Obituary: Philip Joseph

Obituary: Philip Joseph

Jonathan Joseph remembers the life of his father Philip, founder of Books Etc.

Philip was born in London in 1922 and lived his early life in north-west London, attending City of London School for Boys. By his own admission he was not an academic boy, leaving school at 16 to join his father’s business—a small chain of tyre depots.

The outbreak of the Second World War was for Philip, as for many others, a turning point. Philip volunteered for the Royal Air Force and was accepted aged 18. He took a sea voyage to South Africa in the hold of a troop ship and trained as a pilot at one of the Empire Flying Schools in Kimberley, South Africa. Through the auspices of the Kimberley Jewish community, who provided hospitality to young Jewish servicemen, Philip was introduced into the home of Mrs Pauline Horwitz. There he met the academically brilliant 16-year-old Pamela, who had just finished school—and would later become his wife.

After being awarded his wings Philip went on to further air training which eventually saw him in active service in Coastal Command, flying Sunderland aircraft in 207 Squadron in West Africa. Philip’s father, Lionel, died towards the end of 1943 and as soon as Philip was demobbed in 1945 he returned to the UK and to the family business, Bestyres, which he ran competently for several years.

In 1947, Pamela arrived at the port of Southampton to take up a postgraduate place at London University. Philip was there to meet Pam and they married later that year.

The first chapter

The Berlin Blockade and threat of a return to war in Europe led Philip and Pam to sell up and return to South Africa, setting up home in Johannesburg in 1949. In 1951, Pam—in partnership with Philip’s mother, Pauline—purchased a small second-hand bookshop in the centre of Johannesburg, renamed it Exclusive Books and thus started what was to become one of South Africa’s finest retail chains.

Philip expanded the business by setting up a further branch in 1954 in Hillbrow, then one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and over time created a remarkable formula for the sale of books—he made it an all-enveloping experience with a background of great music, late night and Sunday trading, all of which gave the shop an irresistible lure to Johannesburg’s burgeoning population. The shop was the epitome of cool.

Philip also found time to become the chairman of the South African Booksellers’ Association and a prominent voice against the censorship of books and magazines, a particularly odious feature of life in South Africa at the time.

He always had a desire to return to England and he sold Exclusive Books in 1978. He and Pam returned to settle in England in 1979. They found the dislocation from their lives in Johannesburg very difficult; England was changing fast, and Philip had not prepared for retirement and had few interests outside work. However, fate has a habit of intervening and they had only been back in the UK approximately two years when a very dear publisher friend, Alewyn Birch, approached Philip with the news that a small chain of London bookshops had gone into liquidation and that the assets were for sale. At that point, my brother Richard had also arrived in England and he, Pam and Philip acquired the assets and rechristened the business Books Etc.

Philip was a very effective negotiator; his slow deliberation—“keenness is the enemy of the bargain”—wore down the liquidator, and they acquired the business for less than the value of the stock. They started with five dilapidated branches and with great foresight and determination built up the Books Etc chain throughout the UK, pioneering ideas such as a full refund if you did not like the book you had bought and coffee shops within their stores—again the epitome of cool. By 1997 Books Etc had more than 40 branches and was contemplating a public listing on the London Stock Exchange.

A few days before Impact Day its advisory bank received a call from Borders Books in the US, which agreed to purchase the entire chain for cash. A board meeting was convened and the matter was carefully debated—for at least 30 seconds—and the deal was done.

Garrick fan

Philip was by then 75, and had in any event been looking to retire and assume a non-executive role at Books Etc and spend more time on his outside interests. He became an enthusiastic member of a rambling club and was able to combine a love of fresh air with a love of the English countryside. He was also the patriarch of a family consisting of three sons and their wives, together with nine grandchildren, and in 2009 he became a great-grandfather for the first time.

Throughout this time he never gave up his contact with the book world, whether as an investor in Richard’s publishing business [Arcadia Publishing], or as a proud and regular member of the Publishers Table at The Garrick—one of his greatest pleasures in later life was lunching there with several friends every Monday.

Philip became increasingly frail after his 91st birthday and fought it as only he could—a mixture of defiance and bloody-mindedness—and it was quite a fight. But finally, to the surprise of all of us—especially him— he died on 25th October 2015, aged 93. He leaves behind a large family, including his loving wife, 16 direct descendants, and numerous friends and admirers from all the spheres in which he moved.

Many tributes to Philip have poured in, and almost all of them have included the following descriptions: quietly authoritative; strong willed; quick sense of humour; great curiosity about the world; care for others; verve; and zest for life. Life with Philip was never less than challenging. But it was also interesting—particularly because of the vast number of friends who genuinely loved and admired him, and through their friendship helped to enrich all of our lives, as well as his.