As John Aubrey, the seventeenth century polymath, bibliophile – and bookseller – observed, “to read a book is demanding, for one must stay awake; to write a book is more demanding, for one must stay awake and think; but to sell a book – ah, that is a work of pure genius!”
I’m starting this series of celebratory posts with a piece about Richard Reynolds, the undisputed doyen of crime booksellers. Why begin with a bookseller? Because without the services of the bookseller, the entire creative process that concludes with the finished book would be pointless. Bookselling is an art under-rated by everyone who has not practised it.
Richard began his working life in September 1976 as a ‘classical music consultant’ at Hardman Radio in Manchester. He loved reading and would trawl new and secondhand bookshops and market stalls in the city. In early 1980 he spotted a job advert in Jardine’s bookshop, applied for it and began his bookselling career a few months later. In 1981, he was appointed buyer for the sports section at the famous Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, progressing to travel and biography and then to the literature department, which boasted an impressive twenty-five standard book ‘drops’ (book cases).
Richard’s manager knew he was a crime fiction buff and encouraged him to use a small space under the ledge near to the stairs to develop a crime fiction section. As sales took off, crime was promoted to more prestigious areas in the shop.
Heffer’s is famous for its crime fiction events. Richard explains that these began in a small way in 1990 with Bodies in the Bookshop. Heffer’s put on “a wonderful display of crime fiction titles and ephemera on the platform halfway down the central staircase. Penguin Crime Classics sponsored a competition: the winner to supply the scream in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. I still have the poster! Heffer’s first crime fiction catalogue was produced at the same time. Five authors came to sign books on the last Saturday of the month: Colin Dexter, Lindsay Davis, Reginald Hill, Minette Walters and Michael Dibdin.”
Sixty authors took part in the last of these events, for which, for seventeen years, Richard compiled the catalogues. He still receives ‘heartening’ requests for copies from readers trying to fill gaps in their collections. As the numbers of authors increased, what had been a single annual event became three separate ones: What’s Your Poison, Murder under the Mistletoe and Murder Will Out, now organised by events manager Kate Fleet.
Since the COVID restrictions were lifted, events have resumed but been smaller: a launch party for After Agatha, by Sally Cline, Kate Rhodes in conversation with Sarah Vaughan about her book Reputation, and a launch party (with jazz quartet!) for Peter Morfoot’s Essence of Murder. On June 23rd, Financial Times reviewer Barry Forshaw and Kate Rhodes will discuss Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films and The Devil’s Table, the fifth of Kate’s Scilly Islands series.
Richard finds it very difficult to name an individual crime writer as his favourite. During lockdown, he re-read the whole Scilly Isles series, as well as books by Nicola Upson, Rennie Airth, Barry Maitland and Charles Todd. In 2019, as he approached his fortieth year as a bookseller, he compiled his personal list of 100 Favourite Crime Novels. If pushed to choose he says his favourite book would be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and his favourite author Agatha Christie.
Richard is still a bookseller, but he now combines this with editorial and publishing activities. This began when he suggested to Penguin Random House which authors they should reissue under the Vintage Crime imprint. He has acted in a similar capacity for Ostara Books, Oleander Press and Clerical Crime and assisted with the publication of six Gold Age titles under Oleander Press’s Oreon imprint. More reissues are planned in the coming months.
He says he is grateful to his wife, Sally, for tolerating a house full of books! His small attic study is stacked high with collections of Penguin Green Crime, Gollancz yellow jackets, Golden Age titles, Cambridgeshire crime fiction, translated crime fiction, historical whodunnits, much recent detective fiction, a substantial collection of crime reference books and… and… and..!
Musing on his career, he says, “I suppose specialising in crime fiction is like being paid to pursue a hobby. Badgering publishers to re-publish good authors is a privilege. I enjoy working out the best fit between the author and the publisher. I serve as chairman of the CWA Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year, for which there have been 260 submissions this year, making it hard to create the long list. The winner will be announced on 29th June.”
For aspiring booksellers, he offers the following message: “The late John Cheshire, a chatty, encouraging and supportive Heffer’s shop manager, told me not to spend my small salary on books but instead ask reps for proof/reading copies so that I could help publicise them. I have kept to that advice – and I’d like to thank all the reps and publishers who’ve kindly kept me supplied with reading material. And it’s important for booksellers to keep on reading ephemera about books: articles, reviews, blogs, information on publishers’ and authors’ websites.”
Asked what his advice to someone just starting out on a crime fiction writing career would be, he says that as writing is a solitary occupation it is important to chat to local booksellers and meet other authors, especially at events or festivals such as Crimefest and the Harrogate International Festival or one of the many good smaller festivals that now exist. It’s also a good idea to attend other writers’ launch parties, read widely – and try not to overwrite! Having some bookmarks printed is an inexpensive way of getting noticed – it’s easy to underestimate how useful they can be.
As an author, I am inexpressibly grateful to Richard and all the booksellers who make it their life’s work to support writing and reading. He is a man who practises sheer genius every day! If he were still alive, I know John Aubrey would be the first to agree.
Tomorrow’s post will be about an aspiring crime fiction writer, Fraser Massey, who is already a distinguished journalist.