Spotlight on: European Schoolbooks

Established in 1964, European Schoolbooks is a much loved international bookshop in London and Cheltenham, UK. For founder Frank Preiss, 2020 was the 100th anniversary of his family’s first bookshop in Berlin. To mark this occasion, European Schoolbooks employee Tatiana Ameri asked Frank to tell us about the ups and downs of selling European books for young people in the UK…

Tatiana Ameri: European Schoolbooks was established in 1964. What were the company’s origins?

Frank Preiss: My father opened his first bookshop close to the Humboldt University in Berlin in 1920. The shop specialised in law, politics and economics and many of the most important books were in foreign languages, especially English. In 1925 my mother joined him. The business thrived.

1921-1933: the corner of Hegel Platz and Dorotheen Strasse, Berlin

However my father was Jewish and a social democrat and when Hitler took power in 1933, though not yet married, my parents were forced into exile. With the support of some leading British publishers they opened again in London.

Life was tough for Germans in England in the following years. In 1949 my father died, but my mother chose to keep the business going. From then onwards, throughout school and university, I spent many vacations in the bookshop, so when I left university in 1961 and became a bookseller I already knew a lot about the trade, or thought I did.

1952-1981: Bury Place, London

At that time Britain was experimenting with teaching languages in primary schools. Our bookshop was known for dealing in European languages and literatures and in 1963 the school librarians of one of the counties taking part in the trial asked us to create a collection of authentic French children’s books simple enough to enthuse English eight-year-olds.

Our collection was a success, so we offered it to all the other counties involved in the experiment. But this meant changes to our business that my mother, my boss, did not want.

So with her blessing and help, I dreamed up and set up European Schoolbooks Ltd, in a modest basement near the bookshop at the grand address of 100 Great Russell Street. 

1990-2016: Warwick Street, London

TA: When you started the company, one of your main areas of focus was children’s literature. Is children’s literature still important to you?

FP: Not so much literature as reading and language. Reading is a vital skill every child needs. Whatever literature they then choose will enrich their language and is the nicest way to learn to read.

TA: How did the idea of adding course books and other language-learning materials come about?

FP: It was a natural development once ESB built its customer base of schools, colleges and bookshops. 

TA: Do you speak any foreign languages? I’ve heard that European Schoolbooks has a vast linguistic and cultural diversity among its staff. Could you tell us more about this?

FP: I was born in 1939, a bad time to learn German. Nevertheless, I grew up with the language all around me and for a while, when I was about 10, I even had some private lessons after school.

My first serious languages were the classics, Latin from 7 and Greek from 9, then right through to university, with a little French at school to fill Friday afternoons.

I really only got to speak French and German tolerably well when ESB got going. And my classics, though long since forgotten, still help me to read a little Spanish and Italian.

ESB’s staff are another matter: we have several graduates with English and at least two other European languages each, several of them native speakers. Between them they muster French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Czech, Polish and probably others I have forgotten. As a convinced European, this mini-Europe within our office walls gives me great pride and pleasure.

TA: In your opinion, how has the interest in foreign languages changed in the UK over the last 50 years?

FP: It’s a bitter fact that interest in language learning has faded inexorably over that time. The dominance of English at all levels of European education and business has made the study of other European languages harder and – it might seem – ever more pointless.

TA: What do you think can motivate young people in the UK to learn foreign languages?

FP: The old saying is: you can always buy in English; to sell you must speak your customer’s language. Thanks to Brexit, Britain now has more need of speakers of European languages than ever before. Young people looking for interesting jobs and careers have every incentive to learn and use other languages.

But there is more. Like it or not, the British are Europeans. We share a common European culture. In the past language could keep us apart. Now, combined with travel, each new language we learn can bring us a bit closer together.

TA: How has your company adjusted to the new reality which we all have been living with since March?

FP: The problem is: we don’t know what the new reality will be. Like everyone else our business has been badly damaged by the pandemic. For nine months we have been focused on survival, while trying to imagine and plan for our future after the virus has been tamed. 

2012 – present: The European Bookshop and The Italian Bookshop at 123 Gloucester Road

TA: With the proliferation of online platforms (which have become even more prevalent during the pandemic), do you think there’s a future for traditional bookshops and traditional books?

FP: Traditional books are proving very resilient. There is certainly a future for smaller bookshops serving a local community. These shops have a strong social function as places not just for buying and paying, but as somewhere to meet, browse, share, consult, debate and learn.

Bigger bookshops, and specialised bookshops like ours,  that depend more on institutional and less on local custom will have to adapt, especially by going online. For better or worse, that is the route we have decided to take.

TA: Which books did you grow up with? Were there any children’s books (by European or other authors) in translation which you enjoyed as a child?

FP: I spent a lot of time reading in our family bookshop as a child but remember very little except the complete series of Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome. I’m sure I read books by European writers, but I wouldn’t have been aware of the fact.

TA: How was reading encouraged in your family? Can you see any change in reading habits between yourself, your children, and your grandchildren?

FP: My wife and I didn’t need encouragement; we can’t remember a time when we didn’t read. We didn’t need to encourage our children either; we just bought them books. Both became musicians, but it didn’t stop them reading. Our grandchildren spend a lot of time on their tablets, but seem to read more as they get older. 

TA: Could you summarise in one sentence why learning foreign languages is important?

FP: To learn another language is to develop your brain, enrich your personality, deepen your understanding of the world – and may even help you get a better job.

TA: This year, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of bookselling in the Preiss family.  Could you share any tips for such an outstanding and very reassuring longevity?

FP: I only have one. I didn’t choose to be a bookseller: I wanted to be a publisher. Having a family bookshop but no money, bookselling seemed the best route. In fact the business of bookselling taught me a lot about selling anything. It also brought together a number of different interests I had had since university: languages, linguistics, new theories of language learning, office automation, computing. So my tip would be: whatever career you choose, make sure it lets you follow your real interests, before 5 o’clock and after. That way, you need never retire.


Buy European books online

The company European Schoolbooks Ltd has two shops in London and several websites where you can buy language-learning textbooks and literature for a broad range of European languages.