The best independent bookshop in London!

Last year I posted to celebrate what would have been my mother’s ninetieth birthday and this week it’s my late father’s turn. Ian Norrie was what used to be called a “bookman”. He wrote novels, book trade history, and guidebooks, edited, ran a small publishing imprint, wrote for the trade press such as The Bookseller, served on the committees of trade organisations like the National Book League or book prizes, lectured on bookselling and publishing, helped set up an archive of book trade oral history, and worked tirelessly through lunchtimes, evenings and weekends to maintain the bon viveur traditions of publisher wining and dining.

High Hill party 1958
My mother Mavis and my father Ian at a High Hill bookshop party for author E. Arnot Robertson in 1958

The jewel in the crown was the High Hill Bookshop. In 1956 after jobs including journalism and in Foyles, he went to work in a run down shop in Hampstead High Street. From a literally collapsing building they sold new and second hand books, artists’ materials, and greetings cards, adding records and an art gallery after the company went into receivership and my father and friends formed a partnership to buy and rename it. I think the business cost them £10,000 plus £1,300 annual rent. It became the best independent bookshop in North London. By 1988 when it closed, High Hill sold only books, from three shops knocked into one. Hardbacks, art, travel, history and the university departments were on the left, children’s, sport and religion in the middle, and paperbacks on the right.

 

Working in a bookshop was every student’s dream, but it was harder than it seemed. I did it in university holidays. You have little time to read, and books are heavy, dusty and not always inspiring. The ones that sold best in Hampstead tended to be high quality and well produced, but we also made a good profit from what Ian called “Irene’s crap table” – Irene Anderson ran the paperback dept and had an eye for books you could pile high and sell cheap. The customer is not always right, and in Hampstead could be arrogant too. Some were just vague. In pre computer days, identifying what someone wants when all they know is “it’s about history and it’s green” took knowledge and imagination (although “there’s a poem about daffodils” didn’t.) Ian despised calculators, so his staff had to add everything in their heads, not easy when a famous politician or psychiatrist is glaring at you as you do it. He didn’t like plastic bags either so we wrapped everything in orange and white striped paper. People would spend a small fortune on books and then proudly tell us they reused our paper as gift wrap.

High Hill memoir
Ian’s book about the shop, featuring our wrapping paper and cartoon by Nicholas Bentley commissioned for the 1958 Christmas catalogue

There were many famous local customers, not then called celebs. Peter Cook was in most weeks, as were Michaels Foot and Palin, RD Laing, Margaret Drabble and Melvyn Bragg. Then there were the nobility, peeved if you asked for ID when they wanted to pay by cheque without a card (anyone else remember cheque cards?) “You see, there are so many of you about,” sighed Perry who worked in hardbacks, when a haughty grande dame objected: “But it’s a Coutts’ cheque! And I’m a Lady!” Meanwhile you could spot the less well known local authors a mile off; they came in on a daily basis and moved their books into more prominent positions.

My father enjoyed writing adverts and did his own inexpensive window displays, which gained a reputation. One was for a new coffee table book about roses, by Harry Wheatcroft (think Monty Don equivalent). For this he plundered my mother’s garden, so the beautiful tomes were surrounded as she pointed out by blooms complete with greenfly and leaf spot. One year he simply wrote in his terrible handwriting: “Give SKOOB this Christmas!” on a big poster and the staff were plagued by customers asking what on earth it meant. (Not all Hampstead residents are as clever as they think they are.) During the 1966 general election they did a big display for Whitaker’s almanack . That was the year Hampstead elected its first Labour MP, Ben Whitaker.

High Hill door notice
Ian’s view was that customers, as well as staff, needed training.

Of course not all customers were rich and/or famous. High Hill had the account for Camden libraries and a number of schools, and Ian always maintained it was well worth opening just after Christmas because of the trade done through small denomination book tokens. When his shop began trading as High Hill, there were hardly any other bookshops in North London, but they began to open in Kentish Town, Muswell Hill, Highgate and elsewhere. High Hill was the grandee, with Ian to his delight being called a “bookseller tycoon” in a TV documentary about Hampstead. One reason was the excellent staff who stayed because although they worked long hours, they received good pay, holidays and pensions, were given autonomy and respect, supported through illness and allowed to play to their strengths. Sheila Judd and Ros Wesson could find a book to answer any child, au pair or parent query, whether for a “hyperactive teenager who’s…er… going through a phase” or “the most intelligent two year old you ever saw” (a claim made for most Hampstead children). A significant child of the shop’s own was the High Hill Press, which published around thirty titles about Hampstead, London and literature.

