My mum, the radical Sixties bookshop-owner

A lack of formal qualifications and the social expectations of the Sixties didn't stop Martin Chilton's mother from opening a pioneering bookshop

Martin Chilton
Martin Chilton for Penguin

Long before Dylan Moran’s fictional Black Books, Bloomsbury had its own eccentric independent bookshop, which was run by my late mum. She doted on books and loved the sheer thrill of that moment when a customer rummaged around the shelves and almost whooped after discovering a treasure that they had been hunting for years.

Mine was a childhood of books. Reading them, searching for them among the kerbside stalls of places such as Farringdon Road and Brick Lane and sitting among thousands of them in small store, hoping for a much-needed sale.

Life as an own autonomous bookshop owner must have seemed a far-fetched dream for 15-year-old Teresa McDonald, whose school days at Brompton Oratory ended in 1948. She left with no qualifications and the words ‘you’ll end up in Borstal’ – hissed by a nun from the aptly named Daughters of the Cross – ringing in her ears. Her only affectionate memories were of the English teacher, Mrs Williams, who encouraged mum’s love of literature, something she eventually fostered in her children and grandchildren.

A person’s life isn’t orderly, and Teresa’s was no different, but instead of Borstal, she carved out a wonderful career: first as a 17-year-old photographer in the all-male newspaper environment of the early 1950s, and later as that proud owner of a bookshop in the heart of London.

She was fired from her first clerical job – 'Urgh… I couldn’t let him kiss me,' she told her sister Jean, after loudly rejecting the advances of a middle-aged boss – before work in a camera shop helped her land a position on The Hornsey Journal in 1952. At the end of her life, mum talked about the thrill of going to Paris to photograph Marlene Dietrich, recalling the kindness the star showed to a novice journalist. She also snapped Louis Armstrong, who let her capture him in an unusually sombre pose. Years on, she took the last photograph of Jean Rhys.

Jean Rhys
Jean Rhys by Teresa Chilton

But Teresa wanted to work with books. She got the chance in 1955, when she was hired by Eva Collet Reckitt to work in her famous store – which featured the Collet’s Penguin Bookshop – at 66 Charing Cross Road. The six years there proved an excellent training ground.

On 1 February 1968, by then married and called Teresa Chilton, she broke out on her own and started The Bloomsbury Bookshop, using the profits from a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses for the deposit. She’d found the prized 1922 Shakespeare & Co Paris No248 first edition at an open-air market for 10 shillings. Auction company Bertram Rota Ltd paid £73, 10 shillings (£2000 nowadays) for a book that would now be worth more than £50,000. To Teresa, the daughter of a cleaner and an impoverished ex-soldier from Kilkenny, money was always an easy come, easy go thing, anyway. On the day the shop opened, a stranger told her, 'I’ve read this book, take it as a gift' – handing her a rare first-edition of John Steinbeck’s debut novel Cup of Gold. Book Karma.

The shop, opposite the famous children’s hospital, stocked an eclectic mix from second-hand novels by Bloomsburyites such as Virginia Woolf to used non-fiction publications. It was unique in specialising in new and out-of-print jazz books, in a pre-internet era when finding a scarce book took skill. Hull University librarian Philip Larkin was among the thousands of customers around the world who ordered from mum by post. The opening hours – 10am to 3pm – allowed her to deliver and collect her young children (Jenny, myself and later Barney) from school.

The Times called it 'one of the tiniest bookshops in London, if not the world'

Although it had the grand address of 31-35 Great Ormond Street, it was actually no bigger than a kiosk (it’s a coffee shop now). The Times called it 'one of the tiniest bookshops in London, if not the world'. A jokey notice in the window read: 'If you’re under 25 stone, come in and browse.' From about 15, I worked there on Saturdays. One morning in January 1980, a posh visitor asked about the sign, and I gave him some blarney about a customer getting stuck in the door and having to be set free by the fire brigade. I had no idea I was talking to the journalist Dan van der Vat. He wrote in The Times Diary that, 'the young man behind the counter explained that they had been visited by an extremely portly browser who, once installed, made it impossible for anybody else to get in or out.'

