A Life for Rare Books - W.R. “Bill” Fletcher 1906-1996
"As I stood admiring the book and ruminating on its worth, that wise and shrewd bookseller, Bill Fletcher, doyen of the British trade, and a man some thirty years my senior in both age and experience, came up to me.
'What are you looking at, my son?' he inquired. I told him.
'What's so special about that then? he asked. I explained.
'Then why don't you buy it?' Bill said ... I replied to the effect that were I to buy it with a view to selling it again, I would in effect be trading gold for gold.
'Shall I tell you something, my son?' Bill responded. 'The price of gold [pause] is going up!'"
(Anthony Rota, Books in the Blood)
By Keith Fletcher
My father was born, the third of five children, on December 6th 1906 in the back parlour of the family bookshop in Ramsgate. During his childhood and undistinguished school career the family moved first to Rochester with a shop at 360, High Street, and then to 6, Porchester Terrace, Bayswater. His life long interest in carpentry began as a small boy and he ‘escaped’ from school at the first possible opportunity (his 16th birthday) to help his father re-fit first the Bayswater shop and the next year a second shop at 23, New Oxford Street. It was at this time that his father counselled him to think twice before entering the book trade “as the supply of good books will not last much longer”. He told this story many times, both to emphasise his luck in having had so many fine books and in later years to encourage those of us who complained that good books were hard to find.
Through Commander Boyd, a wealthy English collector, the firm supplied many of the English children’s books for Gumuchian’s monumental catalogue “Les Livres de l’Enfance”, and in 1930 he arranged for my father to spend six months in Paris working for Gumuchian. There, despite his previous failure as a student of French (he was fond of quoting his school master as complaining “Fletcher, vous parlez Francais comme une vache espagnole”) he developed a good ear for the spoken language - an accomplishment which was to be of continued significance throughout his life. There too he began to understand the French taste and their attitude to fine binding and put this knowledge to good use countless times in plucking a French plum from an Anglo-Saxon shelf; or even as a yardstick of quality for the fine English bindings that he was never able to resist. Apart from the small collection of bindings which he kept at home, his greatest satisfaction came from helping the late Kenneth Oldaker to form the collection of English bindings which he gave to Westminster Abbey and which were catalogued by Howard Nixon.
The 1930’s were hard times. John Sinjohn’s Villa Rubein dropped from £100 to the price of a Sunday joint almost over night; the firm of R. Fletcher Ltd. staggered from 23 New Oxford St. to 9 Bloomsbury St. and in 1934 collapsed. It was succeeded by a partnership of my grandfather, Robert, uncle Alick, and my father which opened in Cecil Rd, Enfield trading under the name H.M. Fletcher. The survival of this rickety infant was due, almost entirely, to one contract; from Associated Dry Goods Inc, the London buying office for a group of American department stores. The order was for as many octavo leather bindings as could be supplied at 1/9d per volume. My father would set out Monday morning, scouring the country for bindings at up to 1/- per volume; arrive home on Wednesday with his old jalopy filled to the roof and on its knees; spend Thursday washing and polishing every volume; and early Friday morning deliver so many hundred volumes to the office in Baker Street where he would collect a cheque. He always claimed that it was the fumes from that jalopy which made him lose his hair so young, but that he didn’t care because by 1936 it had already made him enough money to marry my mother.
When, on 21 May 1943 (my fourth birthday), he volunteered for RAF air crew he was already 37 years old. After training he joined 514 Squadron and flew 35 missions (a total of 184 flying hours, as his log book records) over Germany as a flight engineer on a Lancaster bomber, the pilot of which was young enough to be his son! As he was the only member of his crew with a wife and family the others usually chipped in their sweet ration and I remember Dundee cake tins full of RAF-issue barley sugars when most kids had never seen sweets. The completion of his ‘tour of ops’ a few days after the deadline denied him the right to the only medal of his entitlement that he considered worth having, “Air Crew Europe”, and he sent the rest of the “tin gongs” back to the Air Ministry in disgust. Whether it was he thinness of his RAF pay packet or the irresistible urge to buy books he never explained, but he continued throughout his time in the RAF to attend country sales and visit local booksellers; sometimes ‘running’ his spoils to another dealer and arriving back in camp with a mysteriously fat wallet; other times packing huge parcels of ‘old books’ on the mess table for shipment back to my grandfather in Enfield - much to the bewilderment of his C.O. and the amused admiration of his crew.
As soon as he was demobbed he set about re-organising H.M. Fletcher; buying out his brother, Alick, who set up shop in Guildford, and continuing with his father as the junior partner. He applied for a shop in Cecil Court, and with his usual luck managed to get No. 27, which they had already occupied for a few years before the war (until unable to pay the rent!). The early post war years were a time of tremendous expansion in the book trade. Romeike & Curtice published a weekly list several pages long of forthcoming country house sales and my father and his great friend and auction-going companion, Harold Storey, travelled many thousands of miles a year, covering several auctions a week, and on one memorably hectic occasion three in one day! In the days when dealers at country auctions were designated either “London” or “Country”, there were many small, ill-advertised sales in secluded places where the only representatives of the London trade were Messrs. Fletcher and Storey. Their uncanny knack of reading between the lines of some scruffy duplicated catalogue and chasing wild geese that ended up laying golden eggs was legendary; and it continued to be so even after Harold’s death in 1955 when his place was taken by his son, Norman. (Although by that time the transport was likely to be a smart new Ford rather than an old grey Bentley).
