Fifty years of Foster Books in Chiswick

Image above, Mary and William Foster opening the shop in 1970

“I remember my father putting the shelves up in the shop” says Stephen Foster, owner of Foster Books. “I think it must have been September because I remember we went to Ireland for the summer holidays to see my grandmother, so he probably waited till we were back at school”.

Stephen’s father William (who he looks uncannily like) died last year, having built up a successful antiquarian book business which he passed on to Stephen. He still has his mother Mary, pictured here with William in 1970, full of vim and vigour, at the opening of the shop. The Chiswick & Brentford Times, whose photograph this is, covered the event.

Today the shop is closed, as it has been since mid-March, but Stephen is to be found there most days, processing online orders on his own. To say he is celebrating the anniversary would be something of an overstatement. Whatever they might have planned, they now can’t.

“We closed the week before the announcement was made, closing non-essential shops, because I was uncomfortable about my staff’s journeys to work” he says. “We may like to think we are essential, but we aren’t classed as an essential service” he laughs.

All non-essential retail outlets were told to close on 26 March. Only food businesses, chemists, bike shops, garages, DIY, Post Offices, launderettes / dry cleaning and medical / vet – related services have been allowed to remain open for walk-in business. Others are permitted to do click and collect and delivery services only. There still appears to be some confusion among the public as to what is open and what isn’t.

“People come in the shop if the door is open and ask me if we’re open” says Stephen, increduloulsy.

Image above: Stephen Foster; photograph – Lucinda MacPherson

Selling books cheaply and giving them away for free

Foster Books has a website – www.fosterbooks.co.uk – and is doing quite a lot of online sales. What are people buying? “Cheap books” he says ruefully.

Foster Books specialises in hard to find, out of print and rare books, but also sells second hand books. Ironically he has been busy, because his staff are on furlough, and there’s a steady flow of emails and phone calls, but although he’s working constantly, his income is a trickle of what it was.

“We’re not selling any of our better books at all, but it takes as long to wrap and post a £15 book as it does a £500 book”.

“We did nothing at all at first” he says, “but when things settled down we started getting a few orders. It has been a logistical nightmare because Royal Mail has been an absolute mess. I spend probably an hour a day taking phone calls from people asking where their books are. First class, signed for parcels are taking eight – ten days, so I’ve started using other carriers”.

Stephen, like every other retailer, is waiting to hear what the Prime Minister will say on Sunday and considering his options. He’s had the outside of the shop painted during lockdown, and he’s had a free library of books on a table outside the shop, for people to browse and take.

“I like the fact that people stop” he says. “It reminds them that we’re still here”

Image above: The eighteenth century bow window of Foster Books

What to do next?

As a bronchial asthmatic who has had pneumonia several times already, he has to think very carefully about the next step, for his own sake as well as his customers’.

“We’ve been thinking of having a virtual shop online, with videos showing our history section for example on a Youtube channel”.

He doesn’t mind people coming in to the shop in ones and twos, but he could only take a few at a time and will probably introduce a one-way system.

“I’m testing out whether we can do click and collect using a mobile transaction in a contactless way by holding it up to the glass.”

He’s also considering providing gloves and face masks, certainly hand sanitiser.

“I’m not sure whether to insist on people wearing masks. If, like they are in Germany, they say you can only travel on public transport wearing a mask, then people will be used to it and they will expect it in shops, but if not, I’m not sure they will”.

He remembers his dad bemoaning the fact that people would say chattily “I’m off work because I’ve got a cold” as they stepped merrily into the shop. He used to have a notice up saying : “No ice-creams, no food, no colds”.

Sound practice.

Read More Stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Profile of Stephen Foster by Lucinda MacPherson

See also: Virtual Shopping comes to Chiswick