John Sandoe: Founder of Sandoe's bookshop


John Sandoe, bookseller: born Felixstowe, Suffolk 10 July 1930; died Yeovil, Somerset 29 December 2007.

John Sandoe founded his much-loved Chelsea bookshop in 1957. Before it began to swing, Chelsea still had butchers and greengrocers, fishmongers and bakers, and Sandoe's has always kept the small-scale, personal-service ethos of those early days. Sandoe loved books, and he loved people, and putting them together was a calling as well as a business.

His shop was a tiny Regency cottage just off the King's Road, crammed with books from floor to ceiling. It was a place where you could gossip as you browsed, meet friends and feel at home. It was also, of course, a shop, it sold books, but it was also something much more, somewhere where you were made to feel a collaborator in the lifelong pleasure of reading. Though illness persuaded John Sandoe to retire 20 years ago, Sandoe's, under his admirable successors – disciples, one might say – retains that character unchanged.

The only child of two only children, John had a prosperous upbringing in Felixstowe, where his grandmother owned a department store and his father was a successful money-lender. No doubt he owed his pink cheeks to the sharp winds blowing off the North Sea. When the Second World War came his prep school was banished to Flaxley Abbey in the Forest of Dean, where he went for long bicycle rides and developed his lasting love for the British countryside. From there he went to St Edward's School in Oxford, and then into the RAF for National Service. His group of officer cadets was in the gym one day, and John Sandoe, never too keen at PE, was only on the lowest rungs of the wall-bars when they came away from the wall, with the showier athletes crashing down on top of him. His back was broken and he might have been paralysed, or even have died, but as it was, he had a bad back for the rest of his life.

He had, as a very young man, dreamed of being a writer, and contributed theatre reviews to the Felixstowe paper, in which he was always very nice about the leading ladies. But he soon decided that writing was not his métier, and after his accident went off to McGill University in Canada, with a middle year at British Columbia. Canada was to have a lasting influence on his life, and for a time he considered staying there, briefly becoming a stockbroker in Montreal. But when his mother had a stroke in 1955 Sandoe returned to Britain, and decided that if he wasn't going to write books he would sell them instead. To learn the trade he went to Bumpus in Oxford Street, where he was known as "the beautiful John". He was a very handsome young man, with bright blue eyes, black hair, those pink cheeks and an ever-welcoming smile. Even in old age, he remained wonderfully good-looking.

Never much of a one for literary parties, brisk with publishers' reps, Sandoe opened his shop with Felicité Gwynne, the tart-tongued sister of Elizabeth David, as his assistant. He worked hard to stay ahead of his rivals, getting up at 6 o'clock in the morning to make up parcels of books, delivering them round London in time for breakfast, then sweeping and dusting the shop before opening. In all this he was aided by Paul Sinodhinos, the Canadian artist who became his lifelong partner in 1962.

Till then Sandoe had always lived in London, but now he bought Pear Tree Bottom, deep in the Berkshire fields, which was, if it's possible, an even smaller cottage than the shop. There, under a thatched roof full of the rustling of what guests hoped were mice, not rats, John and Paul entertained on a palatial scale. There were books everywhere and I remember feeling with something like despair that I would never catch up even with what John had put beside my bed for the weekend. There were pubs and dodgy City men to be called on for drinks, and dogs to be walked by the Kennet and Avon canal. Those enchanted weekends at Pear Tree Bum, as it was affectionately known, were like something out of another time. The cottage soon became John's summer home, but he still got up at six, this time to take the train to London and start the working day.

When he retired from the shop in 1987, he and Paul moved to Dorset, where Norfolk terriers multiplied, along with the social life. But though John seemed a very sociable person, he was really quite shy and modest. At the party for the 50th anniversary of the shop, as people queued up to congratulate him he looked slightly overwhelmed at first, genuinely not understanding how much he was loved and admired. But though he'd complained beforehand about "too much fuss", he loved it in the end, and his friends have the small consolation of knowing he did finally understand the great affection in which he was held.

Julian Mitchell

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