The last and only the second time I was in London, my lodgings, care of the large law firm I was working for at the time, were in the very posh Mayfair neighborhood. In the few hours the job spared me, I stepped out to get a late lunch, heading to the famous Scott’s, which turned out to be too posh indeed, at least for me.
Asking if I might have a seat at the (empty) bar and have a bit to eat, I was informed it is a private club. This may well be true, or the velvet rope is intended to keep out vulgar Americans. In which case it should be outside the door. (The place had a brief moment of infamy a number of years ago when the paparazzi caught a shot of chef Nigella Lawson’s then-husband with his hands around her throat while they dined and argued on the patio outdoors. That said, the bar did look pretty nice.)
In any event, my precious free time was spent in a nearby dark and rather sad pub, eating overpriced shepherd’s pie.
On my way back to the admittedly lovely hotel, I spotted the Heywood Hill bookshop. It was as charming as I had imagined. From a book about the famous Mitford sisters (The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family) I remembered that Nancy, the eldest, had worked between 1942 and 1945 in the shop, before she went on to become a novelist of some repute. The outside bears a plaque confirming this, along with one noting they are the official booksellers to the Queen.
Of course I was too bashful to go in. So when five years later I read an article in The New Yorker about the shop’s A Year in Books subscription service, it was a dream realized.
Heywood Hill’s team of experts read some six hundred books annually, then send them out based on a given subscriber’s preferences. My husband, who seems to delight in making me happy, gave me a Christmas present of six books a year. Soon after, Faye, my Heywood Hill person, sent me a detailed survey to determine my reading tastes.
The books come beautifully wrapped with the shop’s blue ribbon. I can say without question that–even pre-pandemic–receiving the first one was one of my happiest moments in recent memory.
It was as though someone had climbed inside my head and understood what I would enjoy even before I did. (If this sounds strangely intimate, it was.) I received my second a few weeks ago, and it too was a wonderful surprise.
And should your budget far exceed mine, Heywood Hill also builds private libraries for clients around the world.
Another famous shop that’s shipping is Shakespeare and Company, located in Paris across from Notre Dame. For a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes, including about visiting writers they call tumbleweeds, have a listen to a recent podcast on The Earful Tower.
For passionate readers, it’s important to, when we are able, support our local indie bookshops . Many had already pivoted to an online presence to support their important storefronts, and others have ramped up quickly, so it’s easy to buy from them as an alternative to the one-click behemoth.
Among my favorites are Commonplace Books in Oklahoma City (they had a pop-up in my hometown of Fort Worth, which alas closed in May 2020), Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi (curated so beautifully that when I visited it brought me to tears) and Octopus Books in Ottawa, Canada.
While real-time travel is limited right now, reading can transport us, and sharing and talking about books can provide a sense of community in a fragmented time. And fiction in particular reminds us that this is just a particular moment in time.