STEVEN DOWNES on the founder of a sports book store and awards who helped to raise the status of sports writing in this country
The weekend saw the death of another figure of huge significance to British sports journalism and sports writing, though one likely to be overlooked in the welter of Ali tributes.
John Gaustad was not a sportsman, at least not a particularly noteworthy one, nor was he even a journalist. But in a brief couple of decades towards the end of the last century, he helped to create a new regard for books on sport, providing a ready outlet for sporting literature just off Charing Cross Road, and helped to establish, with Graham Sharpe at William Hill, an awards event which further elevated the craft of sports writing to a stature which it had only previously enjoyed in the United States.
Gaustad opened Sportspages on Caxton Walk in 1985, almost opposite where Les Miserables was playing at the Palace Theatre. In that pre-internet, pre-Amazon age, when journalists could not resort to Google or Wiki, and sports fans depended upon and devoured reference works such as Wisden, or what was then the Rothmans football annual, or the international athletics annual, Gaustad’s shop was unique, the first of its kind devoted to sport.
Books about sport, Gaustad maintained, “tell us as much about life as about sport”.
“I did a huge amount of research before opening the store, looking at how other book shops handled sport,” Gaustad said in an interview conducted for Sport magazine three years ago.
“Typically, there would be a few rather uncared-for and unkempt books in a tiny section right down the back, in a kind of dark alley. If you stood around for long enough, you would see the staff had zero interest in the books, and zero interest in the customers who came to ask about them.
“It was the kind of thing that really fired me up. If I could set up a shop as a haven for people who wanted to know about sports books then maybe they would love it.
“I have always said that you don’t have to be thick to like sport, which I believe a lot of English people felt at the time – and, importantly, sports books can be as good as any books. I wanted to give them the kind of position I believed they should have.”
“I started out the only employee,” Gaustad said, “a man with a dream.”
Simon Kuper, a devotee of the shop and later a winner of the Sports Book of the Year, wrote in the FT: “Strangely, Sportspages worked… The literature of football, Britain’s favourite sport, took off.”
The shop’s remit extended beyond conventional books, as special shelves were set aside for fanzines, produced by supporters seemingly of every professional club in England Scotland and Wales, and then some, plus sporting memorabilia and, what was then relatively new, vintage replica football shirts – at two decades’ distance, there was already nostalgia for 1966 and all that.
The shop also catered for far more than football fans; it was the only place in central London where you could reliably get hold of copies of Sports Illustrated, or find books and magazines on baseball, American football or rugby league. It was a shop that always made you feel welcome, where you could indulge your hopeless obsession in peace.
John Duncan, the former national newspaper sports desk executive, remembered those times vividly. “Sportspages was the cathedral of football fanzines and Gaustad was the archbishop.
“Going there on a Saturday meant discovering that there were a lot of people out there who cared about and laughed about the game like you did. In the days before social media, this was where you discovered the new stuff. Saturday morning at Sportspages was a pilgrimage, like a visit to your favourite local record store. It kept many people’s love of football alive during a dark period when we really could have seen the game banned (ridiculous as it sounds to write those words now).
“Gaustad was a quiet vital figure at a key moment and it’s sad that he’s gone.”
A publishing imprint was launched, and a Manchester branch was opened, and in 1989 the sports book award was launched. “I had an idea and a budget, and John had an idea and a venue, and we managed to bring it all together,” said Sharpe, the head of PR at William Hill.
“John’s death is a personal blow for me, it’s an absolute tragedy. He was a truly significant figure in the world of sports publishing.”
That significance can be measured in the roll of honour which the award which Gaustad helped to create now boasts. From Dan Topolski, the first winner in 1989, through Paul Kimmage, Thomas Hauser (whose Ali biography won in 1991), to Nick Hornby, Peter Oborne and Tom Bower, the status of the award has grown and the status of those writing on sport has soared.
Kuper, the 1994 winner, wrote: “Nick Hornby’s football fan’s memoir Fever Pitch, winner of the William Hill prize in 1992, is usually credited with pioneering the genre. However, Gaustad points to Pete Davies’ All Played Out (1990), which recounts England’s journey through that year’s World Cup. ‘Davies was John the Baptist to Hornby,’ said Gaustad. ‘His book helped define what Sportspages was about: committed fans talking loudly and interestingly about the game they loved. It was like a voice nobody had ever heard’.”
But while the sports book award flourished, Sportspages the store began to struggle. The Manchester branch did not survive the devastation of an IRA bombing, and the Sportspages publishing imprint was abandoned. By the start of this century, ever-steepling West End rents were putting the shop under increasing pressure, more so, even, than the arrival of the internet. Specialist book shops where customers might browse for hours without making a purchase were increasingly forced out of Charing Cross Road, to be replaced by tourist-friendly fast food joints and coffee shops.
After 18 years at the helm of the business he had created from nothing, in 2003 Gaustad stepped down as MD of Sportspages as the company was bought out by a mail order bookseller. Two years later, the shop went into administration and closed. Sportspages’ run on the Charing Cross Road was outlasted by Les Mis.
The “Bookies Prize” continued, and flourished, as the appetite for sports books continued to grow. It was only this year that Gaustad announced that, after 28 years as chair of the award judges, he was to retire.
It is another measure of the inspiration of John Gaustad that, by the time he stood down as chair, among the titles on the awards’ shortlist was one book which had managed to sell more than 1 million copies worldwide.
And for that, all sports writers, and sports readers, owe a debt of gratitude to John Gaustad.
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