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Ivan Chambers – obituary 1998

Ivan Chambers, the witty, erudite and  distinguished bookseller has died at the age of  ninety five. Chambers was born in Philippopolis in Bulgaria on January 20th 1902, where his  father was working on the financial side of a silk spinning factory. He returned to England as a small child and was educated at St George’s Roman Catholic School, Walthamstow, although he  had been baptised into the Orthodox church. When he was five he caught polio and had to spend much of his childhood on his back, during which time he developed a passion for literature; he was left with a withered right arm and a left arm which he could not lift properly: ‘I worked on half an arm.’   He left school aged 14 and ‘thereafter I was an autodidact’ . His career started in the city as a linguist for an importer/exporter but in 1925 he started work at W.J.Bryce’s bookshop in Holborn; the shop soon moved to Museum Street, opposite the British Museum, in a building belonging to Stanley Unwin and Chambers stayed there, after the shop was bought by Bowes and Bowes, until his retirement in 1971. It was through working for Chambers at Bryces ‘the original pedigree bookshop’ from 1967 to 1969 that I first learned about ‘personal bookselling’; the importance of establishing relationships with customers and the exciting possibilities of enthusing people with previously unknown works. He was much loved and revered by both staff and customers and after his retirement many  continued to keep in touch with him.

He had a particular love of Scandinavia and the Orkneys and their literature, and had a long correspondence with George Mackay Brown. He spent many holidays cycling in northern Europe with his father until he  married Kathleen, a painter, in 1943; as a director he was earning £250 p.a. and was refused a rise being told that  ‘your reward will be in the hereafter, my dear boy.’ He stayed despite having no religious convictions.  He said of his relatively late marriage ‘I was a late developer’, but his withered arm had made him shy. Bryce made him become an associate bookseller and he began to become more confident and to find his skill as a public speaker. The war was a difficult time at Bryce’s;  prior to the war the shop had  supplied many schools with their books and prizes but at the outbreak of war in September 1939, many schools cancelled their orders and publishers were reluctant to take returns. During the war Chambers often worked seven days a week supplying many prisoner-of-war camps with hand-picked packages of books which were sent through the British Red Cross, as well as supplying  Churchill with his personal books.

From 1936 until his death Chambers was a member of the Society of Bookmen, he gave evidence  for the defence at the enquiry into the Net Book Agreement at the Old Bailey in 1961, was an executive on the National Book Council, Chairman of the London branch of the Booksellers Association and was awarded the OBE in 1970. He was a much sought after witty and mannered public speaker, who had a great precision with words and who spoke at dinners in honour of Sir Stanley Unwin, Miss Dillon and at many other events connected with the book trade. When he retired  the Society of  Bookmen gave a lunch in honour of Chambers, ‘one of the most delightful characters of the book trade’, at the Criterion Restaurant for 140 friends, colleagues and admirers including Angus Wilson who represented Bryce’s customers.

He retired to Axminster in Devon where he joined the Arts Society and where he was the voluntary curator at the local museum. Although his sight failed his mind remained active to the end. He is survived by his wife and daughter.

Ivan Chambers born Bulgaria Jan. 20th 1902. Died Axminster, Devon  Jan. 1st 1998.

Sarah Anderson

January 1998