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Sam Plank update 41: December 2021

A Daunting prospect: a history of Daunt Books

Isn’t timing funny?  I wrote this update over the weekend and then today Daunt Books contacted me to say that they no longer want to stock the Sam Plank books and will be returning the unsold copies.  It is a personnel issue, I think – the manager has changed – but that’s a battle for next year.  And I’m not going to let all this juicy research go to waste, so here’s one of my occasional series on the history of the bookshops selling (at some point!) the Sam Plank books.

The most famous of the nine shops in the Daunt Books chain-ette is undoubtedly their magnificent Edwardian premises on Marylebone High Street.  The older section of the shop is believed to be the oldest purpose-built bookshop in the world, but it was not fitted out for Mr Daunt.  The man to first sell books there was a Francis Edwards.  In 1855 he married Sarah Anne Stockley, whose papa – Gilkes (sic) Stockley – was a bookseller with a shop in Great Quebec Street near Portman Square.  After the marriage, Edwards took over Stockley’s business and five years later, with a growing family, he moved to Marylebone High Street and took a lease on number 83.  It was a fairly ordinary shop at the time, and the Edwards family lived above it.  Originally specialising in theology, the shop expanded under the management of Francis’s son – also named Francis – and became one of the country’s leading antiquarian bookshops.  With the Victorian interest in global expansion, theology gradually gave way to a new emphasis on travel, topography and maps.  And in 1908, Edwards junior embarked on a no-expense-spared project of rebuilding and refurbishment.  By then, he had moved his family out to the suburbs, and the whole building could be given over to books.  He chose as his architect W Henry White, and White created what is believed to be the first custom-built bookshop in the world, which reopened in 1912.  And it was quite the glorious place, with long oak galleries, sparkling skylights and William Morris wallpaper – much of the décor remains the same today.
Francis Edwards junior died in 1944, but the shop remained in the family until the late 1970s.  (Indeed, Francis Edwards still exists as an antiquarian bookselling business, with premises at Hay-on-Wye and in Charing Cross Road in London.)  Number 83 was bought by Pharos Books in 1982 and the shop was briefly known as Read’s of Marylebone High Street.  And then in 1989 a former banker called James Daunt bought it and renamed it Daunt Books, expanding into the shop next door in 1999.  It still specialises in travel books, but now stocks most other genres as well.  The latest venture for the Daunt Books group is the launch of Daunt Books Publishing in 2010, which publishes “the finest and most exciting new writing in English and in translation”.
I did try to get my little Regency crime foot in the door at the Marylebone branch, leaving them a copy of “Fatal Forgery” to consider, but as their crime and fiction sections are proportionately smaller than in most bookshops, they are extra-picky and Sam and I didn’t make the grade.  However, I realised that their branch in Cheapside – the heart of the City of London – might have a different clientele, and indeed the manager agreed with me, saying that those working in the surrounding banks and law firms might have a greater interest in financial crime…  And when Daunt Books made their first foray outside the capital, absorbing Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden into their group, I toddled along there too and convinced them to take a punt on a local author (Saffron Walden being a mere sixteen miles from my home in Cambridge).  In 2022, with the confidence of a full-time author and with seven Sam Plank books to my name, I may well try Marylebone again.
The shop-front of Francis Edward in Marylebone High Street
The gorgeous Edwardian interior of Daunt Books in Marylebone
James Daunt, bookseller - now running Barnes & Noble in America
The more modest premises of Daunt Books in Cheapside
When Sam had his own shelf in Cheapside...
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