Obituary: Ivan Chambers
Wednesday 21 January 1998
In 1925 Ivan Chambers started work at W.J. Bryce's bookshop in Holborn, London; the shop soon moved to Museum Street, in a building belonging to Stanley Unwin, and Chambers stayed there, after the shop was bought by Bowes and Bowes, until his retirement as managing director in 1971. As a director of "the original pedigree bookshop" he was earning pounds 250 p.a. and was refused a rise, being told, "Your reward will be in the hereafter, my dear boy." He stayed, despite having no religious convictions.
Chambers was born in 1902, in Bulgaria, where his father was working on the financial concerns of a silk-spinning factory. He returned to England as a small child and was educated at St George's Roman Catholic School, Walthamstow, although he had been baptised into the Orthodox Church.
When he was five he caught polio and had to spend much of his childhood on his back, during which time he developed a passion for literature; he was left with a withered right arm and a left arm which he could not lift properly: "I worked on half an arm." He left school aged 14 and "thereafter I was an autodidact". His career started in the city as a linguist for an importer/exporter but, aged 23, he started work with Bryce's.
He had a particular love of Scandinavia and the Orkneys and their literature, and had a long correspondence with the poet George Mackay Brown. Chambers spent many holidays cycling in northern Europe with his father until he married Kathleen Pilsbury, a painter, in 1943. He said of his marriage, "I was a late developer", but his withered arm had made him shy. When Bryce made him become an associate bookseller he began to be more confident and to find his skill as a public speaker.
The Second World War was a difficult time at Bryce's; the shop had supplied schools with their books and prizes but at the outbreak of war in September 1939, many cancelled their orders and publishers were reluctant to take returns. Chambers often worked seven days a week supplying prisoner-of-war camps with hand-picked packages of books sent through the British Red Cross, as well as supplying Winston Churchill.
From 1936 until his death Chambers was a member of the Society of Bookmen. He gave evidence for the defence at the inquiry into the Net Book Agreement at the Old Bailey in 1961, was an executive on the National Book Council and Chairman of the London branch of the Booksellers Association. He was a much sought-after, witty and mannered public speaker, who had a great precision with words. When he retired, the Society of Bookmen gave a lunch in his honour, "one of the most delightful characters of the book trade", at the Criterion Restaurant, for 140 friends, colleagues and admirers.
It was through working for Chambers at Bryce's from 1967 to 1969 that I first learnt about "personal bookselling"; the importance of establishing relationships with customers and the exciting possibilities of enthusing people with previously unknown works.
He retired to Axminster in Devon, where he was the voluntary curator at the local museum. Although his sight failed, his mind remained active to the end.
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