THERE is little left to remind us - a chain of sad-looking remainder bookstores - but Claude Gill Books was once a proud and flourishing bookshop right in the centre of the West End of London, at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. Indeed it was almost the only large bookshop to remain open in the West End during the Sixties when retail rents began to escalate.
Claude Gill Books was a vast 8,000- sq ft bookshop immediately across and up from Selfridges. Next door to high-fashion shoeshops and dress shops stood a window filled with books about technical drawing, the latest advances in nuclear fusion and bricklaying for beginners.
Claude Gill's family were booksellers, but his first choice of career was the Merchant Navy. After a period working on tankers and training to be a navigator, Gill took up his first bookselling job as manager of the technical and scientific department at Foyle's. Here he picked up both his specialised knowledge of this part of the business, and the Foyle family's workaholic approach to bookselling.
With the outbreak of war Gill returned to his earlier passion, the sea, and joined the Royal Navy. He served with distinction and was appointed OBE for organising shipping routes for the D-Day landings.
On his return he was asked to open and run the bookshop 'Books and Careers' (later called Claude Gill Books), for the Cleaver-Hume publishing family, owners of the correspondence-course educational empire.
The idea behind the shop was to meet the demand from returning ex- servicemen for technical textbooks. Within a few years Claude Gill Books became one of London's largest bookshops - a warehouse for the mail-order department which Gill rated the most important department in his domain. Its impressive scientific and technical sections were complemented by general books.
The man whose vision made all this possible retired promptly at 65. He rarely returned, and if he did it was bitterly to condemn the removal from the window of any technical product and the attempts to replace it with fashionable razzmatazz.
Claude Gill died, aged 90, with equal discipline, on the very last day of the old financial year, 31 March. It was always on the annual stock-taking days - organised to begin the Saturday afternoon closest to 31 March - that Gill appeared before his entire staff to rally them into the great adventure of physically counting every book in the shop. With his devoted assistant Mrs Whitehouse, he organised the entire operation. For most of the rest of the year Gill shyly hid away in a box-room of an office and rarely spoke to younger members of the staff except on special occasions such as when salaries were being raised by 10 shillings. Claude Gill Books produced some remarkable booksellers, including Jimmy Hume, Tony Miles, Don Noble, Paul Wellsman, John Monk and Ron Ulyett.
Gill retired to garden, living quietly with his wife until her death eight years ago. He was a special bookman and he passed on to people a love for handling books properly. He might have sold Madonna, but he would never have had the price knocked down.
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