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About Foyles

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Foyles Now

Foyles is a renowned, even legendary award-winning independent bookstore with a long history, see below. Currently we have five London bookstores and one store in Bristol, as well as this website, which offers delivery to home, business or bookstore, an out-of-print and second-hand offer via our Marketplace and a Click & Collect option for instore stock items.

We also have an ever- increasing number of eBooks available for immediate download.

Our stores reflect their local markets, but are always noted for their range of Fiction, the Arts and Children's books in particular as well as our friendly and knowledgeable staff. Our largest and best known store is our five-storey Charing Cross Road branch which is famous for covering every specialism and now includes the largest Foreign Language selection in the UK, as well as Sheet Music, Classical and Jazz Music on CD and Vinyl, and a DVD department..

Going across all our stores and the website, Foyles has a popular and rewarding loyalty scheme called Foyalty, and Gift Cards which can be spent and bought in store and online.

 

The Early Years

Archive photo of the Foyles storeIn 1903, teenage brothers William and Gilbert Foyle failed their civil service exams and took out an ad in a periodical to re-sell their textbooks. Receiving many enquiries, they quickly saw an opportunity, procured more textbooks, sold them on at a profit and what was to become the 'world's greatest bookshop' was born. Their turnover in the first year was £10 but nothing could dispel their conviction that their venture would make them their fortunes.

In 1904 they moved to Cecil Court - to what was then the home of the infant British film industry and still houses a large number of second-hand bookshops - and took on their first assistant, who promptly absconded with the day's takings. Their second assistant joined in 1905 and stayed with the company till his retirement in the 1950s. By 1906 the business had become so substantial that the brothers moved to their first premises at 135 Charing Cross Road and immediately proclaimed themselves the largest Foyles Vaneducational booksellers in London. Business steadily increased and a move down the road to larger premises at 121 Charing Cross Road, on the corner of Manette Street, soon followed. Business continued during the First World War with William taking sole responsibility whilst Gilbert served as a driver in Flanders, and it was also during the war that the Foyles Van first became a regular sight on the streets of London, delivering purchases and picking up new stock all whilst advertising the growing stockholding of over 1 million books.

 

1920s-30s

By 1929 the business had once more grown too large for its premises but rather than move again, the brothers acquired the site of the current bookshop on the opposite side of Manette Street and built what was proclaimed as the world's first purpose-built bookshop to house their growing empire. With Foyles now spanning 113-121 Charing Cross Road, William, the popularly proclaimed Barnum of Bookselling, wasted no time in naming it the largest bookshop in the world and even going so far as to have the fact ratified by Guinness as a world record!

The 1920s and 30s saw a period of great expansion and prosperity for the business. In 1921 Gilbert launched Foyles Educational and amongst the other ventures born over the decade were the Library Supply Department, the Welsh Press, Foyles Music Company and manifold book clubs. In 1934 the brothers developed Foyles Libraries Ltd a chain of three thousand tuppeny libraries, making books accessible to many for whom costly library subscriptions were unavailable.

Foyles even turned its hand to publishing, beginning in 1929 with The Romance of a Bookshop, a lovingly written account of the business' first 26 years (with an updated reprint in 1938) and moving on to book club editions, an exhaustive series of educational handbooks and even Christina Foyle's Party Book and Etiquette Guide.

 

The War Years

SandbagsWhen Hitler started burning books in the 1930s, William had immediately telegrammed the Fuhrer to request that he be able to purchase them instead and would offer a good price; the response quickly came back that Germany had no books to sell and the burning would continue. Years later at the start of the Blitz Foyles filled sandbags with old books to protect the shop from damage and William announced that he was covering the roof with copies of Mein Kampf to ward off bombers. Then a near miss left a giant crater just outside the shop, destroying the front of the Sun Electric offices across the road. William treated the sappers to sandwiches and ginger beer while they worked and when the bridge was complete they happily let him name it the Foyle Bridge, complete with ribbon cutting ceremony!

