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Mike Henbrey, Collector Of Books, Ephemera & Tools

July 9, 2015
by the gentle author

Mike Henbrey

On the outside, Mike Henbrey’s council flat looks like any other – but once you step inside and glimpse the shelves of fine eighteenth century leather bindings, you realise you are in the home of an extraordinarily knowledgeable collector. High up in the building, Mike sits peacefully in his nest of books, brooding and gazing out at the surrounding tree tops through his large round steel glasses and looking for all the world like a wise old owl.

Walls lined with diverse pairs of steel dividers and shelves of fat albums testify to his collections of tools and ephemera. It is all the outcome of a trained eye and a lifetime of curiosity, seeking out wonders in the barrows, markets and salerooms of London, enabling Mike to amass a collection far greater than his means through persistence and knowledge.

The Vinegar Valentines I published earliest this week came from Mike’s albums of ephemera. “Of all my collections, they are the one that gives me the most pleasure,” he assured me with characteristic singularity, despite his obviously kind nature. Immensely knowledgeable yet almost entirely self-educated, Mike is drawn to neglected things that no-one else cares for and this is the genius of his collecting instinct.

Of course, I wanted to pore through all of Mike’s books and albums, but I had to resist this impulse in order to discover his own story and learn how it was that he came to gather his wonderful collection.

“I was born in Chingford in 1943 but, unfortunately, we moved to Norfolk when I was eight. I never liked it there, it was a lonely, cold and draughty place. My father James was a furrier and his father – who was also James – had been a furrier before him in the East End, but they moved out. My mother, Laura Lewis, was a machinist who worked for my father and I think she came from the East End too. I grew up playing in the furriers because my father had his factory in the back garden and the machinists gave me sweets. I think that’s where I got my love of tools.

There was quite a lot of bombing in Chingford during the war and the house next to us got a direct hit which left a great big crack in our wall. I played on bomb sites even though I was told not to, and somehow my mother always seemed to know. I think it must have been the mixture of brick dust and soot on my clothes.

It was a filthy dirty job, being a furrier, and, although my father was a good furrier, he wasn’t a good businessman and he ended up in bankruptcy when I was eight. So that’s how we ended up in Mundesley by the sea in North Norfolk in the early fifties.

As soon as I left school at sixteen, I headed back to London. Ostensibly, it was to complete my training in the catering trade but I hated it, I had already done a year at catering college in Norwich. In reality, I was taking lots of drugs – dope and speed mostly – and working at a night club. I got a job on the door of club called The Bedsitter in Holland Park Avenue. I actually had a bedsitter off Holland Park itself for five pounds a week with a gas ring in the corner. That was a good time.

I worked at a hotel in Park Lane for a few months. The chef used to throw things at me. They fired me in the end for turning up late. I drifted through life by signing on and working on the side, and the club gave me a good social life. I’m a vicarious hedonist. I’ve always read a lot, I taught myself to read by reading my brother’s copies of Dandy and Beano. He was ten years older than me and he died in his early thirties.

A hippy friend of mine was a packer at a West End bookshop in Grafton St and he got me a job there. I worked for Mr Sawyer, he was a nice man. He employed hippies because they didn’t mind his cigar smoke and he never noticed the smell of pot in the packing room. He employed me as a porter but he told me to buy a suit and I got a job in the bookshop itself. I learnt such a lot while I was there. It was nice to be around books, so much better than working for a living.

Mr Gibbs was the shop manager, he taught me how to catalogue. He couldn’t understand why he kept finding more money in his pay packet. It was because we youngsters kept asking for a pay rise and Mr Sawyer couldn’t give it to us without giving it to Mr Gibbs too.

Mr Gibbs taught me not to speak to Mr Sawyer until he’d been around to Brown’s Hotel for his ‘breakfast’ and I presume this was because ‘breakfast’ consisted of at least three gin and tonics. He was a kind employer, he didn’t pay much but you learnt a lot. He had a tiny desk hidden behind a bookcase with two old spindly chairs that were permanently on the brink of collapse. The place was a university of sorts. I learnt so much so quickly. You can’t always recognise good stuff until you’ve had it pass through your hands.

