The trade counter entrance

The trade counter entrance

The trade counter was a wonderful place. I used to slip off there whenever I found a spare minute or two. They always had tea on the brew, and were notoriously hospitable. They had to have been selected for this trait as their job was to greet and entertain the representatives of London bookshops who’d come by to pick up books. Thus Hatchard’s might have a customer walk in at 10am looking for Sir Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades. If they didn’t have it in stock, they’d write up an order and ask the customer to come back in the afternoon. Then their messenger would get on his bike, his scooter, maybe his van (though parking was not that much easier in those days) and go round to Stephenson Way, the back entrance of Cambridge University Press’ London office, Bentley House on Euston Road. Through those doors they’d come up into a tiny room with two or three chairs, cut in half by a shiny wooden counter with a flap allowing the favored few through — to visit the nearby bathroom most likely. Otherwise the reps having handed in their order chits would sit chatting over a cup of tea while the books were looked out and a pro-forma invoice raised.

To be fair, my visits to the trade counter were not entirely skiving off — it was my job to deal with any trade problems. Thus if the book they wanted was out of stock, I’d be called to come down and explain this intolerable situation to them, so that I could be blamed when their customer came back that afternoon.

In those days many publishers still had their warehouses in London, though the exit to the cheaper provinces was already beginning. One might have assumed that WWII bombing might have pushed publishers’ warehouses out of town — at that time the industry was centered on Paternoster Row and other streets just north of St Paul’s Cathedral, and that area was devastated by bombing. The Cathedral miraculously survived. But the tendency during and after the war was to find other warehouse space within London. The exit got going later, in the sixties and seventies: partly economics and partly a decline in the carriage trade which had hitherto sustained a somewhat crustily conservative business model. Iain Stevenson in his Book Makers reports that Collins closed their trade counter in 1975. “Heinemann maintained their central London trade counter a little longer . . . Predictably the last publisher’s trade counter in central London was operated by John Murray from their cramped Dickensian warehouse in Clerkenwell.” Bentley House was closed and the warehouse and office staff moved to Cambridge in 1978. Presumably the trade counter closed at that time; though by then I was in the New York office, and so cannot be sure it hadn’t closed earlier.

I see from Google Street view that Bentley House is being rebuilt, so the university shield over that doorway has gone. There were also a couple of smaller shields framing the goods delivery bay entrance.