Christina Foyle, manager of her family's renowned London bookstore, W & G Foyle Ltd., and founder of Foyle's literary lunches, died Tuesday at her home, Beeleigh Abbey in Essex, England. She was 88.
Foyle had just finished boarding school in Switzerland when she began working in the celebrated Charing Cross Road bookshop built in 1929 by her father and uncle.
Once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest bookshop (at its height it reportedly had 30 miles of bookshelves spread over four floors), Foyle's is an eccentric place where clerks still calculate bills in their heads, computerized inventories are nonexistent, books are filed by publisher and customers are forced to scurry from counter to counter to get a bill for a book, pay it and then pick up their purchase.
Walt Disney enjoyed browsing among the art books. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, once spent a whole morning in the philosophy department. Noel Coward said he found inspiration for his saga of two families, "Cavalcade," in some musty volumes there.
The dotty but imperious Foyle maintained the shop's Dickensian flavor. She was notorious for hiring unhelpful staff and paying them poorly, weaknesses that a rival book chain cheekily exploited in an advertising slogan: "Foyled again? Try Dillons." Describing the place, one exasperated customer said: "Imagine Kafka had gone into the book trade . . ."
Because of her love of books, however, Foyle tolerated one man who came in every day to read one chapter of a book, leaving a bookmark so he could find his place on his next visit. He never bought a book.
"I don't mind," Foyle said in a 1996 interview. "As long as he doesn't steal anything."
Foyle's chief contribution to the book business was the monthly literary luncheon she started in 1930 when she was 19. It continued for 70 years under her personal guidance.
Held for years at the Dorchester Hotel, the luncheons were attended largely by ladies in hats desiring a little culture with their lunch. The guests of honor ranged from writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame and philosopher Bertrand Russell to luminaries as diverse as Jimmy Durante, H.G. Wells and Margaret Thatcher.
Once, Foyle borrowed a wax statue of a famous murderer from Madame Tussaud's for a luncheon featuring crime writers. A guest later tried to shake its hand.
Playwright and vegetarian George Bernard Shaw eluded Foyle for years. Hinging one of his rejections on Foyle's vegetarian menu, he told her he would have to decline because he could not tolerate the sight of 2,000 guests crunching celery.
Foyle once rebuked Hitler for having Jewish books burned and offered to buy them instead. Hitler declined, writing that he "would no sooner corrupt the morals of the British than those of the Germans."
Foyle was married for 56 years to Ronald Barry, who ran the store's antique books catalog. He died in 1994. They had no children but lived with 15 cats and four peacocks at Beeleigh Abbey. Foyle often said that when she died the store, recently valued at more than $14 million, would be closed. One of her nephews said this week he would continue the luncheons.