Miss Foyle (as she liked to be called) was born in London. At age 17, after leaving a Swiss finishing school, she started working at her father's bookshop, and never left. The store, Foyles, on Charing Cross Road in the West End of London, had been started in 1904 by her father, William Foyle. She fiercely resisted unionisation of bookshop staff, sacking most employees just before they had worked there six months, when they would gain limited job protection rights. In the late 1930s, she founded the Right Book Club to counter what she regarded as the pernicious influence of Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club. It offered a variety of titles with Conservative and classical Liberal themes.
In 1945, control of the shop passed to her. It was under her that the shop stagnated, with little investment and poorly paid staff who could be fired on a whim. She refused to install any modern conveniences such as electronic tills or calculators, nor would orders be taken by phone. However, the shop excelled in other fields: expensive books ordered from as far off as Germany were sent with a bill without prepayment.
The shop operated a payment system that required customers to queue three times: to collect an invoice for a book, to pay the invoice, then to collect the book, simply because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash. Equally mystifying to customers was a shelving arrangement that categorized books by publisher, rather than by topic or author. A quote of this period is: "Imagine Kafka had gone into the book trade." In the 1980s a rival bookshop placed an advertisement in a bus shelter opposite Foyles: "Foyled again? Try Dillons".
For 70 years she presided over Foyles lunches. Her idea for bringing readers, writers and thinkers together came after she recommended The Forsyte Saga to an elderly customer who was looking for something to read on the train. The gentleman bought a copy. However he returned it to her a short time later with the words "For the young lady who liked my book — John Galsworthy."
Miss Foyle met many leading literary and political figures over her life. Her collection of personal correspondence included a letter from Adolf Hitler, responding to her complaint about Nazi book-burning. Her literary friends included Kingsley Amis, Charles de Gaulle, D. H. Lawrence, Yehudi Menuhin, J. B. Priestley, George Bernard Shaw, Margaret Thatcher, Evelyn Waugh and H. G. Wells.
Despite her inefficient business practices Foyles continued to operate while many other bookshops were closing under the growing pressure from online booksellers and kept it going even when Tim Waterstone opened a large shop across the street.
Christina Foyle was the niece of Charles Henry Foyle, inventor of the "folding carton" and founder of Boxfoldia. Screenwriter Anthony Horowitz has said that Miss Foyle was the namesake for the title character, Christopher Foyle, in the ITV series Foyle's War.
The Foyle Foundation was founded in 2001 under the terms of Christina Foyle's will. It makes grants to other UK charities, mainly in the fields of the arts and learning (until 2009, also health). The 2010 accounts showed funds of over £76 million. Among other grants it made a large donation to the appeal to purchase the oldest intact European book, the St Cuthbert Gospel, for the British Library in 2011/12. To the year ending June 2010 £41.4m worth of grants had been offered by the Foyle Foundation.
- John Walsh, "Foyles, the bookshop that time forgot", The Independent, 23 January 2003.
- Michael Handelzalts, "Foyled and found again", Ha'aretz, 30 May 2003.
- Warren Hoge (11 June 1999). "Christina Foyle, 88, the Queen of the London Bookstore, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 May 2012.
- "About us", Foyle Foundation website, accessed 17 April 2012; accounts are a linked PDF
- "British Library acquires the St Cuthbert Gospel – the earliest intact European book", BL Press release, accessed 17 April 2011
- "School Playground Funding Guide".
- Beeleigh Abbey, Christina Foyles former residence