He had known the raffish young proprietors of The Green Room Bookshop, Peter Murray Hill and Peter Du Calion in Cecil Court before the war and it was the former who encouraged him in the early fifties to stand for the ABA committee. Perhaps it was his diffidence about his abilities as a ‘committee man’, but certainly his love of carpentry, that made him volunteer to supply the shelving for the newly-proposed Antiquarian Book Fair at the National Book League in Albemarle St. The Stallybass Gallery was not a straightforward room. It was full of alcoves, piers and huge old radiators, and every bookcase had to be custom made to fit round each irregularity.
He prefabricated everything in his garage at home and then spent a week at the NBL erecting it all. This was the pattern for the next ten years and he was aided every year by myself (just left school - who says history does not repeat itself?) and a group of ‘bibliopolic handymen’ - most regular among them being Tom Crowe, Frank Westwood and Eric Morten. They always took a week to erect and three days to dismantle, and there were always blisters in the palm of the hand from the screwdrivers at the end of it - but the fairs were a success and the rest is history.
Diffidence notwithstanding, through his down-to-earth, practical approach to problems and his continuing enthusiasm for all aspects of ABA activity (not least the annual Dinner and Dance! ) he became a valued member of the committee and in 1961 was elected President. This he considered a great honour, which he expressed in his inimitable style - “If only my mum could see me now!”
Involvement with the ABA committee inevitably led to the International League and their annual congresses.
The first that he and my mother attended was the Paris congress of 1950 where, much to his surprise, the French of his Gumuchian days 20 years before came flooding back, enabling him to make friends with many of the Parisian dealers. The first time “Momo” Tisserand came into the shop he gave Fernand De Nobele as a credit reference. A phone call to Fernand produced the reply “If he doesn’t pay, I will”. For the next twenty years Momo came on average once a month to London, using our shop as a base for his bustling activities and bringing with him a variety of other French dealers, among them Francois Girand, Jean-Paul Rouillon, and most notably Jean Polak. He and his wife, Odette, were to become among my parents closest friends and for many years they spent their summer holidays ‘chez Polak à la campagne’. My father was always a keen gardener and weeks away from his own garden produced what in today’s drug culture would, I believe, be called ‘cold turkey’. Immediately upon arriving at Villier-sous-Grez therefore he would inspect Jean’s garden, suggest a schedule of works ... and roll up his sleeves. I don’t think Jean ever really understood his need to garden and at regular intervals he would sit him down in the shade of the ‘tilleul’ and serve refreshing glasses of chilled Chablis. The arrangement worked perfectly - my father hugely enjoyed his holidays, and Jean had easily the best ‘pelouse anglaise’ in all of the Forest of Fontainbleau.
In 1955 the congress was in New York. Once again it proved a wonderful opportunity to meet booksellers and make friends. This was the heyday of the ocean liner and my parents crossed over on the S.S. France. They started many friendships in New York, but none so close and enduring as that with Howie and Phyl Mott, which continues, I am proud to say, in the second generation and to this day. It was also on this first visit that the ‘great American legend’ of my parents prowess on the dance floor was born. It continues to be whispered of to this day among oldtimers at booksellers social gatherings! Of course, New York wasn’t all dancing; my father also bought a few books - he couldn’t resist! And when he got them back to Cecil Court he announced, with a look of delighted amazement, “You know, if I went back and really worked I think I could make America pay handsomely”. He went back in 1956, and at least once a year for the next 25 years, and pay handsomely it certainly did; in books, in excitement, in profits, and above all in the friendships he made and the fun he had with such as David Magee, Barney Rosenthal, Warren Howell, Jake Zeitlin, Father Bill Monihan, Norman Strouse, Frances Hamill, George Goodspeed, Jack Bartfield, Nat Ladden, Dave Kirschenbaum, Harold Graves, Mike Papantonio, Harvey Brewer, and of course our dear friend for more than fifty years, Kate Gregory.
In the many wonderful letters paying tribute to him that I have received one of the re-occuring themes is how much help and encouragement he gave to the writers as young booksellers - whether it was attending their first auction sale, buying books in Cecil Court, or taking the plunge and going into business on their own. I too had that help and encouragement, and in lavish amounts, but being kin I demanded more; I wanted to learn his secrets, why he had bought that book, why didn’t he buy this one, what made him ask that price, and how did he know that the portrait was missing. And I remember my childish frustration when he couldn’t explain, he didn’t really know, and with a slightly bewildered air he would dismiss it as just luck. He was fond of saying that he was lucky to have a ‘good nose for a book’, or that he had a little angel sitting on his shoulder who told him what to do, and anyway bookselling was all a big game and not to be taken too seriously. The truth is that, born and bred in an environment where most decisions had to be made without the benefit of any kind of reference book, but where one saw more books in a week than today’s bookseller will see in a year, he was an intuitive bookseller par excellence and his unaffected amazement at his continued success was completely genuine. He was a great character, a great bookseller, and a great husband and father, who would be the first to agree that he had a great deal more than his fair share of fun from his seventy years of bookselling. He was many different things to different people but I am certain that all who knew him will agree with me, he was utterly reliable - if he said it was deal, it was - if he said he would do it, he did it - if he said he would be there, he was. I know he would be happy to be remembered for that.
The obituary has been published on the website of H.M. Fletcher. It is presented here by permission of Keith Fletcher.
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Published since 24 Mar 2011