Yesterday’s post about Plough Monday looked at a post-Epiphany tradition revived in the Fens of Cambridgeshire.
Today’s post takes us to Cambridge, where a beloved institution celebrated its 140th anniversary in 2016: Heffers bookshop.
(Photo credit: Heritage Explorer, showing the children’s bookshop in the late 1960s.)
As most Cambridge University colleges are closed to the public, especially during term time, a visit to Heffers is often the closest people get to sharing a slice of the student academic experience. For book lovers and curious tourists, no visit to Cambridge is complete without a trip to Heffers.
The Michaelmas 2016 issue of CAM (Cambridge Alumni Magazine) had a fascinating feature on Heffers. The article, by William Ham Bevan, begins on page 20 of the PDF and continues through page 25. (Michaelmas is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, September 29. Cambridge maintains traditional term names that follow the Church year: Michaelmas, Lent and Easter.)
‘The bookshop known all over the world’
The bookshop is so much a part of town and university life, that author Julie E Bounford, also a tutor at the University of East Anglia, wrote a book about it called This Book Is About Heffers: The Bookshop That Is Known All Over The World. With the help of researcher Rob Webb:
The project is based in part on a fascinating personal collection of photographs, press cuttings and other ‘memorabilia’ of the firm’s activities gathered by the late Winifred Anstee (Julie’s great aunt). This covers staff outings, Heffers family occasions and other key events, dating back to 1913 …
Both Julie’s and Rob’s families have had a long association with Heffers. Julie’s great-grandfather, Frederick Anstee, worked for the company for forty-seven years (starting at the age of thirteen). On his death in 1944, E. W. Heffer wrote an obituary in The Bookseller trade journal. Her great aunt, Winifred Anstee, her grandmother, Lillian Saunders (nee Anstee) and her mother’s cousin, Bryan Anstee, also worked for the firm (as a secretary, shop assistant and printer, respectively).
Rob’s grandfather and father worked for the company during the 1910s and 1940s-70s, respectively. Rob also worked at Heffers during the 1970s.
Bounford, who grew up in Cambridge, has fond memories of the firm’s children’s bookshop, where she bought a paperback every week with her pocket money. Her website has an article about this time in her life, ‘Choosing books, living life’. This would have been around the time the photo at the top of this post was taken. Julie says (emphases mine):
Note the absence of the paraphernalia that you tend to get in children’s bookshops today. Like children’s diaries, the bookshops were less cluttered in those days. The focus was the books. Choosing was always a delight but never took long (it took more time to queue for our wares at Sainsbury’s meat and cheese counters afterwards) and I would be even more delighted if the need arose to use the oak library steps to reach a particular volume.
She included the announcement on the death of her great-grandfather, a loyal lifelong employee:
On his death in 1944, E. W. Heffer wrote in the trade journal,
‘We are grieved to announce the death suddenly, on Sunday June 18th, 1944, of Mr Frederick Anstee, of 27 Humberstone Road, Cambridge, aged 60 years. Mr Anstee entered our employment as a boy, forty-seven years ago, and by most faithful, conscientious and capable service he rose to be head of our science department. He was known, appreciated and respected by a great number of eminent scientists throughout the world.’ The Bookseller, 22nd June, 1944
Today’s readers will be surprised to learn that his father William Heffer, born in 1844, was the son of an agricultural labourer. He married a housemaid, Mary Crick, who later became a cook for a local doctor. At the time of their wedding, Heffer was 18. Mary was 14.
By 1871 the couple had six (of an eventual total of nine) children to support and Heffer was employed as a humble groom. There is some suggestion that he subsequently managed a public house, but it was apparently with the aid of a modest loan that he was enabled to set up in business as a stationer.
That would be unthinkable today.
Bounford told the CAM reporter that Heffer set up shop in 1876 (p. 24 of the PDF). Heffer started as a stationer, selling paper products and filing boxes to students and faculty. He sold his wares by walking to the colleges with bundles of merchandise. He was so well known that, when he died, the Vice-Chancellor [head] of Cambridge University attended his funeral.
