Once the shop was open we were very busy most of the time. What a joy! There is nothing more dispiriting for the owner of a shop to spend hours on end when no-one comes in. I did not want to own a shop for that. It suddenly struck me why I ever thought of wanting to run a shop in the first place. My need to meet other people of my own turn of mind was more than satisfied in my Cambridge bookshop. I got to know academics, MPs, specialists like David Attenborough, businessmen, undergraduates and collectors looking for books they wanted. One of my qualms about taking the shop was the fear that I must lack the experience of the booksellers who had been established there for years. I came into the business from a different angle. Reading having been my best love all my life, I found that I knew very much more than the other booksellers whose principal advantage was to know the prices of books, but not necessarily their quality.
For instance, one of the reasons why I became so popular was because I had an academic knowledge of such subjects as English Literature, philosophy, and psychotherapy. People liked me and my shop because I, Bob and my son enjoyed books for their own sake and were only too happy not only to sell books but to spend time talking about them.
Many booksellers liked our shop too. I must have got to know most of them in Great Britain. Several times I was asked “How on earth did you manage to get a shop in such a splendid place as Trinity Street?” What they really meant was why did the powers that be lease the shop to such a newcomer.
“Easy” I said “I just asked.”
My friend Derek Gibbons was green with envy, in the nicest possible way. He came every Saturday to work with us. I couldn’t keep him away. He met lots of well-known visitors to Cambridge which tickled him no end. His customers loved him because of his cheeky ways and witty conversation. One of his best clients had a very apposite nickname for him: “The Trappist” because he never stopped talking. When the shop in Green Street was finally vacant, he dared to take a lease there on the ground floor. He was only a short way from us. We met every day and gossiped over a cup of coffee or occasionally, lunch. He had a small number of specialist items, especially illustrated and children’s books, and he did much better than the first shop he took which was a long way down Mill Road, well away from the colleges. Only people who knew him knew he was there.
One wet Saturday in autumn I looked out of the window and saw there was one of our prime ministers whom I most disliked, Edward Heath. There were two henchmen, dressed in black, on both sides of him. “Oh please don’t come into my shop” I said to myself. But they did. They made their way through the throng of customers and came straight to me, behind the counter. Several heads had turned and the usual lively talk quietened down a bit.
“What can I do for you Mr Heath?” A very inept statement on my part because he was the last person I wanted to do anything for.
“Can you tell me what I would have to pay for a Speed map of Kent?” I thought for a moment. “If you want a first edition it would probably cost you seven hundred pounds. “ He turned to one of his bodyguards and said “I’ve been robbed.”
“Ah Mr. Heath” I said “So all you want is a free valuation!” He turned bright red, as well he might and he couldn’t get out of my shop quickly enough. Guffaws burst out everywhere. There were cries of “Good on you Jean! Well said.” I was glad I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like him. One of my favourite dons was there. Before he left he came up to congratulate me. Then he said “An old aunt of mine has recently died. Would you like to come and have a look at her library? She had some lovely books.” I couldn’t wish for better. I made him a good offer and he didn’t ask anyone else.
A year or so later when books of the right, saleable kind were getting scarcer Bob sighed and said “Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could find as good a collection of books as those you got through insulting Mr. Heath.”