly. John also knew Nick Dennys, a nephew of Graham Greene, owner of the Gloucester Road bookshop, who was keen to move out of London at just the point when Slightly Foxed was looking to own a bookshop. John brought things together and Gail offered Tony the role of manager, which he eagerly accepted.
Tony leaves new stock selection to his assistant manager, and concentrates on curating the second-hand and antiquarian stock. The high-ceilinged, big-windowed ground-floor of the bookshop is full of light, with its corner aspect allowing it to suck in sunlight from two directions. In contrast, the basement, where the majority of second-hand titles are shelved, gets no natural light at all – but the artificial lighting illuminates the stock very invitingly (and that can’t be said for a lot of second-hand bookshop basements).
“One of the best things about my job,” Tony says, “is the unpredictability of when and where the stock will come. I never know if the next phone call, email or visitor will lead to the chance to make an offer on some wonderful books.” The shop is situated in an affluent, bookish neighbourhood and this means that he can be selective in what he buys. “Any independent bookshop’s stock will reflect the enthusiasms and prejudices of its staff and this bookshop is no exception. I buy all the second hand and antiquarian stock and continue the routine we inherited from the Gloucester Road bookshop of marking the books with a letter code to identify how long it has been here. When a section is tired or overflowing, any of us can mark down the oldest stock to try to encourage the customers to buy it. I don’t consider my pricing to be the highest in the business – far from it – but, clearly, if the customers have been refusing my idea of its worth for six months or a year, then it needs to come down and be turned over.”
On the afternoon of my visit there was a varied mix of sporadic visitors. One lady was looking for a black-and-white A-Z. A man checked the art stock downstairs, but had been drawn into the shop by a title in the window display, which he asked to see before leaving. He popped back outside to point to it, so that Charlotte (pictured below) could fetch the right one. Book sold!
The shop also stocks all titles published so far in handsome limited-edition reissues of the ‘Carey family’ series of children’s books by Ronald Welch, who won the Carnegie Medal in 1956 for the first title in the series. Altogether there are twelve titles in the sequence, which follows one family through from the time of the Third Crusade in the 12th century to the Great War at the start of the 20th century. The fourth title in the series was published last month. See this page for the schedule for the remainder of the series.
In a nice touch, the tabletop display that greets you on entering the bookshop is garnished with a bouquet of flowers.