24 November, 2021
It is our sad duty to report the death on 15 November 2021 of John Saumarez Smith, aged 78, after a short illness. John was a legendary bookseller who joined Heywood Hill fresh from Cambridge in September 1965, managing our bookshop from 1974 until his retirement in May 2008. He took to bookselling, and to Heywood Hill, like ink to the page.
John joined the team here briefly as a Christmas temp in 1963, in the days when most customers had accounts and their own page in the shop’s hand-written ledgers. Old-fashioned bookselling, recommending worthwhile books in person to appreciative readers and collectors, had rewards as he put it both literary and social, ‘I find the equation between books and people perpetually fascinating’.
John had a first-class mind including a truly prodigious memory for both books and people. He came to personify Heywood Hill for his many admirers across the world. John’s scholarly air, mischievous grin and deep, broad book knowledge made Heywood Hill a magnet for the affluent well-read. His style was perfectly suited to the book-lined stage of this little shop. Annual trips to America added many transatlantic customers to our ledgers and John was warmly welcomed into bookish drawing-rooms, and indeed libraries, everywhere.
John had a huge acquaintance and many customers became friends, including Andrew, 11th Duke of Devonshire. Their shared bookish adventures included a decade of annual pilgrimages to Chatsworth to award the Heywood Hill Literary Prize.
As a bookseller John’s authoritative and persuasive opinion captivated many. His great tip with new customers was to ask them to name six books that they genuinely enjoyed, rather than what they were told to enjoy. People trusted John’s judgement implicitly. They still do. The quality of John’s taste is regularly cited by our customers.
Throughout his lifetime John devoted his considerable intellectual energies to sifting the literary wheat from the chaff, in search of the beautiful, the important or the plain enjoyable.
After he left Heywood Hill, John continued to deal in books from John Sandoe and Maggs Bros. He was a natural writer who reviewed books widely and provided always considered advice to librarians and their patrons. Many across the book world will mourn him.
John is survived by his devoted wife and their two talented sons. We send sincere condolences to them all. At Heywood Hill we salute John for his unstinting tenure at our helm, and the indelible mark he has left on the place.
May his soul rest in peace.