Still driving customers up the wall after 100 years: Foyles, the bookshop that time forgot

John Walsh@johnhenrywalsh
Thursday 23 January 2003 01:00

It's in the Guinness Book of Records as the bookshop with the most titles in stock and the longest lines of shelving (30 miles). It boasts the most starrily famous clientele, alive or dead, of any bookshop in history (Eva Peron, the Argentinian first lady, finding herself temporarily short of cash one day, paid for her books with a crocodile-skin vanity case). The guest speakers at its Literary Lunches read like a guide to 20th century literature. It is also, by general consent, one of the most infuriatingly, perversely eccentric retail operations in the history of commerce. Foyles, the most famous bookshop in the world, is 100 years old this year.

It was actually on 14 July, 1903 that two brothers, William, 17, and Gilbert Foyle, 18, sold their first wholesale book. But months earlier, they had started in business by flogging some unwanted textbooks from their parents' kitchen table. They advertised in educational journals, and were startled by the response. Their first year of trading made a princely £10.

In 1906 they bought the shop at 113-119 Charing Cross Road and were away. William Foyle became a bookselling legend, "the Barnum of Books". He employed his 17-year-old daughter Christina in 1928. She later ran his empire for 40 years – and nearly ran it into the ground.

For decades, Foyles has been a shopper's nightmare, with miles and miles of haphazardly arranged titles, non-English-speaking student staff, and a payment system apparently designed by a Victorian lunatic. "It was a byword for dreadful bookselling," said Nicholas Clee, editor of The Bookseller. "They never answered the phone, the assistants never knew anything, and were hired and fired in six months. You could never find any book you wanted."

Would-be buyers had to queue twice. "There weren't any tills or cash registers," remembers The Independent's Christina Patterson, who worked there (and was fired after five weeks) in the mid-80s, "You sat in a little wooden box, and people would have to bring you dockets hand-written by the assistants. I dreaded being asked for help. I couldn't confidently have said which floor I was on."

The trouble was Christina Foyle, who hated any signs of modernity. She refused to allow computers or electronic tills, and spent no money on refurbishments. Her attitude to staff was autocratic: once she fired 40 women for "talking too loudly".

Since she died in 1999, leaving £60m (most of which went to charity, and none to her family), the shop has been run by two of Christina's nephews, Christopher (whom she made a director on her deathbed) and Bill Samuels (whom she cordially loathed). Between them they pulled the shop into at least the 20th century.

Some things don't change, however. You can still spend hours browsing the miles of shelves and marvelling at how everything is in the wrong place. Under "Fiction" you can find Boswell's Life of Dr Johnson, Baudelaire's Prose Poems and the plays of Beaumarchais, and that's just the Bs. Other famous works of conspicuous non-fiction include Rousseau's Confessions, Samuel Smiles' Self-Help and the Greek historian Polybius's Rise of the Roman Empire. With a perversity that borders on the criminal, Proust's 3,000-page A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is filed under "Short Stories". But there's a certain delight in finding out-of-print books, some dating back to the mid-70s, that have been in Foyles' stock for 30 years.

"There's a lot of goodwill in the trade towards Foyle and Samuels, as there would be towards any independent operators, in a world of chain stores" says Nicholas Clee. "They make no attempt to hide their opinion of the shop's past. They want to get things right from now on. After years of incompetence, Foyles still has a very good name."

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