A Heffers History

A Heffers History

  • Gaelan Komen (Girton) by the Fen Causeway
    Gaelan Komen (Girton) by the Fen Causeway

Photography by Lydia Goldblatt.

As Heffers bookshop celebrates its 140th anniversary, CAM tells the story of its evolution from humble stationer to University institution.

There is a select club of businesses that are so much part of the Cambridge experience, they seem almost to be honorary departments of the University. Depending on vintage, some alumni would include Fitzbillies, Andy’s Records or The Gardenia in their list; others might cite any number of public houses. But few have enjoyed the longevity of Heffers bookstore, which this year celebrates its 140th anniversary.

A symbol of Cambridge

“The classics department of Heffers has been a friend of mine since 1973,” says Mary Beard (Newnham 1973), a Fellow of the College and Professor of Classics. “I’ve got the most wonderful memories of great help from them, particularly when I was a young lecturer with two very small kids. Sometimes at weekends I’d be stuck at home with the children. My husband would be away and I’d be just desperate for a book.

“A very nice man – who’s just died – called Mr Catchpole was head of the classics department. He was a wonderful, slightly faux-grumpy man with a heart of absolute gold. My house was on his way home, so I’d ring up Heffers, Mr Catchpole would find the book and put it on my account, and he’d drop it off on his way home. I’ll always be grateful to him.”

While an undergraduate, Darien Graham-Smith (Trinity 1994), lived so close to the bookstore on Trinity Street that he says he treated it as a front room. However, his relationship with Heffers began even before matriculation. “I’d come up on a school trip to look at Colleges, and for some reason Heffers was the first place I set foot in.

“It was during term and it had a very bustling atmosphere; it was full of very serious and important-looking people, and it didn’t seem like a shop where you’d find people looking for chick-lit to read on the beach. I think it coloured my experience of Cambridge and encouraged me to feel excited about applying. For me, it became a symbol or icon of what Cambridge was all about.”

Having grown up in Cambridge, author Catherine Banner (Fitzwilliam 2008) was also a Heffers customer before she began at the University. She recalls leafing through picture books in the children’s department, then making trips to buy the latest Harry Potter. She would later trawl through the second-hand section for English Tripos requirements, and, some years later, would see her own fiction on the shelves.

“It’s a special place for me,” she says. “A lot of bookshops have come and gone in Cambridge in my lifetime, but Heffers has always been there. When I go inside, I immediately feel like a reader, not a writer. I’ve discovered so many of my favourite writers from going to that shop, finding books I didn’t expect to read hidden away on a shelf somewhere. So to see my own books there meant so much to me.”

Heffers became a symbol or icon of what Cambridge was all about

Darien Graham-Smith (Trinity 1994)

The roots of Heffers

Although famous for printed books, W Heffer & Sons began life as a stationery business. Dr Julie Bounford, associate tutor at UEA, has written a history of the firm, This Book is about Heffers: The Bookshop That Is Known All Over the World. She says: “The firm started in 1876, and that was 20 years before the first bookshop opened in Petty Cury. One of the breakthroughs for William Heffer was selling stationery and filing boxes to University clients. He used to walk through the Colleges with bundles and became known as a character. When he died in 1928, the then Vice-Chancellor attended his funeral.”

The company, based at 104 Fitzroy Street, soon branched into printed matter. Bibles, hymnals and academic volumes proved to be big sellers, leading William Heffer – who came from a Suffolk family of farm labourers – to open a shop devoted to books in 1896. Its address at 3-4 Petty Cury, heavily featured on advertisements and bookmarks, became familiar to generations of new undergraduates ticking off their reading lists on arrival at Cambridge.

  • Jess Grimmel (Newnham) in the Botanic Gardens
    Jess Grimmel (Newnham) in the Botanic Gardens

A family business

The business was very much a family concern (and remained so until 1999, when it was sold to Blackwell’s – the academic bookseller and publisher that many considered to be Heffers’ Oxford twin.) Several of William’s children became involved in the firm, with his sixth son, Ernest William, eventually taking the reins. His son Reuben and grandson Nicholas would also go on to serve as chairmen.

Other premises were added around Cambridge over the 20th century, including a larger stationery store on Sidney Street, a shop devoted to Penguin paperbacks on Trumpington Street and a children’s bookstore on Trinity Street. All have since closed. What remains is the purpose-built flagship store on Trinity Street, hailed as one of the best examples of modern shopfitting on its opening in 1970.

