Obituary: W.R. Fletcher

Time was when the Charing Cross Road meant the old book trade, its very centre in London. In this, Cecil Court, the broad passage that crosses from Charing Cross Road to St Martin's Lane, still has a special place for booksellers still flourish there. But once it was nothing but booksellers.

It began in 1932, when Harold Edwards opened his shop there. Then there was Colin Richardson, George Suckling with his inexhaustible stock of prints categorised by subject, Harold Mortlake, Harold Storey and, at no 27, H.M. Fletcher. There was, in fact, no such person in the firm nor ever had been (the initials were those of the founder's daughter Helen May), but to all who went there the name stood for W. R. ("Bill") Fletcher, its presiding genius from 1946 to 1991.

Robert Fletcher began the business in Ramsgate in 1905, and there, a year later, his son was born in the back parlour of the bookshop. His father moved to Rochester and then to 6 Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, where his son joined him on his 16th birthday. He could not wait to leave school, preferring carpentry to lessons, a choice that paid off as his father moved from place to place, where new shelves were always needed. There were always more books than money; 23 New Oxford Street came after Porchester Terrace, then in 1931 9 Bloomsbury Street. But the Depression had begun to bite; in 1934 the shop had to be abandoned, and after an uneasy period of trading from home the business was re-established as a partnership of Robert Fletcher, his brother Alick and son William Robert, trading as "H.M. Fletcher", at 27 Cecil Court.

There was one exotic interval in this pilgrimage. The firm had supplied many of the English books for the Parisian dealer Gumuchian's great catalogue Les Livres d' Enfance, and in 1930 his father arranged for Fletcher to spend six months working for Gumuchian. Despite Fletcher's lack of schooling, he proved to have a good ear and a quick apprehension of spoken French, a gift which was to come in useful later. He also learnt something of French taste in books, so different from English, particularly in bookbinding. All this helped to form his own taste, and gave him a good eye for French treasures lying unsuspected on English shelves.

The new prosperity at Cecil Court proved to be brief. The Second World War came and the business was only kept alive by a contract with Associated Dry Goods, the London office of a group of American department stores who would buy any amount of leather-bound octavo volumes for furnishing purposes at a fixed price of 1s 9d each. But even this dwindled by 1942, and H.M. Fletcher were forced to abandon their new premises. By this time the youngest partner had joined the RAF, and although 37 volunteered for flight-crew service, flying 35 missions over Germany as flight engineer in Lancaster bombers. Odd moments of leave would find him at nearby country sales and bookshops, selling what he picked up to other booksellers or packing them on the mess-room table to send home to his father, now in Enfield.

As soon as he was demobilised, Bill Fletcher set about re-establishing the business, buying out his uncle and with his father as junior partner. By great good luck, when he applied for a shop in Cecil Court he was able to get no 27 back again. The years after the war were a paradise for those who were prepared to go anywhere in search of books; Romeike and Curtice used to publish a weekly list several pages long of country-house sales, and with his great friend and neighbour, Harold Storey, and after his death in 1955 his son Norman, who had also served in the RAF, Fletcher used to travel thousands of miles each year. They became expert at reading between the lines of the terse and imperfect descriptions in auction catalogues; often they would be the only London booksellers there, and would bring back untold treasure, at imminent risk to the springs of the old grey Bentley in which they travelled.

But Fletcher, despite his London roots, enjoyed a far wider range of contacts. In 1950 he went to Paris for the congress of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. His long-disused French came flooding back, and he made a host of friends among the Paris dealers. The same thing happened when he went to the New York Congress in 1955. The visits were returned, and the shop in Cecil Court became a haven for many dealers from overseas.

He also did his bit for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, and despite his natural modesty became a popular President in 1961. In those days the association had a dinner and dance, and Fletcher's prowess in the latter was a delight to watch.

But he really came into his own at the first Antiquarian Book Fair, held in 1958 at the old National Book League in Albemarle Street. It was a difficult space full of odd alcoves. With his own hands Fletcher made all the furniture, shelves and booths for it in his garage, and then spent a week putting them all up, an act of unselfish generosity which was repaid by having to repeat the performance for the next 10 years, if with willing help from colleagues.

There is an irony in the fact that, as vendible old books become fewer, the degree of learning required to sell them becomes greater. But booksellers like Fletcher who learnt on the job, by exposure to far more books than come the way of their successors today, were not limited by this. They acquired a familiarity with the texts of much of English and foreign literature by collating their original editions to see that they were perfect; they also developed a sixth sense for the important unknown features of books they had never seen before. All this Fletcher had and more: an open friendliness and an honesty in all he said and did. It was these qualities that, throughout all his 70 years in the trade, brought collectors, librarians and other booksellers to him.

His long life was a singularly happy one, and H.M. Fletcher flourishes today in the hands of his son, Keith.

Nicolas Barker

William Robert Fletcher, antiquarian bookseller: born Ramsgate 6 December 1906; married 1936 Irene Weiss (one son, one daughter); died London 17 December 1996.

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