Christina Foyle, 88, managing director of Foyle's Charing Cross Road Bookshop in London whom the Times of London newspaper described as "probably the best-known bookseller in the world," died June 8. The place and cause of her death were not reported.
The book business, W&G Foyle Ltd., was founded by her father and an uncle in 1904, and had been located at its present Charing Cross address since 1929. It was once called the world's largest bookstore, with more than 30 miles of shelves on four floors.
Miss Foyle, who was born in London, began working in the store as a teenager. Shortly after the store moved to Charing Cross, she was approached by a decidedly distinguished gentleman who asked her to recommend a good book for a train journey he was about to take. Miss Foyle had just finished reading "The Forsyte Saga" and sold the elderly customer on this selection.
The customer purchased the book, left the shop and almost immediately returned. He returned the book to the surprised young clerk, who found the book inscribed, "For the young lady who liked my book -- John Galsworthy."
That inspired Miss Foyle, who was absolutely thrilled with her personal contact, however fleeting, with a great writer. Her inspiration led her to persuade her father to sponsor monthly luncheons at which readers could meet authors. The luncheons continue to this day and have featured many of the great names of the century.
Over the years, she had presided over lunches featuring such guests as Arthur Conan Doyle, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells and J.B. Priestley. Guests also included figures from fields other than literature who had written books, such as Jimmy Durante, Charles DeGaulle and Margaret Thatcher.
The luncheons became a national institution but were not always entirely successful. In its obituary of Miss Foyle, the London Telegraph wrote of a luncheon she gave at which Sir Walter Gilbey, the ginmaker, droned on for an hour and a half.
Miss Foyle told the Telegraph: "A man in front of my father fell asleep, so he hit the chap with the toastmaster's gavel. The man said: `Hit me again, I can still hear him.' "
Another luncheon featured the theme of people who had written their memoirs after serving time in jail. To spice up the event, Miss Foyle borrowed the wax figure of notorious murderer Charles Peace from Madame Tussaud's and sat it next to the luncheon's chairman. An indication that not everyone got the joke occurred at the end of the luncheon when a guest tried to shake the dummy's hand, mistaking the dummy for Scotland's secretary of state.
Miss Foyle took over the store's management in 1963 and fought a long and largely successful battle against anything approaching change. Not only does Foyle's scorn the Internet for sales, it even refuses to take orders by telephone. Until recently, clerks still added bills in their heads, and books were filed along miles of shelves not by author or subject, but by publisher.
For years, customers had complained about these and other features, including a staff that is largely composed of foreign students whose grasp of English is somewhat shaky. Miss Foyle, who said her business could not afford better, paid a minimum wage with few benefits. The store, however, was reported to have generated profits of more than $24 million.
And even if you find a book at Foyle's, buying it is no easy task. In its obituary, the Times of London explained that after locating the book, the customer must "take it to a sales clerk, obtain an invoice, go to another desk, pay, have the invoice stamped, return to the first desk and claim the book."
Among Miss Foyle's more unusual ventures in the book trade was her exchange of correspondence with Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. Having heard that he and his Nazis were burning books, she offered to pay serious money for the volumes if he would sell them to her and then use the money for "good causes."
In his reply, Hitler explained the reasons he was burning the books was because they were "immoral." And he no more wished to corrupt British morals than German morals.
Miss Foyle married Ronald Batty, who worked in the store's rare manuscript division, in 1938. He died in 1994, leaving an estate valued at nearly $20 million. The two had lived in an apartment over the store and on an estate in Essex that included a 12th-century abbey.