Stephen Foster

Profile by Lucinda MacPherson

March 2019

Photograph: Foster Books, 183 Chiswick High Rd by Ian Wylie

Step through the oldest shop front on the Chiswick High Road and you enter one of the most delightful shopping experiences in London. The listed bay window, which dates back to 1790, is painted bright green and is piled high with vintage books while outside there are £1 paperbacks, maps and assorted paraphernalia giving it the air of a Dickensian curiosity shop. Stephen Foster, the owner, ran his own shop in Marylebone for 25 years before buying the historic premises on the old Bath to London route from his parents William and Mary in 2007. The family have been selling books in Chiswick for almost 50 years. “Amazon and charity shops were making ordinary books worthless. The market became polarised, and I decided to focus on collectors’ items and nicer things.”

“The great thing about this area is that we have lots of local customers who break from their grocery shop on a Saturday to browse, but 25% plus of our business is on the internet. There are so many anonymous retailers on the Internet, people like to know we have a shop.”

Photographs: Foster Books; Stephen Foster by Lucinda MacPherson

It’s reassuring to know that a wonderful shop like Fosters can continue to thrive in a competitive online marketplace, when so many retailers in Chiswick have failed.“Internet business models don’t have people checking for faults, making sure it is complete, or damaged, or should have a book jacket. All our internet stock is in Chiswick, so a number of people who see a book on the net come in to see and touch it in the shop. It enhances the internet business as it gives people confidence that we have been established for so many years and, of course, it’s helpful that it’s such a beautiful shop, with lots of character.”

Stephen’s clients are as diverse as his books, tending to be enthusiasts on a particular subject. The day I met Stephen a man had driven all the way down from Sheffield specifically to pick up an art book. It was a relatively expensive, so he wanted to see it for himself.

Fosters on Film

Clients also include film makers – he recently supplied volumes for the sets of the soon to be released Cold War title, Ironbark, the locally filmed Vanity Fair and a clerk’s office in Peterloo. He also helped with another of Mike Leigh’s films, furnishing Mr Turner, which was Oscar nominated for its sets. You may recall the infamous scene, for which The British Board of Film Classification received the most complaints the year of its release, in which the artist JMW Turner, grunting loudly, takes his long-suffering housekeeper from behind as she clings doggedly on to a bookcase. For any Chiswick literati who failed to focus on the books, Stephen explains they were an interesting selection of good 18th century literature and art. Stephen also hunted down gynaecological medical texts for The Danish Girl and accepted a mission to work on the last two James Bonds “I provided the books for his flat, so my claim to fame is I made 007 look well read!”

Photographs: Rare copy of Harry Potter; page from a 1560 surgical anatomy book of engravings

What makes a book expensive?

“Scarcity and demand. For the first edition of Harry Potter they printed 500 copies, half of which were paperback, with half of the print run going into school libraries. So there are, perhaps, 100 copies in good condition extant of the first edition of that book available to sell to collectors worldwide.”

What devalues a book?

“Condition and incompleteness. If the bindings are damaged by age, it might not be worth restoring it, as it would not be in its original condition. If something is very rare, or has an extraordinary attribution people will forgive it if it’s not in perfect condition; for example, if it’s from Lord Byron’s library. There are plenty of dull, academic books printed in small numbers, but there is no demand for them.”

How to care for your books

Stephen’s advice on caring for books is to keep them away from sunlight, moisture, and excessive heat, and don’t install bookshelves over a radiator, as it will dry the glues out that are holding the spine together on modern books. “Victorians had far draughtier houses, they didn’t have central heating, hung big, heavy curtains to stop the books fading and put their libraries on the North side of the house.”

“The best thing you can do with older books with leather bindings is handle them with clean hands because the natural oil in your hands feeds the leather so it does not dry out. We apply hide food used for saddlery to put suppleness back into the leather of our 18th century calf bindings. There are very few instances when you need to wear gloves, a painted binding or Japanese books on rice paper, for instance, where sweaty fingers could cause damage.

Photographs above: Mick Jagger from the Book of Pinups by David Bailey; Madame Bovary; page from a 1560 surgical anatomy book of engravings

Books range from a £1 for paperbacks, to £4,000 for a 1560 surgical anatomy book of engravings. Other rare collectors’ items are a Book of Pinups by David Bailey with Jagger on the cover which they are having restored and a first English Edition of Madame Bovary for £1600.

The book Stephen would most like to come across?

“The Kelmscott Chaucer must be one of the most beautiful books printed in England. I have had lots of lovely books over the years, but I would love to handle a copy of that book, particularly on vellum. (Full disclosure, I work for The William Morris Society, but swear on the big red bible Stephen is holding here that no money changed hands or pressure was placed on him to say this) Ed. “I’ve come across other titles from the Kelmscott Press, and seen the Folio Society’s beautiful limited edition facsimile, which is on nice handmade paper which sells for £1,000.*

Photographs: Stephen at the bookshop; Suffragettes title

Are any books banned at Fosters?

“It’s a hot topic! And an interesting question….What is it OK to sell? I’ve always felt it’s not our job to censor. If I ever find any c19th anti-Semitic caricatures, for instance, my main collector for those is a Jewish Hasidic collector. If I am doing a book fair in America, if I have anything related to golliwogs I take those with me and American libraries buy them. It’s a terrible part of history, but it is still part of their history.”

Stephen recently sold a two volume set of the speeches of Adolph Hitler which were published by Oxford University Press in England in 1942, printed by the Institute of International Affairs to be given to senior diplomats and senior military, so they could “know thy enemy”.

“That’s an important book, it’s an important academic document. People’s gut reaction is “You shouldn’t be selling that”. But my answer is “No you should, because it shows the mind-set of the time and is an historic document. You navigate stuff on a case by case basis.”

Photographs: Hockney’s Alphabet; illustration for Norman Mailer’s contribution

So what’s on Stephen’s top shelf?

“I’ve never sold filthy mags, but you have to use your judgement. A good example is when Playboy came out in the 60s. You had authors like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal writing for it. Ian Fleming published some of his Bond within it.

Stephen showed me a copy of Hockney’s Alphabet, a creative and charitable endeavour with the poet Sir Stephen Spender who invited a number of British and American writers to contribute original texts to accompany letters of the alphabet specially drawn for the AIDS Trust by David Hockney. Here’s an extract from Normal Mailer’s response to the letter F, shown above.

“I am working on a novel and it’s acting like most such creatures – insists upon being a wife. You poets don’t know how lucky you are with your one-night stands. This novel is a most possessive matrimonial partner and won’t let me out of her sight for even two days to let me have some fun with the letter F. Incidentally, I am sure you are aware what a compliment you are paying me with that letter – ahhh, the fonts of fucking. Ah, well, some pleasures one must wave to from afar.”

Stephen’s says his other more racy material are books like The Subterraneans and A Clockwork Orange “but don’t put them where children can see them and wouldn’t publicly display them or post photographs on the website that would deliberately offend people.”

I’ve sold 19th Century French erotica, which is fine, but, if I’m honest is strong stuff!”

Foster Books 183 Chiswick High Road London W4 2DR

*A facsimile of The Kelmscott Chaucer and the original printing press on which it was made on can be seen at The William Morris Society Museum – it’s free to visit on Thursdays and Saturdays 2-5pm.