The BookBrunch Interview: David Headley

Tim Relf
News - Interviews Tuesday, 16 October 2018

David Headley is a busy man - co-owner of the Goldsboro Books store, literary agent, publisher. Tim Relf finds out what motivates him, why he runs a fiction prize - and how training to be a priest made him the man he is


One of David Headley's most treasured possessions is a Danny, The Champion of the World first edition.

It's special, he says, because he can still recall the effect of reading Roald Dahl's story as a child. "I remember where I was, the classroom I was in, even the smell of that classroom - I can remember everything about that book, because it made me feel very different about reading, and I just wanted to devour more and more books."

Nowadays, whether it's in his role at Goldsboro, at DHH Literary Agency (which he founded in 2008) or at the Dome Press (2016), he's still craving the same "visceral" reaction when he begins reading a novel. "I love books. I can't be anywhere without them. I want to be surrounded by them and I know many, many people feel the same way. I want to feed their habit. It's a good addiction to have."

Headley's passion for buying books began when he 11, when he would spend school lunchtimes in the Ken Spelman rare bookstore in Micklegate in York. "I bought as much as I could afford," he recalls.

Nowadays, his collection numbers between 3,000 and 5,000 (he can't pin down a more precise figure). And it is, of course, for its signed first editions that Goldsboro, the central London store that Headley launched with his friend Daniel Gedeon, is celebrated. One of the largest independents in the UK, selling only hardback fiction, it draws readers and collectors from across the world.

The store, he says, is curated to make it easy for visitors to browse - rather than being so crowded with tables and books that there's too much to see. "Homely," is how he describes it. "As if you were looking through our bookcases. I want it to feel like my living room."

Giving something back
The shop celebrated its 18th birthday last year, and it was to mark that milestone that Goldsboro launched the Glass Bell Award, a £2,000 prize for contemporary fiction. "It's really a thank you," he explains. "We wanted to give something back to the authors and publishers who have supported us and to promote books that we've loved reading."

The second winner, announced last month, was The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne: the story of Cyril Avery, born out of wedlock to a teenage girl and adopted by an eccentric Dublin couple. "It had me laughing aloud one minute then on the verge of tears the next," says Headley. "It captured me entirely."

The Glass Bell (the name was chosen as a nod to the "GB" in Goldsboro Books) has been widely welcomed, not least because it's the only award to reward storytelling in any genre - from romance and crime to historical and speculative. "There are so many great stories out there with great heart," Headley says.

When it comes to crime and thrillers, however, Headley is planning a special celebration - he's launching the Capital Crime Festival with the novelist and screenwriter Adam Hamdy. To be held at a yet-to-be-revealed Covent Garden venue in London in September next year, the festival will offer a chance for fans to meet, not just authors, but also those responsible for adapting them into other media. "From Sherlock Holmes to James Bond, George Smiley to Cormoran Strike, London is home to some of the best-loved crime and thriller characters. Yet it is one of the few places in the UK that doesn't have a dedicated crime and thriller festival," Headley explains.

Meanwhile, he's also launching a "Pitch an agent" day in York in December, when aspiring authors will have a chance to wow members of the DHH team. "Many people aren't able to spend hundreds of pounds travelling to London, so we plan to start travelling around the UK to look for them. York is my home city, so it feels right to start there."

London, however, has proved the perfect venue for Goldsboro, even if the genteel and sedate Cecil Court venue, just a few steps from Leicester Square, doesn't quite feel like a city centre spot. "I love Goldsboro so much," he says. "It's my biggest achievement - I am so proud of it."

Setting up Goldsboro
The genesis of the business was when Headley and Gedeon decided to set up an online bookseller in the 1990s selling signed first editions. The pair had become friends while training for the priesthood together - an experience which, he says, indelibly shaped him.

"It made me the person I am. It gave me an education that I'll always be grateful for and it made me think better. I lived in a community with people and learnt huge lessons about myself, but I also learnt a lot about other people. When I was 23 or 24 I left, and I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life - because, for as long as I could remember, that's all I was going to do. Training to be a priest was the greatest thing that I ever did and leaving was the biggest regret, but it was also the biggest relief."

So why the change of course? "There's a very simple answer to that," he says. "Celibacy was never going to be easy for me. I never wanted to be a single person for the rest of my life."

As their fledgling venture grew, Headley and Gedeon soon realised they needed a venue if they were going to get large quantities of books signed by authors. Visiting a friend in Cecil Court, Headley heard that one of the premises was about to become available. They started in number 1, moved to number 7, then to 25 and 23; three years ago, they knocked through to 27.

Goldsboro turned over just over £1 million last year, and employs eight people. Right now, the book with the highest price tag is a copy of Ian Fleming's Live and Let Die, priced at £11,000. But, as Headley points out, if you wanted to spend that sort of money and weren't a James Bond fan, your options are numerous: you could spent it on 11 books costing £1,000 each, or on hundreds at nearer £10 and start a whole new library.

Perennial sellers
There are "perennials" such as Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Durrell who will always sell, while others can remain on the shelves for longer. "Every year our stock value increases - it's my biggest business challenge, because I'm investing in more and more books. I don't want to invest in books, I want to sell books! But as a book lover you sometimes see something and you think: I have to have that to sell in the bookstore."

Some of his stock, he admits, he almost doesn't want to let go. Take the copy of A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul, priced at £2,000. "He's never going to sign another book," says Headley. "I always have this sense that I'm not going to see another signed copy again."

For a man who loves "story", it's not solely about the ones within the books - it's the stories of the books themselves. Like the copy of Rip Van Winkle signed by Joseph Jefferson, the famous American comic actor, to his grandson. "The book itself has become a story," Headley says. "I saw it and I knew it was a lot of money, but I had to have it because it's more than the book now, it's history."

He has had it for about three years and, though "very happy" that it is still in stock, is confident someone will snap it up. "There are so many things about that book that might appeal to people - and £1,000 in my bank is better than sitting on my bookcase."

As for what he'll do with the money, though, as and when he does find a buyer? Of course: "I'll invest in more books."

The Glass Bell Award longlist 2018
* The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne (Transworld)*
American War by Omar El Akkad (Picador)
The Nix by Nathan Hill (Picador)*
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (HarperFiction)*
The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz (Century)
Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land (Michael Joseph)*
The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd (Century)
You Don't Know Me by Imran Mahmood (Michael Joseph)*
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (4th Estate)
The Ice by Laline Paull (4th Estate)
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (HarperCollins)
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell (Bloomsbury Raven)*
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (4th Estate)

*Shortlisted

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