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  • Photography by Mr Benjamin McMahon
  • Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher, Features Editor, MR PORTER

The first existential threat to face Mayfair's Heywood Hill bookshop came in the form of the blitz of WWII, when the Nazi's bombs poured down onto London. It was a threat with which the founder, Mr George Heywood Hill, was well acquainted as he was away fighting in the war, having been called up in 1942. He employed the famous author Ms Nancy Mitford to run the shop in his absence, and she, in the words of the 43-year-old chairman Mr Nicky Dunne, "Put the place on the map. She had a magnetic personality, by which I mean she had the ability to attract as well as repel, but she attracted more than she repelled."

However, in the past decade the shop has faced a different, but equally grave threat: the digitisation of the buying, and reading, of books. This is the challenge that has faced Mr Dunne since he took charge of the shop in June 2011. Prior to that, the shop "was run without much of a sense that it needed to do very much," according to Mr Dunne. His words, and his enthusiasm, make it clear that he takes a very different view, and he's building a future for Heywood Hill on three different kinds of activity.

The Heywood Hill bookshop, 10 Curzon Street, London

"On the antiquarian side it's about finding the collectors among our customers and doing some work for them," he says. "We recently bought a first, English edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, with the Eric Gill cover. The second thing we do is to create private libraries. That could be for someone who wants to give their husband 50 books on fishing, or it could be a large-scale private library - we recently finished one in Switzerland on different aspects of modernism, rooted in interwar German expressionism. The third thing we do is subscription services, where we choose books for people, either for themselves or as gifts. Every month I sit down and think of four books to send to a customer in the Hamptons, and we take a lot of care over it."

It's hard to resist the temptation to describe this last service as the aristocratic Amazon, and in many ways Heywood Hill's personal, old-world service is the antithesis of the online retailer. Mr Dunne gives an extreme example: "The other day an American customer wanted to give a book to someone and the only opportunity we had to get it to him was in the arrivals hall at Gatwick Airport. So one of us went down there to hand it over - we will go to a very far degree to do whatever our customers want."

The private library focuses on 20th-century books in English on Arabia and Islam

Taking a step back, why - aside from the specialist activity of collecting - do people bother to buy books in the era of the Kindle and the iPad? "A man might be reading William Boyd on his Kindle, but he might still have a shelf of William Boyd first editions, to reflect and remind him of something that he loves. If you want a refuge from the screen, and the constant noise of the digital world, then a room full of books creates a very beautiful sanctuary."

heywoodhill.com

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