This London establishment has been sitting unobtrusively on Curzon Street for 77 years. It has stayed there as the world around it spins madly on, living through huge changes to London’s West End, a World War, seventeen Prime Ministers and the employment of one Nancy Mitford. And thank goodness for that.
Just minutes away from Green Park, Heywood Hill is tucked away from the madness of Mayfair, on the more civilized side of Piccadilly. To find it you must wander through roads with names like Half Moon Street and Shepherd Market, where little patisseries, bookbinders and restaurants replace Starbucks and McDonalds and London’s rich and famous drink champagne al fresco at 11 am on Wednesday. I couldn’t help but wonder how much the area has changed since Heywood and Anne Hill opened shop in 1936. Fortunately, it seems that despite what goes on in the rest of the world, Heywood Hill, like Narnia, is a place where time works differently. The years of history spill out from every shelf and are visible in every browser’s wide-eyed awe. It’s the kind of shop whose regulars aren’t only the local families, but book-collectors who have had accounts set up for decades.
Today, I had the slightly surreal experience of meeting a book-collecting millionaire from Dubai. And by ‘meeting’, I naturally mean ‘eavesdropping on the conversations of.’ The man wandered around the shop like he’d been coming for years, picking up books to throw onto the pile the already-frazzled bookseller was trying to keep organised. I had to pity her; it seemed that every time she thought she had his order sorted, he’d pick up three more books to add to the pile. While he is probably a nightmare of a customer, I couldn’t judge him too much because the earnestness with which he was enjoying himself was really quite adorable. He was the proverbial kid in a candy store. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all afford to say, ‘Oh I have a copy of this already, I think, but this edition has such a nice cover that I think I’ll have it too.’ For now, we have to fantasise.
Fortunately Heywood Hill is the perfect place for flights of fancy. The decor of the bookshop reflects its history; located at the bottom of a long and narrow row house, the timeless London style is continued inside, where beautiful gold details decorate the walls and a chandelier hangs from the ceiling. The books are arranged in a way that really encourages browsing; there is a small alcove in the corner where part of the fiction collection is housed, just big enough for one person at a time to duck in and be surrounded on three sides by walls of books. In the centre of the room are a series of tables, arranged by genre, where piles of books are just waiting for you to dig through them. Heywood Hill has a fantastic selection; it’s one of those bookshops where every single book deserves a look, where you find books you’ve never heard of but which immediately intrigue you, where each new discovery is more exciting than the last. As I moved around the tables and shelves, the stack of ‘possibles’ I was cradling in my arms like a baby grew taller and, like the original Matilda of Roald Dahl’s novel, I felt like I needed a wheelbarrow. I ended up leaving with only two books, both of which were new and therefore at retail price. The first was Fictions, a collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges and the second was a Penguin Classics collection of Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov. I’ve never read anything like either of them before, so I can’t wait to tuck in.
The shop’s combination of used, new and antiquarian books provides a truly unique range of options. The selection of Fiction, Poetry, History, Art and Architecture books is brilliantly curated, with interesting and intelligent choices that reflect the diversity of what’s on offer in contemporary publishing, as well as a really sound knowledge of the classics and more obscure almost-classics that deserve to be returned to the limelight. I was impressed with the scope of the collection, which went far beyond the canon of white Western males. I rave a lot about Persephone Books on this blog, but expanding the canon is kind of what they do, so I think I’m justified in noting that Heywood Hill stocks a small selection of their titles. But they also go even further, displaying the best literature from all over the world. It’s a great place to go to find an unexpected title from South America, Africa or Asia. Part of the fun of exploring literature from outside your own culture is that you have no idea what you’re going to get or even what you’re looking for. And an added bonus is that you haven’t already been programmed with popular opinions, prejudices and preconceptions as we all are within our own traditions, so you have total freedom to judge the books on their merit. Heywood Hill facilitates this kind of free exploration by stocking a great selection – perfect for exploring and discovering – that you can trust to be high quality. Like the city that gave life to it, Heywood Hill is truly cosmopolitan; a place where misfits from all four corners of the earth can feel at home.
In the basement are the children’s books. A whole room full of them, where cardboard versions of Madeline and The Twits peek out at young browsers, but no other distractions take their attention away from the books. Like upstairs, here there is a mix of pricy rare first editions, used editions and new books for retail price. It’s a bright and happy room, warm and accessible for children and for those of us who just love children’s books. There is something for everyone here and you can see how a child could grow up in this room, like I did, moving from storybooks to chapter books and all the way up to the confusing and wonderful minefield that is Young Adult literature. There’s even a small collection of books for children in other languages. All I can say about this neat, prolific and truly lovely children’s section is that if more bookshops had somewhere like it – where a child can sit and read without being distracted by a million toys and trinkets – the world would be a better place.
Indeed, places like Heywood Hill that make the world better. With its friendly staff, inviting atmosphere and adventurous selection of books, it invites you to explore the wonderful world inside your own head. It’s not a lecture; it’s a gentle nudge. A gentle ‘Why not try something new this time?’ or a cheeky ‘Come on, you know you wanna.’ But adventure is easy here, because the books that you already know, the safe books, are there, but they seem so much less exciting than the thoughtful choice of new ones that are offered. Yes, we all love Dickens, let’s say, but when he’s surrounded by a Rwandan poet, a book of Russian folk tales and a contemporary award-winner, you feel a bit silly for going down the safe route. Even if you go in looking for one simple thing, you might find, like my Dubaian millionaire, that you want fifty new books that have nothing to do with the first one in genres you’ve never read before. ‘Why the hell not?’ Heywood Hill seems to say. When you have all the tools for voyages around the world and back in time, from fantasy novels to thick historical tomes, at your fingertips, it seems an absolute crime not to use them. This bookshop is living proof that, in the immortal words of Dr Seuss, ‘The more that you read, the more things you will know! The more that you learn the more places you’ll go!’