A year ago, in February 2020 I had a meeting with archivist Dr David Jones at The Perse Upper School in Cambridge. Dr Jones had kindly agreed to give a talk on the charities of Stephen Perse, at a forthcoming Cambridgeshire Association for Local History conference that, in the end, was cancelled because of COVID.
The theme of the conference was going to be, ‘The Charities that Began at Home: Historical Perspectives on Local Philanthropy.’ (thank you Antony Carpen for suggesting the excellent title). The other speakers we had lined up were Susan Woodall on the Cambridge Female Refuge; Tricia McBride on the Addenbrookes Charitable Trust; and Dr Evelyn Lord on Cambridge alms houses. Perhaps one day in the future we will be permitted to assemble for this fascinating programme.
Upon greeting me at The Perse, Dr Jones was most gracious about the history of Heffers that I’d written in 2016 (This Book is About Heffers). He was especially pleased to see a photograph in the book of John Doggett, a Cambridge gentleman who for decades, held court in the Trinity Street bookshop as a regular and loyal customer.
Several booksellers had spoken fondly about Mr Doggett when I interviewed them for my research. Suzanne Jones recalled his love of David Lean films and books by Charles Dickens. Kate Turner (née Hastings) always heard him from across the shop floor and remembered him eating her colleagues’ sandwiches (he was also spotted eating raw sausages on the gallery). Jean Clarke (known to her bookselling colleagues as Jean the Bean) remembered Mr Doggett answering the phone at Trinity Street if no-one was at the desk on the shop floor, shouting,
“There’s no-one here at the moment!”
He regularly enquired if there were any jobs going at Heffers, would talk about the ‘Beard Law’, and would stand at the front of the shop, yelling out the cast names from the 1947 film version of Oliver Twist.
In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Heffers Manager David Robinson, named Mr Doggett as their favourite regular customer,
“He has been coming into the shop forever. It used to be Thursdays and Saturdays but is now just Saturday mornings. He has his own chair and always wants the same questions answering—have we got any books on pigs, traction engines or the First World War? He wishes everybody who comes near him a Happy New Year, regardless of the date, and then happily shuffles out of the shop for another week. He can be a distraction, but Saturdays wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Aged 90, Mr Doggett sadly passed over to the eternal bookshop in 2018.
‘Nowt so queer as folk’
Not meaning to be rude, the phrase ‘nowt so queer as folk’ seems appropriate when it comes to depicting people at Heffers. I don’t mind saying that, mainly because members of my own family served over one hundred and twenty years with the firm. The shops were a haven for many characters and eccentrics – staff and customers. According to bookseller Richard Reynolds, the Trinity Street staff were all, in their way, eccentric. Perhaps this can be said about the book trade in general.
The bookselling side of the business at Heffers is remembered as being more ‘edgy’, although the stationery side at the shop in Sidney Street, Cambridge, had its fair share of eccentrics, as noted by retired Manager, Mr Norman Biggs who said,
“We had our moments. It makes life interesting, characters in the firm and in the customers.”
Staff shared many anecdotes about their colleagues, many long gone, such as a Sidney Street manager known as, ‘Barmy’ Clarke, who ran the Maps and Guidebooks department in the 1950s. Mr Clarke had perfected a way of avoiding having serve customers. From his counter, he could see the front door and when he saw someone approaching the shop he didn’t wish to serve, he would niftily step out the side door and re-enter from the front. Now, behind the customer, he was able to go up to them and say,
“Are you being served? Oh, I see you’re being taken care of.”
The different Heffers shops had their own distinctive cultures, very much separate worlds. There were moments when colleagues seemed to forget that they were there to provide a service, but then you might say that this was no different to any other organisation. Perhaps at Heffers, it was question of the extent to which idiosyncrasies were accommodated, as indeed many were, over many years.
Just like their customers, some booksellers would take a dislike to a particular book or author. Duncan Littlechild, a strong pacifist, disapproved of Winston Churchill and actively discouraged customers from buying Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s.
“You don’t want to buy that old rogue”, he would say.
Considered ‘old school’ by then, colleagues would often observe Mr Littlechild ‘kowtowing’ to academic customers on the telephone.
Littlechild began his fifty-four-year career at the firm as an apprentice in 1903. During the First World War he had a spell as a prisoner of war. After the war ended, he returned to Heffers. Perhaps a more incongruous memory is that of Mr Littlechild in regular conversation with a favourite customer of his, English comedian and actor, Cyril Fletcher, who appeared as the Pantomime Dame in the Arts Theatre from 1949 to 1972, in shows written by his wife, Betty Astell.
Some booksellers took a liking not just to particular books, but to reading in general (and who can blame them?). Marion and Dudley Davenport, who both worked at the Petty Cury bookshop, remembered a colleague in the 1950s and ’60s who sat in a corner of his section reading for most of the time. Another would occasionally lose his temper at a particular book and flail around with it, knocking other books off the shelves.
The author, Julian Sedgwick, who worked at the main Trinity Street bookshop from 1991 to 2003, fondly recalled the parade of “influential, cosmopolitan, charming, grumpy, famous, notorious, odd and downright weird customers”, who continually fascinated him. His most memorable included a beaten Chris Patten, fresh from losing his seat in the 1992 election, asking for advice on books about China. He was about to head to Hong Kong and left with a stack of books; and the President of Armenia with his hefty bodyguards bearing down on the Oriental Department, asking to see the Caucasus section. They dutifully examined the twenty or so titles but made no purchase. Julian also remembers surreptitiously watching Terry Waite while he quietly browsed the shelves in the basement following his release from captivity. His dignity and sense of calm fascinated him.