 

Post-War

William retired in 1945 having steered the business for 42 years and his daughter Christina and her husband Ronald Batty took over with her brother Dick as the buyer till his early, sudden death in 1957, her sister Winifred having retired from bookselling upon her marriage in 1938.

By the 1940s as well as branches in London there were branches of Foyles to be found in Dublin, Belfast, Cape Town and Johannesburg. In the 1940s and 50s the business diversified still further, taking over the Lecture Agency, a speakers bureau, and founding Foyles Philately, an entertainment agency, a handicraft shop and a travel bureau.

But the heart of the business was, is and always has been selling books - 800,000 a year from Charing Cross Road in 1925 with a turnover of £4 million by 1963. And it wasn't just sales from the shop, long before the internet (www.foyles.co.uk was launched in 2000) customers would browse catalogues and make their orders by mail, with Foyles regularly receiving 35,000 letters a day in the 1950s, requesting everything from penny dreadfuls and textbooks to the rare and unusual.

 

Christina Foyle

christina FoyleChristina joined her father in the business aged 17 as his secretary and right-hand woman. She had always had a passion for the bookshop and had inherited much of her father's energy, showmanship and business skills. She was beautiful and charming but also forthright and formidable - valuable traits when her father sent her, aged 21, to Stalinist Russia to collect debts.

Ever since they'd set up on Charing Cross Road the Foyle family had received regular letters and comments from customers about how lucky they were to meet so many authors and inquiring whether so-and-so really thought this or that. In the 20s they had begun a lecture series but at the end of the decade the 19-year old Christina suggested they hold regular Literary Luncheons and William encouraged her to pursue the project. Writing to the greatest writers of the day - George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and J M Barrie - Christina was rebuffed by them all and the first Luncheon on 21 October 1930 featured Lord Justice Darling as its guest of honour regaling 200 guests at the Holborn Restaurant. An instant success, they quickly moved to the newly opened Grosvenor House, where as many as 2000 guests attended to hear the greatest writers, thinkers and celebrities of the age. Shaw, Wells and Barrie all eventually acquiesced and the list of over 1000 speakers in 80 years reads like a roll call of the great and the good (and in some cases the not so good as well).

Under Christina's management the business flourished through the 1950s and 60s but in the 70s it suffered, like much of the country, from strikes, and the workers' rights disputes were to leave their mark on the business. Whilst the business had always been idiosyncratic, its practices became more unusual. Christina placed her trust in few, staff with a specialism were put in a very different department as she believed they'd be lazier surrounded by books on a subject they knew. Few staff stayed long as Christina would summarily sack them before they'd worked for the business for 6 months, at which point they would have been entitled to better employment rights. As a result, standards slipped, many staff had poor English and few knew the business well enough to help customers with enquiries. A lack of stock control meant that the stock- holding ballooned, and whilst other businesses were modernising, in Foyles the piles of dusty stock became ever more unmanageable. Foyles was bound to have what you were looking for, but neither you nor the staff had any chance of finding it. And if you did and wanted to make a purchase you had to navigate the infamous double queuing system that Christina instigated to ensure as few staff as possible handled money. No wonder Dillons ran their famous 'Foyled again?' ads around the area. But still the business continued in its own inimitable style with Charing Cross Road changing around it, not least when a young man named Tim Waterstone who'd opened a bookshop in Old Brompton Street was offered the lease for 121 Charing Cross Road by Christina. Who knows what the face of modern bookselling would have looked like had things been different.

 

A new chapter

Christina died in June 1999, six days after she'd finally handed control of the business to her nephew, Christopher Foyle. Having worked for the business from his late teens in 1961 for a decade, when his desire to take it over was thwarted, he instead founded a successful airline company. But he was finally able to realise his dream of running the family business nearly 40 years later. Along with his brother and cousins - who remain the business's sole shareholders - they decided to invest in revitalising the business and opened a new chapter in the history of the world's most famous bookshop.

