Obituary: Philip Joseph 1922-2015

Obituary: Philip Joseph 1922-2015

It was standing room only at Golders Green Crematorium on Sunday (1st November) as family and friends from the many walks of his long life gathered to bid farewell to Philip Joseph, founder of Exclusive Books in South Africa and Books etc, a chain which enlivened London’s high streets before Waterstones opened its first stores.

The service was led by Rabbi Thomas Salamon, of the liberal Westminster Synagogue, who noted that Philip would be distressed to see “there aren’t enough books for everyone”.

The eulogy was given by Jonathan Joseph, eldest of Philip and Pamela’s three sons – Richard, the middle one, was the face of Books etc. It was “a sad but special occasion” for his father had lived “a very long and full life”. But he “wasn’t ready to quit” and only three weeks ago father and son had argued over passport renewal. Jonathan had expressed the view that it was “not top of the list. He took this as a gross insult – he still wanted to travel.”

A portrait emerged of a man in full, with passions for books, music, walking, good food and fine wine, walking and croquet (he was “fiercely competitive”) and for his large family, including great grandchildren, and “a vast number of friends”.

Born in north-west London 10 September 1922, Philip left school at 16 and joined the family tyre business. When war broke out, he volunteered for the RAF, recruited in the Long Room at Lords and sent to South Africa to train, qualifying as a Sunderland pilot and serving in Coastal Command.

It was while in South Africa that he met Pam, 16 and “utterly brilliant”. She came to London after VE Day to study at London University. Philip met her off the boat and they were soon married and back in South Africa where, in 1951, she bought a small second-hand bookshop in central Johannesburg: Exclusive Books. Philip, then in chemical manufacturing, thought it looked like his kind of business – but wife and mother-in-law said he’d have to open his own shop, which he did. At a time when bookselling was a snobby affair, Exclusive sold books for “Mr Everyman”, a formula that clearly worked: there are now some 50 stores.

But the climate in South Africa was unhappy. Censorship prevailed. So in 1978 the Josephs returned to London, where they had many friends in the book trade. One of them, Alewyn Birch (whose widow, Daphne was in the congregation), pointed out that the Words & Music chain was in liquidation. A tough negotiator, Philip Joseph acquired four of the leases for less than the cost of the stock in Charing Cross Road and set about transforming the shops. The Books etc logo appeared over the door in 1981, the “coolest” of bookshops and boasting coffee bars. Come 1997 there were 40 branches. The plan was to go public – but Borders wanted to open in the UK and called with the proverbial offer.

Joseph was by then 75, and he kept up with his publishing friends over weekly lunches at the Garrick. He found more time for opera, was active at the V&A and founded Friends of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The frailty of the last couple of years he’d fought with “a mixture of determination, bloody-mindedness and, from time to time, prescribed medication”.