Mr Sawyer would go through the auction catalogue of books and mark how much you were to bid and send you off to Sotheby’s. You had to stay on the ball, because sometimes he’d make an agreement with other booksellers not to let him get a lot below a certain price, because he’d be bidding for a customer and he’d be on commission. In those days, it was possible to make living by frequenting Sotheby’s and buying books. You learn a lot about the peculiarities of the bookselling trade. I think I was earning fourteen pounds a week. It was positively Dickensian.

By then I had met my wife Jeanna. We got married in 1965 and moved around between lots of flats we couldn’t afford. Jeanna & I started a book stall in Camden Passage called Icarus. I love the street markets like Portobello and Brick Lane. We made a lot of sales and I bought some wonderful stuff in street markets when you could discover things, and I’ve still got some of it.

We had two daughters, Samantha & Natasha, but Jeanna died young. We were living in Islington in Highbury Fields and I was left on my own to bring up the kids, who were eight and three years old at the time. That’s when I got this council flat, on account of being  a single parent, and I’ve been here thirty-eight years. I lived on benefits with bookselling on the side to bring in some extra money and brought up my kids with the help of girlfriends.

A friend of mine had a secondhand tool shop and I worked there for a while. You could buy old tools from the sixteenth and seventeenth century for not very much money then, and we had some that no-one ever wanted to buy, so I brought them home. I am fascinated by tools for specialist professions, each one opens a door to a particular world. I still have my father’s furriers’ tools and they pack into such a small box.

From then on I’ve been a book dealer. Once you fall out of having a regular job, it’s difficult to go back. I think my kids regard me with mixture of mild disappointment and tolerance. On occasion, they have generously put up with me spending money on books instead of dinner.

I’ve always been a collector, reference books mainly, and from there I’ve become a dealer. I’m not interested in fiction but I do love a good reference book.”

Sawyer, the bookseller in Grafton St where Mike Henbrey once worked

Mr Gibbs, bookshop manager

Mike Henbrey, Collector of books, ephemera and tools

You may also like to take a look at

Mike Henbrey’s Vinegar Valentines

Vinegar Valentines for Bad Tradesmen

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Glenn permalink
    July 9, 2015

    Lovely story. This is what you do best. Thanks.

  2. Sharon Carr permalink
    July 9, 2015

    Loved his story. Thanks so much Gentle Author.

  3. Brian R Bird permalink
    July 9, 2015

    a really interesting character!

  4. Jane Jones permalink
    July 9, 2015

    A life of great achievement – a very civilized man.

  5. July 9, 2015

    Yes, my collecting instinct also brought me my own large library — thousands of books I love to live with every day!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  6. July 9, 2015

    lovely story, perfectly — and even poetically — tagged :
    Cultural Life, Human Life, Literary Life, Market Life

  7. Neville Turner permalink
    July 9, 2015

    A good article of an interesting life as lived in the here and now, well done Mike Hendrey.

  8. July 9, 2015

    Very authentic.

  9. Annie permalink
    July 10, 2015

    He seems like a man contented with himself. And a room of one’s own. Filled with books. Possibilities literally endless. An interesting life. Thank you for this, GA.

  10. Mike permalink
    July 12, 2015

    So good

  11. Firle SAWYER permalink
    July 14, 2015

    Dear Mike –

    What happened to all that hair ?! I remember the drain pipe jeans and your winkle pickers shoes … ;) !

    Unfortunately, Richard passed away a couple of years ago – he had edited Pickwick playing cards (which never took off) and bought The Bookseller towards the end of his life, which didn’t bring him the fame and fortune he had hoped for. Following in the family tradition, he was an active mason.

    I’m pretty sure I must have a photo of you somewhere in my wedding photos ! God, that was a long time ago !

    My most poignant memory of the old Sawyers was of going down those back stairs to ge to the packing room … it always struck me as something of a dungeon, and that musty smell still haunts me!

    With very best wishes, and thanks for bringing up old memories,
    Firle

  12. July 16, 2015

    Was the tool shop mentioned the one in Upper Street and later in Cross Street?
    I have many calipers in my collection, some bought there.
    Check out http://www.object-ivity.com.

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