John Saumarez Smith (1)

I am posting a very nice tribute to my older brother, John, who sadly died at midday yesterday in the Charterhouse.   The tribute conveys so much of his character, particularly his devotion to Heywood Hill, where he worked for 43 years, not counting a period over Christmas 1963, which I didn’t know about.   I started buying books from him not long afterwards and he taught me a lot about books, as well as about many other things – china tea and brass rubbing.   He was a mentor as well as an older brother:-

It is our sad duty to report the death yesterday 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. His great tip was to ask new customers 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. Not a week goes by without someone referring to John’s taste or opinion.

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 today.

John was very happily married to Laura, his devoted wife. His talented sons, Joe, a businessman, and George, an architect (whose beautiful sketchbooks have been published recently) were the source of much pride. We send sincere condolences to them all.

At Heywood Hill we salute John in gratitude for his unstinting tenure at our helm, his devotion to the bookish cause, and the indelible mark he left on the place and all who knew him.                     


10 thoughts on “John Saumarez Smith (1)

  1. Sue Stamp says:

    Dear Charles
    What a wonderful tribute to your brother John, I’m very sorry for your loss.
    I’ve never heard of Heywood Hill but am very glad to know of its existence.
    With warmest regards,
    Sue Stamp

  2. Leslie Tobin Bacon says:

    So sorry for your loss Charles. And excuse me for writing here, but I am just packing for a flight to Los Angeles tomorrow and wanted to express my condolences but will be writing to you in the next few days.

  3. Thomas Ponsonby says:

    I’m very sorry to read of John’s passing but when I have seen him in recent years he seemed much diminished. I think I probably began going to Heywood Hill in 1973 ‘or ’74 so I knew him for many years before meeting you at the Jerwood Painting Prize selection.

  4. Jay Dubya says:

    John and I were at St. Ronan’s together and used to joke that we were the only Ronains ever to have gone into the rare book business.He was always delighted to see me when I popped into H-H (I migrated to America in 1971) and we would swap gossip about the book trade and its many characters on both sides of the counter. His lovely soft-spoken charm went over especially well with the Americans and I always knew which members of the aristocracy (English and American) were his customers by the shelves of books wrapped up by the stairs labelled with the names of those for whom they were destined. I let Herry Lawford know and he will alert St. Ronan’s I’m sure. I’m sorry you and I have never met as he spoke of you often. My sincerest condolences to you and the family in this sad time and apologies for offering them this way. Kind regards, John Windle

  5. janicesacher says:

    Sincere condolences – sadly I did not know him although purchased from Heywood Hil. I love John Sandoe bookshop and continue to purchase from there just to try and ensure it does not close.

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