Interview with a Bookstore: Heffers Bookshop
Cambridge's Go-To Bookshop is So Old, Someone's Writing Its History Book
Heffers opened in 1876 and is celebrating 140 years of bookselling this year. Heffers has been in its current location, directly opposite the entrance to Trinity College, Cambridge since 1970.The business was owned and run by the Heffer family until 1999 when it was sold to Blackwell’s. William Heffer, reportedly the son of illiterate agricultural workers, was born in a village 15 miles from Cambridge. Initially, Heffers was a stationery shop but books were soon added. Manager David Robinson guesses that this was a logical progression with the large numbers of students and academics in Cambridge. A history of Heffers is just being written and due for publication in October. David is hoping to learn a lot more then.
What's your favorite section of the store?
David Robinson (manager): That’s like being asked to choose my favorite child! The sections I’m most proud of are our beautiful Children’s department and our amazing Crime Fiction section which is run by Richard Reynolds—in our humble opinion, the most knowledgeable Crime Fiction bookseller in the world! But the joy of Heffers, and all great bookshops, is stumbling across books in unexpected places that you just have to pick up (and own).
If you had infinite space what would you add?
David: We used to have a coffee shop (that we replaced with the Children’s department) and that seems an obvious addition that would help customers relax and spend more time in the shop. But, if space was infinite, I’d love a reading room, with cosy armchairs, a real fire and a small bar. Better space for author events would be great too!
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
David: Apart from the sections already mentioned, I think we offer a really warm, welcoming environment and first-time visitors love to see the scale of the shop as soon as they step through the front door. But we also pride ourselves on identifying what is a “Heffers book”—slightly under the radar, well written, usually non-fiction, that we recommend to our customers, really get behind and sell in huge quantities.
Another of my favorite sections is called Heffers Choice. It’s simply the very best non-fiction writing available in paperback. We arrange it by author surname and leave our super-bright customers to work out that, regardless of subject, these books are all about the quality of the writing. They love it!
Who's your favorite regular?
David: There’s only one answer to that: Mr. Doggett. 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.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
David: Cambridge is full of, shall we say, eccentric people so we have our fair share of odd goings on. More prosaically, one of my most memorable days was the first Saturday after we opened the Children’s department in 2010. We were fortunate enough to have the great illustrator Axel Scheffler along to launch the shop and we hired a Gruffalo costume to make it even more exciting.
Allegedly, I was the only person who fit into the costume. It was a really hot July day, there were hundreds of excited children and I was wearing this huge, really heavy outfit. The first time I took the head of the costume off, huge plumes of steam came out—it was reminiscent of a laundry. I must have lost several pounds during the day. The smell probably wasn’t the best either.
I also posed for countless photographs with children and adults during the day. At the end of it my jaw was absolutely numb and I could hardly speak. For reasons I can’t explain, I’d smiled broadly for every single photograph, even though my face was covered by a huge monster head. I like to think the customers noticed how friendly I was being but I think I’m kidding myself. It didn’t stop me doing it again a couple of years later, though!
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
David: I’m sure like a lot of English people of my age, the first author I loved was Enid Blyton. I can distinctly remember buying Secret Seven books and reading them from cover to cover, lying on my bed, eating a bag of toffees. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The only issue was that they ended too quickly—the books and the toffees. Seeing the whole collection of Secret Seven books on the shelf of the bookshop was just too thrilling.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
David: I’ve worked in bookshops for 26 years. At University, everybody said I’d end up running a bookshop (although I think they envisaged a small secondhand bookshop, with me sitting in a rocking chair, reading poetry with a cat sitting on my knee.) So, it’s quite difficult to imagine doing anything else. My other great interest is sport and I did dream of being a sports journalist when I was young, so maybe that. Or maybe, seeing if it’s possible to make a living from pottering around in a shed on my vegetable patch.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
David: Mainly, the lack of rocking chairs, cats and, indeed, time to read poetry. I think most of us came into bookselling because we love books. The surprise is the amount of work that has to be done that, on the face of it, has very little to do with books at all—repairing property, dealing with staff issues, etc.—but it’s all part of what makes the job fascinating and incredibly varied.
The autonomy that I, and my team, have means that we’re effectively running a big bookshop, in the very heart of a beautiful city, using somebody else’s money. I’m still surprised that that is the case but what a privilege and a great position to be in!
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