Watkins, Geoffrey (1896-1981)
Watkins, Geoffrey (1896-1981)
Proprietor and later director of Watkins Book Shop, a major London bookstore dealing in the literature (both new and used) of the occult, alternative religous traditions, and esoteric philosophy since 1894, when Watkins' father John M. Watkins founded the company at the instigation of Theosophist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. The bookshop has long been a meeting place for leading personalities in such subjects as metaphysics, mystical and hermetic studies, oriental and comparative religion, parapsychology, astrology, and the occult. John Watkins was a close friend of Blavatsky, who was co-founder of the Theosophical Society. Carl G. Jung, Aldous Huxley, William Butler Yeats, and magician Aleister Crowley were frequent visitors to the shop. Crowley was reputed to have caused thousands of books in the store to vanish and reappear by his occult powers, but, like other stories about Crowley and invisibility, this apocryphal story retains its element of tongue-in-cheek humor.
Watkins, who carried on his father's tradition in the book-shop, was born June 7, 1896. He attended a private school in Heidelberg, Germany. Known to close friends as "Wattie" or "Nigel," he was employed by British Intelligence in both World Wars. In World War I, his duties included interrogation of German officers who were prisoners of war. In World War II, he was concerned with the distribution of top-secret documents to appropriate government departments.
One of his closest friends was Christmas Humphreys, who was president of the Buddhist Society for many years and author of numerous books on Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. Humphreys acknowledged Watkins' valuable assistance in the preface to his book Concentration and Meditation (1935).
Watkins took over running the bookshop when his father became blind. During his tenure running the bookshop international visitors most remembered him as a spiritual guide rather than a bookseller. Though specializing in selling occult books, he disliked the word "occultism" because of its perjorative connotations. His own special interests lay elsewhere, in depth psychology and the spiritual wisdom commonly called the "perennial philosophy," a term popularized by Aldous Huxley in his book of that name.
Kathleen Raine stated in an obituary in Temonos (no.2, 1982):
"Geoffrey Watkins was far more than a bookseller; indeed he was perhaps the only bookseller who made a practice of advising customers (many of whom were, or became, his friends) against purchasing books which he thought unsuitable for their particular interests, or too valuable to be entrusted to ignorant hands…. As to his courtesy, he welcomed his customers as his guests, assuming that we were seekers for wisdom, and meeting each of us at the level of our learning (or our ignorance) as he was well able to do. He seemed always to have time to listen. When we left, he saw us to the door of his shop like a courteous host."
Repotedly, Watkins had an encyclopedic knowledge of books and was well-informed on all aspects of the groups, societies, and individuals in the fields of mysticism and occultism. He gave valuable information to many individuals who later became famous. Kathleen Raine, who has since published many works of poetry, literary criticism, and philosophy, acknowledged the help Watkins gave her in her special studies on Thomas Taylor the Platonist. Alan Watts also paid tribute in his autobiography In My Own Way (1972):
"Nigel [Geoffrey Watkins] runs the most magical bookshop in the world, and is the most unobstrusively enlightened person I have ever known…. Nigel not only became my bibliographer on Buddhism, comparative religion, and mysticism, but also my most trusted adviser on the various gurus, pandits, and psychotherapists then flourishing in London…. In the Watkins bookshop one would expect at any moment, to come across a Mahatma or a high Lama visiting England on a secret mission to feel out academically accredited professors. Instead of giving lectures and holding seminars, he simply tells you what to read…. He never tries to convert anyone to a system. He is what the Japanese would call a buji-nin; a man without affectations, who has also compassion and clarity of mind."
With the death of Watkins, many regular customers at the bookshop felt they had lost a true friend and wise guide. Meanwhile, the bookshop started by his father continues to flourish.