In the decade since Christina's death, Foyles has changed almost beyond recognition. Having once had said of it 'if Kafka had been a bookseller, Foyles would have been the result', the business now flourishes as a successful 21st century bookshop. Gone are the dusty piles, the confusing layout and the archaic queuing system and in their place is a truly modern retailer, but one which has not forgotten the values and virtues of traditional bookselling.

In the early noughties Charing Cross Road underwent a full facelift and returned to the roots of the business - 5 floors of the largest range of books in the UK on every possible subject with expert, knowledgeable and courteous staff always on hand to help with any enquiry. Complementary to the books has been added a range of gifts and stationery and own-brand product as well as an expanded offer in key departments to create one-stop shops. In our medical department you can find everything the student, professional or hypochondriac could possibly need, from scrubs and stethoscopes to skeletons and sphygomanometers. Our third floor is now entirely devoted to music. Where once gramophones and records were sold in William's time, we now have classical CDs, alongside the books, sheet music and jazz, world and folk selection of Ray's Jazz. So it's not just Booker winners and learned thinkers who present their work in the Gallery; we now offer regular concerts with stars from Ian Bostridge and Sarah Chang to Jamie Cullum and Kit Downes. And in the same egalitarian spirit in which Christina founded the Luncheons, wherever possible all our events are free to attend as we passionately believe that there should be as few barriers as possible to being able to experience the work of the great writers and thinkers of our age.

Charing Cross Road may be the heart of the business but it's far from being on its own in the new century. In 2000 we launched a full e-commerce site (what is the internet if not a re-imagining of the old mail order business that used to attract thousands of orders a day?) and, as well as selling books to customers worldwide, local customers can now search our full database, checking availability from the comfort of their home, office or anywhere else they wish before reserving for in-store collection or delivery wherever they choose. Alongside is our thriving accounts business, serving a variety of public and private organisations, as well as individuals, for considerable one off or regular purchases. In 2005 we opened our first store away from Charing Cross Road in the new era of the business. Foyles at Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre sits right on the riverside and whilst a fraction of the size of Charing Cross Road, it maintains a character, charm and loyal following all of its own. 2008 saw the opening of further branches in St Pancras International and Westfield White City, as well as victory at the Book Industry Awards, at which we were named UK Bookseller of the Year. The following year saw us enter the eBook market under the banner 'Foyles for Books, however you want to read them', a slogan we're sure would have made William Foyle proud - as well as achieving record growth in a seriously declining market. 2010 saw us once more being crowned UK Bookseller of the Year as well as achieving our first meaningful profit in decades, and it was with great pleasure that we looked back to the old days as a Foyles van was once more seen regularly on the streets of London, taking books wherever they're required. In 2011 Foyles continued to report profits and had another year of expansion, with two new stores in Bristol, Cabot Circus - our first store outside of London for 70 years- and Westfield Stratford City in a magnificent shopping centre and ready for the Olympics year. We also became the UK's largest Foreign Language retailer with the successful acquisition and integration of Grant & Cutler into our Charing Cross Rd store.

In 2013 we were again named UK Bookseller of the Year, following a win in the same category in 2012 , when Foyles also won Children's Bookseller of the year too. In that year, whilst we had been selling eBooks since 2009 we were delighted to improve our offer with 'Foyles powered by txtr' a fully integrated service for website and Apps for mobile and tablet devices. Later we started selling Nook eReaders and tablets. Devices made by booksellers to share their passion for reading. Showing Foyles was truly in the 21st century and looking to the future of bookselling.

In his love of showmanship, 'the Barnum of Bookselling', William Foyle, called his emporium 'The world's greatest bookshop'. Over the past century the world has become a very different place and far be it from us now to make such bold claims, but what we can say for sure in this day and age is that few bookshops can claim such a rich and varied history and still retain the passion we have for books and the people who write, publish and, above all, read them.

 

Foyles Tax status

W & G Foyle Limited, incorporates all Foyles' trading activities, including the bookshops, commercial accounts and websites (www.foyles.co.uk and www.grantandcutler.com ). W & G Foyle Limited is a UK registered company and complies with all current UK tax legislation.

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