When he started, Heffer’s workshop was at 104 Fitzroy Street. In 1899, he became a printer and publisher, with agreement from London publishers, to keep the cost of books affordable. He first printed Bibles and hymnals. They were such big sellers that he opened a bookshop in 1896 at 3-4 Petty Cury. He was also good at marketing the shop, using branded bookmarks and print advertising. The bookshop sold textbooks and became a regular destination for students.
Bookhunter tells us:
As the younger children grew up in the bookshop, surrounded by books, they naturally enough joined in. By 1901 five of them were employed in the rapidly growing concern – Kate Adelaide Heffer (1867-1940), Ernest William Heffer (1871-1948), Lucy Mary Heffer (1873-1951), Frank Heffer (1876-1933) and Sidney Heffer (1878-1959).
It was as the oldest son engaged in the bookshop that Ernest William Heffer, the sixth child, became first a partner and eventually head of the firm. On 7th September 1897 he married Louisa Marion Beak (1869-1939) at All Saints, Peckham. His new wife was the daughter of the late and rather splendidly named Worthey Beak, a Berkshire farmer. She had previously been working as a nurse at the Woolwich & Plumstead Cottage Hospital. Living first at 7 Mill Road and later at 24 Chesterton Road, Ernest William and his wife had three children of their own – Arthur Beak Heffer (1899-1931), Eleanor Mary Heffer (1903-1991) and Reuben George Heffer (1908-1995).
Reuben, a trained printer, took over the firm in 1948 and served as chairman between 1951 and 1975. Reuben’s son Nicholas became chairman in 1984.
Bookhunter says that by the end of the 1920s, Ernest William Heffer — the founder’s son — was selling notable second-hand books. He purchased important collections from private individuals. In 1933, he served as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. His wife died in 1939. He died a week before Christmas in 1948, aged 77. Although he left a comfortable fortune:
He was buried at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge (Plot: 1B1), his grave adorned by a simple wooden cross (Find A Grave Memorial# 34761969).
Heffers expanded during the 20th century. Their large stationery store was in Sidney Street, the Penguin paperback shop in Trumpington Street with the children’s bookshop in Trinity Street. I remember these various Heffers shops. Unfortunately, only the Trinity Street branch exists today. It houses everything for reasons which I will explain below.
Services to students
CAM detailed the story of how Heffers became such a local institution: marketing, branding and customer service.
In 1900, Heffers began issuing academic book catalogues to first year students at Cambridge University. Later, the firm printed branded diaries which it issued to undergraduates (p. 24).
At the beginning of term, Heffers cleared out the front of the main shop to stock it with textbooks. Staff were entirely at the beck and call of students; no publishers reps were allowed to call during that time (p. 24).
Students then and now became well acquainted with Heffers booksellers, particularly once they moved into specialist studies. Employees knew exactly what the student required and where it was located (p. 25).
Until credit cards became well established, Heffers offered credit themselves. A student had only to apply for an account. Payment was collected without fail. Anyone who owed the bookshop more than £20 found that Heffers sent his tutor a copy of the bill!
Heffers also printed calling cards for undergraduates (p. 25). By the 1930s, everyone had a set. Calling — visiting — cards with one’s name on them enabled someone to indicate they had stopped by to chat in the event no one was there. They were left at the door. By the 1950s, this old social custom was dying out and their production ceased.
Early in the 21st century, Heffers created a small café, which enabled students to relax with a book. With the consolidation of shops a few years later, however, the café disappeared, and children’s books replaced it.
Today, only the shop in Trinity Street exists. It houses everything from stationery to textbooks to paperbacks and children’s books.
In 1999, the Blackwell Group — booksellers based in Oxford but with branches around the country — bought Heffers, which still trades under the original name.
It is interesting to note that Benjamin Henry Blackwell (1849-1924) founded his company in Oxford in 1879, around the same time that Heffer established his. He and his parents were very religious and teetotal. They objected to the government collecting excise tax on alcohol. Like Heffer, Blackwell also served as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association.
It seems that Blackwell, still a family-run firm, looked beyond Oxford to make various acquisitions in the 1990s. It is difficult to know whether Heffers could have done likewise. Perhaps the appetite for expansion just wasn’t there.
In any event, Heffers is definitely worth a visit. Everything is well organised. Not a book is out of place. Service is exceptional. Staff are on hand to find that elusive volume for you and do it with ineffable courtesy.
Heffers is a true English experience not to be missed.