Obituary: Frank Cutler

Alan Deyermond
Sunday 01 August 1999 23:02

FRANK CUTLER was a major force in foreign-language bookselling in Britain and beyond and, latterly, in publishing.

His firm, which had begun as a book club in two rooms in the 1930s, gradually became a bookshop after the Second World War, and in due course changed its name to Grant & Cutler. By the early 1980s it had expanded to fill the whole ground floor of its original home and of Samuel Pepys's house next door, plus the basement. Even so, it needed more space, and when leases drew towards their end the bookshop moved, in 1986, to more spacious and more modern premises in Great Marlborough Street, where it remains today.

Cutler, the third of four children, was regarded by his family as the runt of the litter, unlikely to survive infancy; he lived for 88 years. Circumstances denied him the university place that his intelligence and his interests deserved; he went from the County High School to the Cambridge bookshop Bowes & Bowes, where he worked in the foreign book department, with strict instructions to sell Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu only to those who asked for it: such works, verging on pornography, were not to be allowed on the open shelves. Regular customers - possibly in search of illicit Proustian delights - included Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess.

While working for Bowes & Bowes, Cutler began to study for an external degree of London University, but in 1936 another young member of the foreign book department, Geoffrey Grant, suggested that they should establish, in London, a private lending library devoted to the literatures of western and central Europe. Thus the International Book Club was born, with Grant contributing the initial capital and a background of reading in European literature, and Cutler providing practical skills and business flair. The new venture absorbed so much of Cutler's time and energy that he abandoned his degree studies.

The International Book Club occupied two rooms in 11 Buckingham Street, next door to the home of Samuel Pepys in his later years and a few yards from the handsome water-gate that had once given access to the Thames but now opens on to the Embankment Gardens. (When the IBC had become Grant & Cutler's bookshop, a drawing of the gate decorated the firm's letterhead. Its rubric, "Close by the Watergate", did not then have the resonance that it was to acquire in the Nixon era, when some American foreign-language scholars believed that the firm was even closer to the centre of events than it actually was.)

When war came, Cutler served in the Middlesex Regiment, ending as a Captain. Grant, exempt on health grounds, continued IBC single- handed. Demobilised in 1946, Cutler returned to Buckingham Street. Not long after this he met Kit (officially Roma Doris) Procter, and they married at the end of 1950; for many years she worked with him in building up the business.

It was in the mid-1940s that IBC began to sell books as well as lend them to subscribers. Changes in the market for foreign books and the improvement of the public library system accelerated the change from lending library to bookshop, and in due course the name of the firm changed too, though IBC remained a subsidiary name for many years. As the firm expanded, Cutler's workload and his influence increased; the growth and reshaping of the firm were increasingly in his hands because of Geoffrey Grant's ill-health (he died in 1965).

Grant & Cutler had one serious competitor in the selling of Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese books: Joan Gili's Dolphin Bookshop. Between them, they dominated the market for Hispanic books, supplying textbooks to schools and universities throughout Britain, and more specialised books and journals to scholars around the world. Yet they were very different: Dolphin was a major antiquarian bookseller, an area in which Grant & Cutler did not try to compete; and whereas Dolphin covered only the Iberian languages and literatures, Grant & Cutler dealt also with French, German, and Italian, areas in which it was unrivalled.

Cutler used to say that he was just a businessman: "I sell books the way other people sell margarine." In a sense he was right. He was a private person and he concentrated on the practical skills of a bookseller: his dexterity as a packer was legendary, his financial acumen formidable. Yet his growing knowledge of foreign literatures and their scholarship made the firm's catalogues a valuable resource for both general readers and teachers, and he - with no formal qualifications beyond the old Higher School Certificate - became the confidant and adviser of scholars.

In 1963 John Varey, the authority on the history of the Spanish theatre, was thinking of starting a publishing house, Tamesis Books, dedicated entirely to Hispanic studies, in which both young and established hispanists would publish monographs and editions. Cutler not only encouraged him but gave business advice over the years and, at a moment of crisis, financial support. That Tamesis still flourishes, now as an imprint of Boydell and Brewer, is of course Varey's achievement, but without Cutler's backing it might never have been.

In the late 1960s Cutler decided to expand into publishing (though the bookshop remained his primary concern). He consulted scholars who had become friends, and launched two series. One, Critical Guides to Spanish Texts, offers an original critical reading of a novel, play, or volume of poems, and also an evaluation of what has been written about it. This series, designed to produce a modest profit, was so successful that it was joined by similar series for French and then German.

The other, Research Bibli- ographies and Checklists (full bibliographies, often with detailed commentaries, of French and Spanish authors from the Middle Ages to the present and of criticism and research on them), was not intended to make a profit, though Cutler hoped it would not make too much of a loss. He had, he said, made an enjoyable living out of foreign books, and now he wanted to put something back. The first volumes in the two series appeared in 1971, and the total number of books published by Grant & Cutler now stands at 275.

The change of premises to Great Marlborough Street and the gradual retirement of Frank Cutler (he was 75 in 1986, the year of the move) meant a different atmosphere. Moreover, the great expansion in foreign-language book publication meant that even Grant & Cutler could no longer stock a copy of almost every book in their field, so the shop is no longer the browsers' paradise that I first knew in the mid-1950s. Yet much of the old spirit remains, and this is still a privately-owned bookshop where authors and their readers count for more than managerial imperatives.

This is due to Cutler's wisdom and foresight. He gradually devolved responsibility for areas of the firm, and little by little he became an occasional visitor rather than a constant presence. He and Kit had no children, so as he began to think of retirement the longer-serving members of the bookshop staff were made directors and substantial shareholders of the company; not only their future but that of Grant & Cutler - both as bookseller and as publisher - was assured.

In the late 1960s, Frank and Kit moved from London to the Wiltshire village of Ansty, living in what had been two cottages, later converted into a chapel. They devoted time and care to the restoration of the house and the creation of the garden. They took great pleasure in the Wiltshire landscape and its literary and historical associations, showing guests round nearby Fonthill Abbey (William Beckford's Gothic home). The cyclostyled instructions for journeys to Ansty included topographical and architectural asides. For years they took their holiday on the Hebridean island of Raasay, and their love for the island explains the anomalous inclusion of a book about it in the Grant & Cutler list.

Frank Cutler was tolerant of most kinds of human frailty; he accepted, and even saw the funny side of, academics' problems with deadlines. But he was meticulous about both procedure and manners: he despised a newly elevated professor who tried to bully the young assistants in the bookshop, and a well-known scholar who neglected to pay his mounting debts. Yet even the latter miscreant still got his royalties, and when I asked why, Frank replied: "He may not pay what he owes, but we do." He gave exemplary service to generations of general readers, students and teachers, and this was recognised by the rare distinction (shared by Joan Gili) of election as an Honorary Member of the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland.

Robert Francis Cutler, bookseller and publisher: born Cambridge 28 February 1911; married 1950 Kit Procter; died Ansty, Wiltshire 18 July 1999.

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