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Hatchard's, London

20 February 2017

London’s oldest running bookseller is more than a mere bookstore, and listless city guides all laud this historic spot as a must-see attraction.

We are two floors below where Francis Cleverdon – charming, slight, well turned out in blazer, slacks and thick-rimmed glasses – should actually be right now. Instead, the manager of Hatchards bookstore sprawls across the careworn leather sofa-cum-window seat in a first floor alcove, and admires one of the most wonderful views of central London’s Piccadilly. We survey the iconic Royal Academy of Arts institute opposite, as well as the equally iconic department store Fortnum & Mason, against which Hatchards is neatly nestled.

“I probably should be upstairs trying to put together the guest list for this year’s party,” he sighs, referring to the legendary ‘Hatchards Author of the Year’ gathering, which they’ve hosted since 1923. Four hundred guests will cram into the shop’s five floors. No riff-raff. No publishers. Just authors. Recurring visitors include Jilly Cooper, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. Salman Rushdie also pops in when he is in town. “The nice thing about it is that it’s a way of getting to know them [the authors] properly. We just shut the doors and give them champagne.” As the writers in attendance will push their books to a more prominent store location, it generally takes a week afterwards to put things back in the right place.

London’s oldest running bookseller is more than a mere bookstore, and listless city guides all laud this historic spot as a must-see attraction. It is undeniably charming: somewhat antiquated, with a moss green carpet knotted with regal-looking navy curlicues, the odd roll-back upholstered chair for flourish and the famed wooden spiral staircase that the tourists all seem to adore.

What’s most notable is its ownership of the three Royal Warrants (worn like a badge of honour, with one prominent wall bearing an old receipt dated 1815 written in extravagant italic script Bought of John Hatchard, Bookseller to Her Majesty). There are only three Royal Warrants to be had – HM The Queen, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, HRH The Prince of Wales – and Hatchards is the only bookshop to have them all. In basic terms this means it supplies the royal books (HRH The Queen is actually the longest running customer as the booksellers received the Royal Warrant in the 1800s, as soon as they were eligible). Cleverdon can’t say how the Royal Warrant works practically – “This is when I have to use the ‘no comment’ line” – but one assumes Hatchards deliver a curated reading list to the Palace, a service they provide for about 300 customers a month. “When John Hatchard started on a barrow in 1975, just there [Cleverdon points through the window to the roadside in front, bustling with crowds of out-of-towners], before moving indoors in 1977, it was known as the ‘carriage trade’ because they came down Piccadilly, parked up, and the footman would get off and come over to collect the books for the ladies within the carriage.”

Hatchards have modified this tradition and still curate the reading list for a large number of their customers. “We don’t want to just do the bog standard ‘book of the month’,” he explains, “Where’s the fun in that?” After a brief interview process, where they develop an understanding of your likes and dislikes, the dedicated curation process begins. For all 300 customers it takes three days with multiple staff, including Cleverdon himself doing the selection. It’s not a service you can do in most places. “But then we’re not most places,” he laughs.

It’s not just the Royal Family who are notable patrons. Throughout history, many famed names have and still do shop at Hatchards. British businessman Cecil Rhodes (“a complete nightmare”) contacted Hatchards by letter when “taking over some country somewhere”. He was reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and decided on a whim that he wanted Gibbon’s entire bibliography, asking Hatchards to supply him with it. They replied, kindly pointing out that at least half of it hadn’t even been translated yet – it was in Latin. “Well, can’t you translate it then?” he asked. And they did. It took six years, and much of the translations were actually the first printed of the works. Literary anecdotes like this are plentiful, a great one regarding Oscar Wilde’s wife’s love affair with the Hatchards manager of the time – there’s a marvellous series of love letters still resting upstairs.

Cleverdon sees the future of bookselling being in the quirks, which is why upon his employment he looked at reinstating Hatchards’ stocking of rareties and first editions. They currently have around US$125,000 worth, including a signed Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, worth around US$1,860, and a set of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which can be yours for approximately US$4,350.

“I think everybody’s looking for a way of survival,” explains Cleverdon. “Our quirk is our heritage; that fact that we have created a world, a personality, and that we, as booksellers, have beliefs that we stick to. For example, there are some books that we love, but that we know hardly anybody will buy. However, to be a proper bookshop you should still have them. The great classic is James Joyce’s Ulysses – and quite honestly the actual number of people who have read it is not that high – but would you trust a bookseller if they didn’t have a copy of it knocking about? No. You wouldn’t. You can’t believe a bookstore is great if it won’t surround you with greatness.”

hatchards.co.uk

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

Sir John Sloane’s Museum
It’s completely mad, you turn a corner and discover the most extraordinary things that I guarantee you have never seen in your entire life, just sitting there – drawings and models of his work [Sir John Sloane was a neo-classical architect in the 1800s], paintings, antiques, curiosities – it has charm and quirkiness.

The Clink
The old Clink Prison Museum in Clerkenwell, which is basically unchanged, is where various greats of 19th century literature were imprisoned for debt. Can you believe it was a regular occurrence.

Hampstead Heath
Just the most extraordinary place, unlike anywhere else in London. It’s literary leanings are legendary… the poet William Blake was endlessly walking across it, the novelist Wilkie Collins set The Woman in White there, too.

Albany, Piccadilly
The apartment complex, Albany, in Piccadilly is down a small unassuming alleyway. It’s so discreet that you would never even know it’s there. So many greats have lived there and it really is the most beautiful residence in London – even just looking at the façade from the outside is a treat. Built originally in the 18th century as bachelor apartments, Kenneth Clark – and even Byron, at one stage – have lived there.

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