Obituary: Una Dillon
Saturday 17 April 1993
FEW who go into a Dillon's bookshop today would reconcile it with the small bookshop in Store Street, off Tottenham Court Road in London, which Una Dillon founded in 1936. Working for what is now called Mind, the mental-health charity, she had set up bookstalls as part of her job. She became attracted to the world of books, finding publishers an appealing group of people. One day she passed down Store Street and saw a bookshop that looked as if it was going bankrupt, and she went in and asked the owner if he would sell it to her. He said he wanted pounds 800 for it. She went home and her father, a City businessman, lent her pounds 600 and a friend the other pounds 200.
She knew next to nothing about bookselling, and admitted that it was a foolhardy thing to do. But the bookshop prospered, catering for students and staff of London University, and during the Second World War, to the Ministry of Information staff who occupied Senate House when London University was evacuated. During these years she maintained contact with her former customers, taking packing-cases of books to Leicester, to Cardiff, and to Knebworth House, in Hertfordshire, where the Froebel Training College had moved. She found in this positive service a similar cause to that which she had found in her earlier charitable work.
After the war the university found itself with a row of shop property in Torrington Place, next to Gower Street. In addition to a chemist and a newsagent they wanted to attract a bookseller to the site, and had talks with different groups of booksellers. These, for a variety of reasons, came to nothing, and eventually the university offered Una Dillon a partnership. She put in her stock and goodwill from Store Street and they put in pounds 11,000 capital, an insurance payment to a workman who was killed doing building work in the university and had no heirs.
The bookshop started in 1956 in only a small part of the row of shops, but by the time that Dillon retired in 1967 almost the whole block had been absorbed, and it was then a very large bookshop. From an initial turnover of about pounds 30,000 the Dillon's University Bookshop Ltd had by 1967 a turnover of well over pounds 1m, and a world-wide reputation, selling books particularly to the many students and universities of the new Commonwealth, many of whom had first experienced Dillon's when they were students and visitors to London.
When Una Dillon founded the shop in Torrington Place, many people in the trade felt that no large bookshop could prosper in such an isolated setting away from the West End. They were wrong. By attempting a high level of personal service and stressing the ability to care, the bookshop grew. And it catered not only for students and staff of the university but for the general public who wanted a good general bookshop. Una Dillon wanted students not only to read the specialised books on their own subjects but also to read books for recreation and information in the widest sense. She herself got pleasure from books and she wanted as many people as possible to share that
Una Dillon came from a remarkable family of six brothers and sisters, two of whom also, in different areas, rose to the top of their professions. Carmen Dillon, who survives her, was the first woman film art director, doing many of Laurence Olivier's films and receiving an Oscar for the set decoration of his Hamlet (1948). Tess Dillon was head of the physics department at Queen Elizabeth College in London University. The sisters came from a happy middle-class family background and attributed their success in life to the freedom and encouragement given them by their parents.
London University gave Una Dillon an honorary MA in 1965. She retired as Managing Director of Dillon's in 1967, but continued on the board until London University sold the bookshops to Pentos Ltd in 1977. The turnover of the firm was then pounds 4m. Today Dillon's chain has 117 shops and a turnover in the region of pounds 145m.
Una Dillon was a generous and kind person, with a personal gracefulness, but she also had a residual toughness that enabled her to succeed in what was then still a man's world of bookselling. After she retired she continued her work for booksellers. She had helped to found the charter group of the Booksellers Association, and continued her work for the association. She also helped the British Council, particularly with their low- priced books scheme for overseas. She was a great believer in the adage that 'trade follows the book', that trade in books leads to trade in other fields. In 1968 she was appointed CBE for her services to bookselling.
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