THE BEST BOOKSHOP IN LONDON. Johnny de Falbe runs John Sandoe Books, the independent bookseller close to London’s Sloane Square where he has worked for over thirty years. John Sandoe Books is one of London’s foremost and best-loved independent bookshops, and is a legend among bibliophiles around the world.
Are you one of the very few independent booksellers left in London?
It is true, there are very few booksellers that hand sell books in the traditional way. In the past bookshops made their own selections, and people went to bookshops according to that bookseller’s selection. If they liked it they tended to favour that seller. Changes in the last 30-40 years mean such selections have been surrendered. Instead of leading, today bookshops follow the selection of the press and literary prizes, which are wonderful but have changed the way the book trade works. With that surrender their staff can be people who don’t necessarily read.
What about John Sandoe Books?
We are a traditional general bookshop, but with a very wide stockholding of about 30,000 books, of which about 29,500 are single copies. Of course we have to have books that win prizes, but we make four lists a year that we put online and give out, and that takes a lot of work. Those assiduous selections are the flag on our mast. They are particular to us, according to who we like.
Who is we?
My wife Arabella von Friesen works here too and is very much involved with the selections. Primarily the two of us do it, but all the staff are involved; we have no external readers.
“People prefer to read paper books.”
The John Sandoe bookstore at Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea, London, is just round the corner from Sloane Square.
How do you make your selections?
A combination of factors: the subject, the author, the publisher. Some books immediately select themselves. Sometimes a new novel by an author who has previously had a big success says nothing new or interesting. I would rather sell something to our customers that I think is good. Sometimes a book that on the face of it is likely to be quite dull, like The Scottish Clearances by T. M. Devine, is absolutely fascinating and we will try to sell it. The author Shirley Hazzard is wonderful, so we try to sell her work, but you wouldn’t find her much in other bookshops.
Who are your customers?
Our customers were old fashioned English gentlemen families, and we also had a slightly Bohemian element in Chelsea. Now the older account customers are less, but they are still there. We have had an interesting time finding new customers, precisely because there are very few bricks and mortar book shops around. The younger clients didn’t grow up with bookshops. They are often people who read in English but are not resident in Britain.
How do they find out about you?
Online, in newspapers, on Instagram – in short, by word of mouth. Our online business is rising and feels as if it has a very good future. I feel very optimistic at the moment. I wouldn’t have done five years ago.
How many years ago did you become a bookseller?
I started here in 1986.
Do you still love it?
Yes, I do. I enjoy coming into work. I love the place. I enjoy meeting customers every day.
How did you become a partner?
John Sandoe started this shop in 1957 and retired in 1989. There were two of us working here full time, Sean Jackson and I, but we didn’t have any money to buy the shop, so a customer called Stewart Grimshaw lent us the money and came in as a third partner. In 2000 Dan Fenton came in as a partner and Sean left and went back to Ireland where he runs a bookshop. In 2015 Dan left, so now it’s me running it with Stewart, who works here but not regularly.
How many are you in total?
Five full time and three part time.
Do you suggest books?
Yes, all the time. A lot of people ask, and different members of staff have different relationships with different customers. It’s like going to the hairdresser – you choose the one you know.
“Londoners know us, and have done for years.”
What makes a good customer and how many books a year do good customers buy?
A very difficult question to answer. Some account customers buy a hardback every two weeks and their regularity makes them a very good customer, but then we have a customer who comes in and buys £1,000 of books and we may never see them again. I like the customers who come back again and again and again.
Do you sell more hardbacks or paperbacks?
We sell a very high proportion of hard covers and we do a lot of mail order. Most of the sales are in the shop, but a significant proportion is mail order. Fifteen years ago publishers behaved as if Amazon was a promised land, and ten years ago it was the same with e-books. The media, which is closely connected to the publishing industry, told this story about how nobody was going to read books anymore. They got it wrong. E-books are not as successful as people expected. People prefer to read paper books. We see more and more foreign young people who read, and publishers have learnt that Amazon is not their friend. The only defence the publishers have is the other bookshops, who they need to be strong. If Amazon has the monopoly then everyone is in trouble.
How do you compete with Amazon?
People will buy from us if the book isn’t available on Amazon, and if they would prefer to support our selections and bricks and mortar rather than Amazon’s algorithms and tax evasions.
“I like the customers who come back again and again and again.”
What are the most requested genres?
Fiction, history, biography; travel books, art books, architecture books, design books; gardening books, photography books, cooking books. Wine and poetry. We sell more natural history books these days. Children’s books are seasonal.
Are there some books that sell and sell?
Yes, of course there are Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations, but there are other books that we sell that others don’t, like Shirley Hazzard or Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, or Javier Marías, a Spanish author, a great, great author. Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi is different from Elena Ferrante. We sold a lot of copies and did a special edition of My Brilliant Friend but now the fashion has gone. We made a very special edition of Elena Ferrante because there was no hardback, so we approached the publisher, before My Brilliant Friend was a huge bestseller.
Do you have famous customers?
People like Tom Stoppard, Elton John, Dominique Bourgois, Mick Jagger, Edna O’Brien. Londoners know us, and have done for years. It is a neighbourhood thing, but nowadays there are fewer people who live in this part of London. Chelsea is not traditionally intellectual, but non-English people, French, Italian, Dutch, German, as well as young people from the Far East, buy books.
Do people still have libraries?
Yes, there are still people who have a lot of books.
Which books do you remember in your long career?
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend because of the special edition. We sold huge numbers of copies of John Banville’s The Book of Evidence. I think Robert Edric is brilliant but nobody buys him and now he is mostly out of print. He is a great writer, totally ignored by the media. In non-fiction I remember Sybille Bedford, and selling Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde. There is a big new biography of Wilde by Matthew Sturgis coming out in October and we are holding an event for him here. The Leopard we sell on and on, and The Name of the Rose, Love in a Time of Cholera, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Penelope Fitzgerald always sells lots of copies.
How much do you read?
Less than I used to. I am more occupied with managing the shop and it becomes a more complicated business so I have less time.
Is it a good business?
We are still here and pay ourselves a wage. We are not rich, but make enough to live on.
Will John Sandoe Books finish with you?
No. I look forward to conversations with my younger colleagues to see how we can make a transition. I love doing it, but I don’t intend doing it until I drop!
London. August, 2018
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