This store was one of the three most frequented by Waterstones managing director James Daunt (Pembroke 1982), along with Blackwell’s and the original Dillon’s in Gower Street, London (now itself a Waterstones). Just a few years after leaving Cambridge, he set up Daunt Books, now a chain of nine stores and a publishing imprint. “Heffers and the other two were great stockholding bookshops,” he says, “and I think it will be desperately sad if there are not good, academically focused bookshops in university towns.

“Of course, the Heffers that I remember was different from that of today. It was effectively the only major bookshop in Cambridge in the wonderful days when you went to university with a nice solid grant, which allowed you to spend taxpayers’ money on beer and books.”

  • Antoni Woss (St John’s) under the arches of New Court Cloisters, St John’s
    Antoni Woss (St John’s) under the arches of New Court Cloisters, St John’s

Heffers' relationship with the University

Trade with the University was vital from very early in the firm’s history. From around 1900, every freshman received the latest catalogue of academic books. Later on, Heffers began to print and distribute the branded diaries that many undergraduates will remember.

Turning each new intake into loyal customers became a well-planned operation. Bounford says: “Students were very important. The start of the academic year was absolutely crucial. Space in the front shop and the windows was cleared, academic books took precedence and publishers’ reps were not allowed to call for the first couple of weeks of term.”

Student loyalty was also fostered through offering credit. Mary Beard says: “When I came up, one of the things my mum said was, ‘You must have a Heffers account’. I think these are thin on the ground nowadays, when you can pay by credit card; but back then, you had an account, bought all your books there and got to know the people in your specialist department.”

Fiscal responsibility was encouraged. “At the end of every term, Heffers would send a list to College tutors of every student who owed more than £20,” says Bounford. “It was a requirement of the University that they settled their bills, but Heffers made sure!”

Credit is no longer offered to students, and this is not the only aspect of Heffers’ relationship with the University to have altered. For just short of 60 years, the company produced The Cambridge Review – A Journal of University Life and Thought – before it ceased publication in 1998.

Another lucrative sideline for Heffers died out many years earlier, as Bounford explains. “In the 1930s, almost every undergraduate coming up would have a visiting card, which Heffers produced. By the 1950s, this aspect of the trade had totally disappeared.”

Heffers continued to move with the times, opening a small café around the turn of the millennium. Paul Hyland (Trinity 2009) recalls this refuge on the ground floor – now replaced by the children’s department – with fondness. “One of the things I always tried to do as an undergraduate was to find time to read for pleasure,” he says. “I’d get lost among the bookcases and pick something up that I liked the look of, then go to the coffee shop and enjoy it.

“When Heffers had that social space, it became something of an escape from academic work. It had a really lovely ambience, and it’s a shame that it’s now gone. It was somewhere I could seclude myself from the stress of my own work, and the stress of everyone else’s, too.”

One of the things I always tried to do as an undergraduate was to find time to read for pleasure

Paul Hyland (Trinity 2009)

Festivals, readings and speaker events

For all the shop’s relocations, renovations and reinventions, its continued presence at the heart of Cambridge is a comfort to alumni who revisit the city. “The fact that it’s still there provides a note of continuity,” says Darien Graham-Smith. “It’s silly to worry about that, perhaps, when you were at a College that was established in 1546, made out of another one that was founded in 1317. But it’s part of my Cambridge. It’s good to know it’s there and I hope it will remain for a long time to come.”

Today, the greatest challenge to bricks-and- mortar bookshops is from online retailers such as Amazon – a leviathan that accounts for around a third of book sales in the UK. This has prompted local booksellers to become far more imaginative in how they use their premises, turning them into spaces where readers can engage more fully with literature and those who write it. The traditional queue for a signed copy has been replaced by a roster of festivals, readings and speaker events. James Daunt thinks this makes sense. “I’ve always done it in my own bookshops. A bookshop is part of its community, and it should be part of the intellectual life of that community.”

Professor Beard believes that Heffers has been particularly successful. “When I first came up in ’73, that sort of thing wasn’t on the horizon,” she says. “But now, Heffers is very much part of our outreach community. It puts on great classics festivals, and of course these sell our books. Certainly, speaking for my part of the University, we’re a great team. Heffers has done huge amounts to publicise its classics stock.”

But it is sales that matter, as they did when William Heffer opened his Petty Cury store in 1896. And on this, Professor Beard offers a warning. “We all use Amazon, but a bookshop like Heffers is something quite different. It’s a wonderful thing to have, but if we don’t use it, we will lose it – and then we will be very, very sad.”

Use your CAMCard to claim 15 per cent off at Heffers.

Article by William Ham Bevan.

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 79. Find out how to receive CAM.