When I returned from school, mum laughed and asked, 'What crap did you tell the newspapers?' It turned out she’d been caught on the hop when LBC Radio came to interview her about the incident. A short while later, a reporter from Holland turned up to write about the world’s smallest bookshop.

It was also part of family folklore that mum’s dearest friend Joan, in temporary charge one day, was oblivious to the identity of a colossal customer filling the shop and chatting away to her. Moments after he left, an excited passer-by rushed in to ask what Muhammad Ali had said. It was all made funnier somehow by the fact that mum had placed a biography of the world heavyweight boxing champion in the window just that week.

On one occasion, a grumpy old Nobel Prize-winning author shouted ‘answer the bloody phone, woman’ at mum

When the business opened, my father, John Chilton, had recently finished as publicity manager for pop band The Swinging Blue Jeans, of ‘Hippy, Hippy Shake’ fame. By the early 1970s, he was touring with jazz singer George Melly, something he did for the next 35 years. In his 2005 autobiography Slowing Down, Melly described Teresa as ‘short, bright and formidable’, and reminisced about a bookshop whose ‘regular browsers included many distinguished writers and bibliophiles’.

Graham Greene came in when dad was holding the fort after the birth of Barney. Greene explained why he avoided using proper names in his novels, saying he’d been sued by the real Harold Diddlebock. A few years later, Greene delivered a neat postscript: Mr Chilton appeared in The Human Factor. Because dad was also a jazz historian, there was a sexist tendency to credit him as the shop’s creator, but mum was an expert on jazz and opening the shop was her own brave gamble. She loved being her own boss.

Faber’s offices were in the adjoining Queen Square, and their writers sometimes popped in to browse. On one occasion, a grumpy old Nobel Prize-winning author shouted ‘answer the bloody phone, woman’ at mum, while she was busy filling out the handwritten ledgers used to record sales. She told him it was her shop and advised him in pretty blunt language what he could do with himself. Mum never kowtowed to anyone, and her spirited response made him laugh. They ended up having a friendly chat.

Teresa’s colourful character, and the happy vibe of a shop playing Bessie Smith tapes, made the place a magnet for local Holborn and Soho characters such as Freddie Zentner, the charismatic owner of The Cinema Bookshop on Great Russell Street. The only regular she disliked was the television presenter Denis Norden.

Bookshops attract oddballs. The young George Orwell worked in a second-hand store near Camden Town and said many of the people who came to them ‘were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop’. Bloomsbury is neighbour to King’s Cross and in the shabby, pre-gentrified days of the 1970s, the district sent Teresa more than her fair share of shoplifters, meth addicts and weirdoes.

The shop was also targeted by a member of that era’s 'dirty mac brigade'. Perhaps the thought of a woman confined in a small shop provided an extra thrill for someone wanting to expose themselves, but the flasher who tried it on with Teresa got more than he bargained for. Teresa’s mother Lucy grew up in a tough coal-mining community near Wigan and instilled a 'golden rule' in her daughter: 'If a man tries it on… go for the goolies'. Mum’s strategically aimed hardback copy of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, all 1312 pages of it, did the trick. The pervert never returned.

Larkin sent a copy of The North Ship inscribed 'for Teresa Chilton, one of London’s few civilising influences'.

You cannot hold out against certain winds, though, and escalating rents from Camden Council and exorbitant postal costs forced the shop to close in 1982. Larkin sent a sweet note expressing sympathy, along with a copy of The North Ship inscribed “for Teresa Chilton, one of London’s few civilising influences.” The poet might have revised that tribute had he ever seen mum on one of her wildly drunken trips following Manchester United in Europe.

After gaining ‘O’ Levels at night school, Teresa passed her BA honours in English at Middlesex Polytechnic at the age of 50, before returning to the world of books as the manager of the second-hand department of the LSE’s Economists’ Bookshop.

The inevitable inroads of illness, death and time make the Bloomsbury Bookshop seem ghostlike, but the memory of mum realising her dream remains a living source of joy.

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