THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS, published on 21st October 2016, aims to convey something of the story, style and character of the Cambridge phenomenon that is Heffers, the bookshop that is ‘known all over the world’. This post introduces Reuben Heffer (a key figure in the history of Heffers), and his association with Penguin Books.
Employees of the firm generally referred to members of the Heffer family as ‘Mr’ Sidney, ‘Mr’ Ernest etc. and the ladies as ‘Miss’, although this convention had mostly fallen out of use by the mid-1970s. Reuben George Heffer (1908-1985) is still sometimes referred to as ‘Mr Reuben’.
Younger son of Ernest and grandson of William Heffer (the firm’s founder), Reuben was educated at the Perse School, Cambridge, where he acquired an interest in modern languages, which he read at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He also read economics. Having trained at the London School of Printing, he joined the firm’s bookselling side after the untimely death of his brother, Arthur. In the Second World War he joined the RAF, serving in flight control and as a squadron leader. He took charge of the bookshop in Petty Cury in 1948 and was Chairman of the company from 1959 to 1975. He was on the council of the Booksellers Association, of the 1948 Book Trade Committee, of the Society of Bookmen, and of the Sette of Odd Volumes. John Welch, appointed by Reuben as the first general manager in 1964, described him as a man of considerable charm; unfailingly generous of his time and quiet advice: ‘Honest and caring, he was above all a liberal man. Though holding firm views, he never inflicted them on anyone. His great talent, giving him abiding pleasure, was to encourage success in those younger than himself.’
Reuben was largely responsible for the continued existence of the Cambridge Review from 1939 and his other activities included serving as a magistrate for twenty-seven years, and with the Marriage Guidance Council, the Trustee Savings Bank, and the Cambridge Preservation Society. The Open University awarded him an honorary MA degree in 1979. Bookseller, Frank Collieson, in Remembering Reuben, wrote that within the book trade, while eschewing office, Reuben was undoubtedly influential, his authority being genuinely modest and understated. Of Reuben he declared:
‘It was a joy to watch him open a book. No spine-cracking for Reuben: the book, whatever its format, would sit easily in his left hand as if measured for it: while the fastidious fingers of his right would turn the pages slowly and without injury from the top.’
Over the years Reuben had built such a good relationship with Penguin Books that he was invited to be a contributor to the publication Penguin’s Progress 1935–1960, a celebration of the publisher’s Silver Jubilee, issued in 1960. He was in good company; other contributors ‘from the outside’ were Compton Mackenzie, Michael Grant, Elliott Viney and Richard Hoggart.
In 1957, thanks to Reuben’s ingenuity, Heffers had opened the first bookshop in the UK
dedicated to Penguin and its associated paperback brands, located at 51 Trumpington Street, Cambridge (on the corner with Downing Street). This was something of a coup for Heffers in the Cambridge bookselling trade, and a key Heffers rival was not at all pleased, as will be revealed in THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS.
Nineteen-sixty was also the thirtieth anniversary of the death of author D.H. Lawrence, and, to mark the occasion, Penguin Books decided to publish seven of his titles, including the unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Charged under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 for doing so, the publisher was put on trial at the Old Bailey, represented by Michael Rubinstein, ‘the book trade’s lawyer’ and defended by Gerald Gardiner QC. On 2nd November 1960, Penguin was acquitted when the jury passed a ‘not guilty’ verdict. In the end, Reuben, who had been listed as a possible witness, was not one of the thirty-five called.
Penguin went on to sell three million copies of Lady Chatterley over the next three months and Heffers contributed to those sales. Prepared for a favourable verdict, the invoice office at Heffer’s Petty Cury bookshop had already typed invoices, so they were ready to go out with the orders as soon as the trial was over. Bookseller, Dudley Davenport recalls the big rush for copies at Petty Cury, “the place was packed out”. Naturally, the recently-opened Penguin shop was hectic too. In his published memoirs, Michael Black, an editor at Cambridge University Press at the time, recalls looking from his office down into the street on publication day:
‘Heffer’s Penguin Bookshop was directly opposite my window, and on that morning there was a very long queue. There still used to be errand-boys in those days, and more than one had taken time off to join the queue and was standing there with his bike. I reflected mildly on the literary tastes and interests of errand-boys – but I suspect they weren’t any different from other people’s.’
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS contains previously unpublished images of the Heffer’s Penguin Bookshop in Cambridge at the time it opened.
There may well have been a Heffers board meeting to discuss the question of stocking the book, although clearly by the time of the trial the firm was in favour. As William Heffer says today of his father, Reuben, “I’m sure he would have been perfectly happy to stock it.”
Norman Biggs, former director of the stationery division reflects, “The view taken was that you couldn’t censure, and certainly not in a place like Cambridge.”
In THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS, former employees recall reactions to the publication.
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS by Julie E Bounford will be available from Heffers of Cambridge, from November 2016.
 Founded 1878 in London by the bookseller Quaritch, the Sette today remains a small social club dedicated to book collecting, printing history, and bibliophily.
 Welch, J. (2004) ‘Heffer, Reuben George (1908–1985)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
 The Cambridge Review (A Journal of University Life and Thought), was first published in 1879. It continued for many years after the Heffers acquisition and, after 119 volumes in total, finally ceased publication in 1998.
 Published in the Cambridge Review, 1986.
 Black, M. (2011) Learning to be a Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 1951 –1987, Personal Reminiscences, Cambridge University Press.
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