 

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Eventually there was a threefold blow: the leasehold costs soared, the policy of ratecapping reduced Camden’s purchasing power so losing the biggest customer and Waterstone’s opened up the road to offer serious competition at last. The property was worth more than the business. High Hill was on its final chapter, but all the staff were head hunted for jobs in bookselling or publishing. Characteristically Ian saw it as an opportunity, and in “retirement” continued for another quarter century to write and travel, frequent the publishers’ table at the Garrick Club and play the part of Hampstead, London, European bookman.

High Hill Michael Foot 1988
High Hill signing party 1988: Bridget Clements, Michael Foot and Ian Norrie.

I’ve concentrated here on Ian’s bookselling achievements but, as I said at his memorial celebration at Burgh House in 2009, he was also a loving son, husband, father and brother, reader, writer, sandcastle builder, traveller, entertainer, host, quizmaster, ham actor, cricket umpire, tennis player with a sense of umbrage to out McEnroe McEnroe (when his son in law beat him 6-0, 6-0 he complained Andy hadn’t played properly), wine drinker and to many people a very good friend. How he would have enjoyed blogging and the chance to show his many photographs as well as his words, even if, trained on typewriters, his heavy fingers did break more keyboards than Ludwig van Beethoven.

Ian is still sadly missed, and Mavis too – we’re toasting you both in Chablis tonight as we browse the Booker prize list and make our own travel and writing plans.

Next time 2

©Jessica Norrie 2017 and estate of Ian Norrie

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52 thoughts on “The best independent bookshop in London!

  1. Thank you so much for posting this – the kids’ book department at the High Hill Bookshop was my ‘happy place’ for many years. I was the kind of child that always had a book in his hand, and was forever hungry for more, so nothing was better to me than being there.

    Sheila, in particular, was a wonderful friend – a guide to what to read, and later on a guide to life in general. What a great person she was, with her wry sense of humour and her absolute love of her job. Over the years she took me from Enid Blyton to Beverly Cleary to my first adult novels. I certainly monopolised her time, much to your dad’s chagrin! She even arranged for me to have work experience at Chatto & Windus when Ros moved there. What a star! Sadly I lost touch with her – does anyone have any idea where she is now?

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    1. I’m truly touched by the comments this blog post has given rise to and yours is one of the best – thank you! I can’t check for a couple of weeks but will see whether my contact details for Ros and Sheila still work, when I’m able to, and let you know somehow – twitter perhaps? Until then please do share this with anyone you think may be interested. Thank you!

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  2. It’s a sunny Sunday morning here in Toronto and you have filled me with nostalgia for my time growing up in London. I can smell the dust although the dust and the bookstores have disappeared. Your posting had me read his obit in the Guardian.
    I lived in Kensington but used to visit Hampstead on a regular basis. Also, old school friend of mine, Joseph Connolly opened the Flask bookshop

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    1. When Ian died, as you can imagine he left a lot of books! We took some, the ones to do with the book trade went to reading University, and others were taken by a second hand bookseller in Flask Walk who thought they would sell because he had stuck his personal bookplates inside them. It may have been your friend, I’m sorry I can’t remember the name exactly. But I do like finding these connections across the world, and I do appreciate your comments. Thank you (sunny in London today too!)

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  3. What a lovely post Jessica. A great reminder of the halcyon days of independent bookshops. How used to be:places you could literally get lost in.We have one such in Brecon and it gives me immeasurable pleasure to visit, explore and find unknown treasures- it is like being a child again. Pluse Hay on wye is not so far away. As an adult not a lot of things give you that sense of wonder but independent bookshops do.

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  4. I live across the pond and wasn’t aware of your parent’s accomplishments. But, thanks to Sally Cronin I have had the pleasure of reading your tribute to your dad this morning. It is a beautiful one with love embedded in every word. What wonderful memories for you to have. Thank you for sharing. ☺☺

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  5. Jessica, I am in the midst of writing my seventh novel and I am pushing things aside that I really ought to do because time is so precious and the publisher’s deadline is so near. But when an email arrived in my inbox about your latest post, I took the time to read it and was glad that I did. What a wonderful story and a great tribute to your parents. I also owned a publishing company (magazines, newspapers and publicity material) and worked as a journalist across the spectrum, but particularly in the performing arts where I had to deal with all manner of personalities. I identified with much of your story. Thanks for writing so eloquently about a subject I love. Now I can settle down to my second draft. 🙂

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    1. What a lovely comment to wake up to this morning. I’m truly flattered that you spent some time on my thoughts during this busy period and I hope you are now having a productive time with tidying up the seventh novel.

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  6. I love the story of the local authors who came in and moved their books to more prominent positions. Maybe I should try that in my local (independent) bookstore – Bookseller Crow on the Hill …!
    As regards cheques, I well remember writing a cheque in my (then) local supermarket and using my card to guarantee it. It was near the end of the month and I knew that by the time my cheque was presented, my salary would be in the bank!
    Thanks for this fascinating and amusing post. Kevin

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