1 July 2019
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch goes by the book.
When I visit Henley Royal Regatta, I am lucky enough to have access to two very special places: The Stewards’ Enclosure and Leander. However, there is a third Henley ‘club’ that I belong to that gives me equal pleasure, and it is one that requires no membership application or annual fees. The only qualification for joining this Henley institution is an intelligent interest in literature and/or history and/or rowing. I refer to the rowers’ Mecca that is Richard Way’s Bookshop at 54 Friday Street, a place that I first wrote about it in 2012. As you cannot plagiarise yourself, I quote at length the piece that I first wrote about seven years ago:
This delightful little shop sells general antiquarian and second-hand books but also has a rowing section containing everything from leather bound Victorian tomes on ‘aquatics’ to the most recent paperback on high performance sculling. They also sell rowing prints and ephemera but the memorabilia that decorates the shop is, unfortunately, not for sale. At this point I would usually put in a link to the shop’s website, but, to complete the slightly Dickensian air, it does not have one. If you put ‘Way’s Bookshop’ into a search engine, the best you will do is find some complementary user reviews. This is typical:
‘This is a beautiful tucked away antique and second-hand bookshop. It is so full of books that it can be a bit hard to know where to start, but the owner is lovely and extremely helpful, should you want something specific…’
In an age of obtaining books from the Internet and from large high street chains, an independent bookshop in a small country town seems to be an anachronism. This was not the situation in 1977 when Richard Way and Diana Cook bought the shop. The previous owner had a small selection of books of interest to some visitors to the regatta but Diana and Richard started to build up this part of their trade, initially selling older books but eventually also stocking new publications. Richard is a wooden boat builder and so already had some knowledge of rowing and the river but for Diana, it was to be the start of having to become something of an expert on rowing and its history.
Way’s lack of a website does not mean that it does not have a healthy national and international trade; it is simply conducted by letter and telephone. Diana does not deny that putting their stock on the Internet would increase business but she doubts that the extra turnover would cover the increased costs, particularly of extra staff.
In the past Way’s have handled large and important rowing libraries including those of the rowing journalist and historian, Geoffrey Page and also of a past Henley Chairman and Leander President, Harold Rickett.
When I asked Diana what proportion of the shop’s trade was in rowing books she claimed that she has deliberately not worked out the figures on this. She suspects that the general sales ‘subsidise’ the rowing section and, if Way’s was entirely motivated by profit and loss, there would be little shelf space devoted to things aquatic.
54 Friday Street is so much more than a place to buy books. It is also a publisher, a club, a research centre and a meeting place for old and new friends, something that deserves the support of the rowing community. So, next time you need a rowing book, do not order it online, instead visit or contact Way’s and deal with a real person who offers polite and knowledgeable service. You will not get this from an Internet dealer – even if they are named after a South American river.
Returning to 2019, I asked Diana what particular treasures she had in stock at present:
We have a splendid array of Edwardian and Victorian rowing prints together with a large selection of early rowing almanacks from 1898, bought from two rowing libraries, and the usual rowing stock that is here. Not to mention the main thrust of the shop which is rare, antiquarian and selected rare and secondhand books, at all levels of price and from all eras. We are a good bolthole from the regatta if you want Bulldog Drummond, Virgil or an architectural monograph.
Two particularly nice prints that are currently in the shop depict Henley in its Victorian heyday.
Two other famous images from this series that are presently on sale are ‘The Island’ (depicting Temple Island when used as a Regatta enclosure with the important oarsmen of the times portrayed) and ‘The Leander Enclosure’ (from the time that Leander’s only clubhouse was in Putney).
If you are visiting Henley during the Regatta, a visit to Friday Street is highly recommended. Apart from the fact that it is a civilised oasis of calm in the genteel scrum that Henley can be at regatta time, it is also the sort of place where you can often find the book or print that you were looking for – and then another that you hadn’t known that you wanted.
Richard Way’s Bookshop, 54 Friday Street, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 1AH. Telephone 01491 576663. Open Monday to Saturday, from 10 am to 5 pm.