John Saumarez Smith (1943-2021) R.I.P.

John Saumarez Smith who was widely considered as the last of London’s “gentleman booksellers” has died at the age of 78. He was the son of an Indian Civil Service family and graduate of Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge. After university, he joined the Heywood Hill Bookstore in Mayfair. Waugh had become a loyal customer when Nancy Mitford worked there during the war. He continued to trade there under the management of Heywood Hill’s successor, Handasyde Buchanan, who was a fairly frequent correspondent. According to The Times obituary:

The core group of original customers after it opened in 1936 were associates and admirers of writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Graham Greene, assisted by Nancy Mitford who worked in the shop during the Second World War. Waugh reminisced that Heywood Hill was “a centre for all that was left of fashionable and intellectual London”.

It certainly appealed to literary aristocrats and spies, especially as Trumper’s, the smartest London barbers, were next door, as was Leconfield House, then the headquarters of MI5. David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, was a customer and was browsing in the shop one day when someone came in who he wanted to avoid. Saumarez Smith helped him flee, sending him into the basement and then leading him up into the private courtyard at the rear. Le Carré recreated this scene in the BBC TV version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with George Smiley doing the escape through the Mayfair bookshop. […]

The atmosphere in the shop was poisonous between Handasyde Buchanan and Heywood Hill, to say the least, and is described in lapidary detail in two volumes edited by Saumarez Smith, The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street and A Spy in the Bookshop. Problems arose because Buchanan, who took over after Hill retired, resented Saumarez Smith’s superior Wykehamist manner. “The trouble is,” he bluntly told Saumarez Smith in 1969, “and you probably don’t realise this yourself, that you correct us all as if you were a headmaster, that your tone of voice becomes almost canonical.”

The Daily Telegraph obit offers a bit more detail about the relationship among Buchanan, Hill and Saumarez Smith:

… Buchanan turned out to be a pompous and patronising figure, whom Evelyn Waugh once described as possessing all “the concealed malice of the underdog”. Before long he and the even more malicious Mollie [his wife who also worked at the store] had succeeded in alienating both staff and customers. Hill retired in 1966 and retreated to Suffolk rather than endure the couple any longer.

His main contact thereafter was his young “spy in the bookshop”, Saumarez Smith (to whom, much to the Buchanans’ resentment, Hill was vaguely related by marriage). The Buchanans did all they could to make Saumarez Smith‘s life a misery. Yet he determined to stick it out, letting off steam by sending front-line dispatches to Hill.

Saumarez Smith was director of the bookstore from Buchanan’s retirement in 1974 until his own retirement in 2008. After that, he sold books from catalogues produced at Maggs Bros and later John Sandoe until mobility issues caused him to move to the Charterhouse Infirmary in 2018.

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