“American readers have saved my business!” says Nicky Dunne, 50, the chairman of Heywood Hill, the charmingly discreet bookshop that has been quietly thriving in London’s Mayfair for more than 80 years. Beyond an elegant storefront owned by Peregrine Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire and the father-in-law to its canny chairman, is a sprawling subscription service delivering a curated selection of meticulously wrapped books to thousands of readers in more than 50 countries each month.
After in-depth consultations with customers regarding their taste and interests, a small team of booksellers personally chooses titles to be shipped around the world to them. “We take people’s curiosities seriously,” says Dunne. And with a team whose members each read on average 100 books a year, and a back catalogue that includes both new and antiquarian volumes, “they have access to this huge body of books at their fingertips.”
Prior to lockdown, this service accounted for about 15 percent of the company’s overall sales; now it’s more like 65 percent, an increase that is largely attributable to readers in the U.S. “It’s for those people who want to feel a connection to European, and in particular British, literary culture,” says Dunne. While most readers tend toward classics or popular contemporary reads, “I do get some requests that are unusual,” says Heywood’s Eleanor Franzén, 28, whose own annual book consumption numbers close to 200. “One customer asked if there was anything on the nudism movement of the 20s and 30s.”
“We take people’s curiosities seriously,” says Nicky Dunne.
No two customers receive the same assortment, something which proved a logistical nightmare when publishing houses shut down earlier this year due to the coronavirus, forcing Dunne to work directly with his wholesalers. And yet they have never missed a month. “We have been defiantly operational,” he says.
Acutely aware of the challenges this year has brought and seeking to offer “a bit of good news in the world,” Dunne has just announced Heywood Hill’s “Uniquely Altruistic Literary Prize.” Nomination for the award is free, and the winner, drawn at random, gets a handpicked hardback delivered every month, for life. “Everybody has been struggling,” says Dunne. “And everybody knows somebody who could do with something good happening to them.”
To enter, visit heywoodhill.com. The contest ends at midnight on Sunday, November 8, 2020
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL