May 16, 2014
An interview with John Sandoe Books
by Zeljka Marosevic
John Sandoe Books in London’s Chelsea is an institution: a wonderful, old-fashioned bookshop that has the joys of curiosity and discovery at its heart, as every bookshop should. It describes itself as one of the world’s most celebrated independent bookshops, and it’s not wrong. The shop issues a catalogue of new titles four times a year, and is known for finding any book for any customer, no matter where the book—or the customer—is in the world.
Running for nearly six decades, John Sandoe Books occupies a row of beautiful eighteenth century buildings, and to celebrate its recent expansion I spoke to bookseller Johnny de Falbe about the shop.
The bookshop is a bit of an institution. Tell us about your shop and the kind of books you sell.
We’re a general bookshop with a high density of stock for our size, which means that we have always been known for cramming piles of books on every surface and available inch of floor. Now that we have expanded, we actually have all the books on shelves but we assume that piles will reappear as the months pass.
We are lucky enough to have had remarkable continuity with intelligent, reading staff, so that we are able to talk to customers about their books and advise them as they require. John Sandoe once said that he saw his role as something similar to that of a GP. He meant that a successful relationship between bookseller and book buyer involved a kind of intimacy, confidence and continuity.
Tell us about the shop’s history and its recent renovation.
When John Sandoe opened the shop in 1957, he was in just the ground floor and basement of no 10 Blacklands Terrace. As adjacent leases came to an end, he expanded into the first floor of no 10, and then into no 11. No 12 Blacklands Terrace is a twin to no 11, the third in a row of 3 eighteenth century shops. It was therefore the obvious—and indeed the only—place for us to expand. But it wasn’t until 2012 that the aged vet retired. Then we managed to roll the lease into our existing one and get the necessary permissions to renovate the 3 buildings as one.
It is the first time their structure has been properly addressed for well over 50 years, and now we’re proud to say that we have refurbished throughout without losing any of the character of the original shop.
You stock around 25,000 books, how do you keep track of them?
It’s more like 27,000 now. In the last few years we have kept track of them using Bertline, the Bertrams stock control system, together with the traditional method of knowing our stock and noticing what’s happening with it.
Does the bookshop have any favourite books, or books that feel like part of its history?
We have an old Harvill spinner on which we keep some of our favourites, which include novels by William Maxwell, Shirley Hazzard, WG Sebald. [Patrick] Leigh Fermor has always sold well, and we used to say that James Lees-Milne paid our wages. The biggest selling book we have ever had was Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes. We also sell quite a lot of illustrated books. Among the best-selling of these are the beautiful books produced by Ahmet Ertug in Istanbul.
Which is the weirdest book you’ve sold?
This is a very broad field. Last week someone had Research Methodologies in Translation Studies, Organs Of J S Bach and Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake. These might strike some people as weird, but we just had someone asking for a leatherbound copy of James Herbert’s Dune, which seems pretty weird to me.
On your website you state that the bookshop will do everything it can to track down a book for a customer. To what lengths have you gone to do this?
It’s pretty easy to trace things nowadays with the internet, but I remember having fun getting an archaeological treatise from Tbilisi in the mid-nineties. Lately we have got stock from Moscow of a new catalogue of the Byzantine antiquities in the Kremlin, which required a bit of persistence.
How has your business changed in the past ten years?
Obviously our recent expansion has been a big change for us, but in the last few years the internet has changed things: not so much the nature of the business as the way in which we do it. We are increasingly aware that we are perceived as a rarity—a stockholding high street bookshop—but that actually reflects the fact that we continue doing what we have always done, while others have altered or gone out of business.
No doubt we loose trade to Amazon but there is a gathering awareness that bookshops will disappear altogether if not supported, and we have noticed increased footfall with new customers because of that.
How do you interact with your local community, and what ties do you have with other local places and people?
For us, interaction with the local community really means continuing to thrive so that we can welcome anyone in. Our customers are international as well as local—which also reflects the changes in the local community, such as it is.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked in your bookshop?
Again, a broad field, but I’ll refer you to my Facebook post on Feb 17th. It reads:
I took a call last week from a Mr X’s Personal Assistant. “I’ve got Mr X on the other line,” she said, “he’s calling me from the airport where he’s in the bookshop wondering what books you would advise him to buy.” Did she mean that he wanted to buy them from Sandoe’s? No. He just wanted some suggestions so that he could go and buy them in the airport shop; and could I hurry, please, because the plane was about to leave. I could have suggested “Manners For Uncouth Tycoons” but I don’t think the book has been written yet, and anyway I suspect the hide in question is too thick for it to be anything besides a waste of breath…
[The shop’s Facebook page is full of the goings on of the bookshop and its unusual customers, and definitely worth following for similar stories]
Who are your local authors and celebrity fans?
Simon Russell Beale is in the shop at the moment, Tom Stoppard was in a couple of days ago; Elton John, Salley Vickers, Edna O’Brien, William Boyd…
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.