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June 2017 Meeting Report

Heffers: The bookshop that is known all over the world, by Dr Julie Bounford

Julie Bounford's talk, based on her extensively researched book on the history of this much loved bookshop, brought back many happy memories to her audience. For its first 120 years it was run by three generations of the Heffer family, until it was taken over by its Oxford equivalent, Blackwell’s, in 1999. Even then they sensibly did not change the name.

The company was started by William Heffer in 1876. He was born in 1843, the son of an illiterate farm worker from Exning, just over the border in Suffolk. In spite of being a member of the Temperance Society in 1868, he became landlord of "The Sir John Barleycorn" and later also "The Forester", before he became a shop-keeper.

He probably had some financial backing to open his first shop in Fitzroy Street selling stationery, but soon branched out to add tobacco and fancy goods. He was a real grafter and worked in the evenings as a college waiter and bulldog, besides having an allotment. The business branched out to include a sub-post office, and to sell educational material for schools, Sunday School prizes, and university text books at discounted prices.

The shop moved to the more central Petty Cury in 1886 where it continued until 1970 and in the memories of many former employees. The invoice department was in the attic, and the packing department in the cellars. Unpaid apprenticeships were available for 14 year old school leavers. These would lead to paid employment and gradual movement up the ladder to increasingly important positions in the company.

The move to the current Trinity Street shop occurred in 1970, giving twice the space of the Petty Cury shop. Stock removal to the new site took six days of working 24 hours to complete. However the move, and re-branding, was well worthwhile as cash sales doubled. Cambridge students all received a free University diary until 1971, after which they were charged for it. Students were given accounts which had to be settled by the end of each term. If an outstanding account of more than £20 was not paid, Heffers would inform the student's college.

Turning each new annual intake of students into loyal customers was a major operation. Space in the windows and front of shop was cleared to make space for academic books, and no publishers representatives were allowed to call during the first two weeks of term.

At one time there were ten branches catering to different interests. Perhaps the best remembered was the Penguin Bookshop which operated between 1957 and 1985. There was a small cafe introduced around 2000, fondly remembered, but now given way to the children's department. Heffers were publishers and printers between 1889-1975 with print works in Hills Road. They were also purchasers of personal libraries to sell as second-hand books. Ernest Rutherford's books were found to be radioactive. What happened to them was not disclosed! The book trade attracts eccentrics both amongst the customers and the staff, but woe betide any improperly dressed members of staff - they would be sent home to change.

Members of the audience chipped in with many of their own memories, and it was clear that Heffers is still highly regarded by the community it serves.

Jim Butchart

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