Greta Helms was one of the first and most influential women within the Swedish book trade. She became head of sales at Albert Bonnier Förlag (publishing house) in 1937 and was the first woman in Bonnier’s management.
Greta Helm’s career within the Swedish book trade and publishing industry is in many ways exceptional. She started out as a bookshop assistant for Olga Hasselberg in 1920 after gaining her school-leaving certificate from Åtvidaberg högre folkskola (advanced public school). She worked at the bookshop for two years and then spent six years working at Arvid Hübinette’s bookshop in Östersund.
Following her attendance at the Svenska Bokhandelsskola (Swedish book trade school) in 1927 Greta Helm studied languages and the book trade in Paris. Subsequently, from 1929-1937, she was employed at Sandberg’s bookshop in Stockholm. Thanks to her thorough knowledge of the book trade she was recruited by the Albert Bonnier Förlag. During the period of 1937-1968 she worked for them as head of sales, then director of sales, and finally spent a few years serving on the company board. She was also the company representative in the Svenska bokförläggareförening (association of Swedish publishers).
Following her lengthy and successful career within Bonnier’s Greta Helms retired in the spring of 1968. By the autumn of that year she had set up Rediviva, a company which produced facsimiles. She turned her back on marketing best-sellers and mass-produced editions. Her company focused instead on producing exclusive editions of rare works in two main streams. The Suecica rediviva series was primarily targeted at historically interesting topographical works, some of which were published in exclusive numbered editions and others were tied to various provincial and rural organisations. However, Rediviva also published curiosa such as manuals and light-hearted guidebooks in smaller formats. The Åhlén & Holm catalogue became the company’s first major success.
The publishing content also comprised a third seam – bibliographies. This section survived the longest as the works included often proved important to librarians and historians over a long period of time. Greta Helms herself admitted that Rediviva’s books were good for collectors but less suited to the book trade. During the 16 years that she ran her company she published a little over 150 separate titles, of which almost 100 belonged to the main series. The Rediviva Förlag was a business which largely just about covered its costs. It was thus an expensive but a treasured pleasure for Greta Helms, who in principle undertook all the selection and marketing work herself.
When Rediviva was in its fifth year, in the autumn of 1973, a jubilee exhibition was held at the Kungliga bibliotek (royal library) for which Greta Helms gathered an impressive backlist of 75 publications. She had, on average, published 15 facsimiles every year. The exhibition was opened by Uno Willers, the national librarian, who extolled Rediviva’s contribution to Swedish culture. However, the five year jubilee was not just an internal library affair. As revealed by the press cuttings from various women’s magazines, Greta Helms the PR-woman knew to celebrate her company within the circle of the Swedish cultural elite of authors and publicists. At a party held in Helms’ home she gathered the well-known figures with whom she had become acquainted during her many years at Bonnier.
Greta Helms had developed her interest in the history of books by reading catalogues, frequent visits to libraries and antiquarian bookshops, and by acquiring old books. She shared this interest with her husband Adam Helms, who from 1944-1971 was head of Forum, a Bonnier-owned company.
Per I. Gedin, who joined Bonnier in the early 1950s, immediately noted that the important decisions were being taken by Messers Tor, Kaj, and Gerhard Bonnier. However the sales department was run by an ‘authoritarian boss’ – Greta Helms, who was the first head of sales at a publishing house. She was a tough, iron-willed lady. Greta Helms was herself fully aware of the problem of being a woman and a boss and is known to have said that “a woman must be at least twice as good as a man in order to be considered his equal” and “she must deny her so-called womanly aspects of emotions and softness”. Greta Helms had to fight tooth and nail in order to earn respect. She was often the only woman in a male-dominated environment. Despite attaining the top positions within the ruling publishing industry in Sweden she is mentioned in surprisingly few of the industry histories.
Greta Helms’ contributions as a female pioneer during a significant modernisation process which the Swedish book trade and book market underwent are, in many ways, similar to other 20th century female role models such as Valfrid Palmgren of the public libraries, and Greta Renborg. They were all early introducers of novel ideas. Greta Helms was active during the 1930s and 1940s within BMF, the bookshop assistants’ union, as secretary, board member, and editor of its journal. She was active in trade matters, set up a training stipend fund, gave talks, taught at the Svenska bokhandel school, and devised a correspondence course in selling techniques. She was always one step ahead, but was not lacking in an ability to look back and evaluate which direction developments were headed.
Greta Helms the businesswoman bubbled with vitality when she described her newly-established company Rediviva in an interview. At last she was able to make all the decisions herself. She always remained a bookseller at heart. She had started off by selling Christmas magazines in Östergötland as a child, in the old days when she had been hampered by the limitations of small companies. “Books will continue to be produced. But when you cannot sell them you will quickly go out of business. A seller must be painfully concerned with sales”, Greta Helms said revealing the wisdom of her many years in the trade.
Greta Helms died in 1990 and lies at The Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.