May 2, 2020


Eighty years ago, on 10 May 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. Germany was invading France. From that day, Churchill’s wisdom, wit, bravery and profoundly humane spirit guided the British people, and the world, to ultimate victory. Churchill’s clear-headedness in the face of catastrophe, his resolution to inspire by appealing to the very best in those around him, remains an object lesson in leadership.

To celebrate the impending anniversary of Churchill taking charge, I am joining with Sotheby’s for a commemorative auction comprised of treasures entirely from my bookstore, Chartwell Booksellers—100 lots of rare books, photographs and manuscripts embracing the entirety of Churchill’s long life and career. The auction, titled CHURCHILL IN CHARGE/ 80thANNIVERSARY will commence on 10 May and run for ten days on Sotheby’s website.

Winston Churchill loved bookstores. One could compose a thorough history of London bookselling merely by reconstructing the history of all those shops that Churchill frequented. He seems to have paid his first personal bookstore bill as a 26-year-old, on 4 December 1900, in the amount of seventeen pounds-seventeen shillings-and-sixpence to his father’s favorite bookseller, the venerable James Bain. This bill extended to purchases by young Winston as far back as 1897. Upon clearing the debt to Bain, Churchill immediately bought more books from the seller, including copies of Rawlinson’s History of Herodotus, Morley’s Walpole, and Newman’s Apologia. His Bain acquisitions over the next two years included two sets of his father’s speeches and a copy of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, bought when the book was first published.

It appears that Winston Churchill’s final peacetime book purchase before the onset of the Second World War was from the only bookstore he patronized that remains in business today, the venerable Hatchard’s of Picadilly, which was established in 1797. In February 1939, Churchill bought two copies of The Bible as Literature from Hatchard’s, a fascinating choice when one considers the impending influence of the Bible as literature on the power of Churchill’s great speeches of the war.

Palace of Westminster, London

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We would like to think that Churchill’s bookstores in some small way contributed to Churchill’s ascent and ultimate success as Prime Minister. Here’s to Hatchard’s still growing strong after more than 200 years, a toast from Chartwell Booksellers, and for the longevity of bookstores everywhere and their continuing centrality in educating leaders and making them truly great.

Barry Singer is the proprietor of Chartwell Booksellers.

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