The booksellers W. Heffer & Sons, although now reduced to a single large shop from an earlier chain, has long been a cherished Cambridge institution. It is still a very fine bookshop, now boasting a revived second-hand department, and is a testament to the occasional longevity of the book-trade, tracing its origins back to 1876.
The business began as a stationers at 104 Fitzroy Street, somehow brought into being from the most unpromising of personal circumstances by William Heffer (1844-1928). Heffer was born at Exning in Suffolk, the son of an agricultural labourer. At the age of eighteen, he married Mary Crick (1838-1930) at All Saints, Cambridge, on the 28th May 1863. Mary Crick had been employed as a housemaid from the age of fourteen and subsequently worked as a cook for a local doctor. By 1871 the couple had six (of an eventual total of nine) children to support and Heffer was employed as a humble groom. There is some suggestion that he subsequently managed a public house, but it was apparently with the aid of a modest loan that he was enabled to set up in business as a stationer.
Bookselling soon became an integral part of the business and by 1889 Heffer was publishing as well – a feature of the business for the next hundred years. The provision of cheap textbooks for undergraduates was a prominent part of the business and favourable arrangements with London publishers allowed the business to expand. In 1896 the business moved to a far more central position in Pety Cury (although still retaining the earlier premises 103 and 104 Fitzroy Street). As the younger children grew up in the bookshop, surrounded by books, they naturally enough joined in. By 1901 five of them were employed in the rapidly growing concern – Kate Adelaide Heffer (1867-1940), Ernest William Heffer (1871-1948), Lucy Mary Heffer (1873-1951), Frank Heffer (1876-1933) and Sidney Heffer (1878-1959).
It was as the oldest son engaged in the bookshop that Ernest William Heffer, the sixth child, became first a partner and eventually head of the firm. On 7th September 1897 he married Louisa Marion Beak (1869-1939) at All Saints, Peckham. His new wife was the daughter of the late and rather splendidly named Worthey Beak, a Berkshire farmer. She had previously been working as a nurse at the Woolwich & Plumstead Cottage Hospital. Living first at 7 Mill Road and later at 24 Chesterton Road, Ernest William and his wife had three children of their own – Arthur Beak Heffer (1899-1931), Eleanor Mary Heffer (1903-1991) and Reuben George Heffer (1908-1995).
Alongside their activities in printing, publishing and selling new books, the business was also strong in selling older material, handling, for example, the library of the late Sir Edmund Gosse in 1929. Ernest William Heffer served as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association in 1933. A series of lectures he gave in that year was published as recently as 2011 under the title Instructions to the Young Bookseller. Widowed in 1939, he died aged seventy-seven on 19th December 1948, his effects valued at a comfortable £35,223.6s.10d. He was buried at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge (Plot: 1B1), his grave adorned by a simple wooden cross (Find A Grave Memorial# 34761969).
His surviving son, Reuben George Heffer, having originally studied printing, worked in the bookshop from 1932 onwards and took charge in 1948, serving as chairman of the firm 1959-1975 (see ODNB). His own son Nicholas, great-grandson of the founder, became chairman in 1984. The business, although continuing to trade as Heffer’s, became part of the Blackwell Group in 1999 – merging with the Oxford-based business founded in 1879 by another ABA president, Benjamin Henry Blackwell.