So rapid is the continuing transformation of east London that the graffiti now feels to be the most consistent part of the landscape. But one thing that has remained constant is Newham Bookshop, which has been selling books for 40 years. The manager, Vivian Archer, has worked in the shop for more than 31 years, and it was my pleasure to spend some time in the shop with her, and CJ, the children’s bookseller, on a cold Tuesday in December.
Newham Bookshop was originally set up as part of the Newham Parents’ Centre, whose offices and education rooms were adjacent to and above the shop. It was felt that a bookshop would make a more welcoming entrance to the charitable centre and encourage reading. The centre has moved, but the bookshop is still helping east Londoners become readers. The aim remains the same: selling books to anyone who wants them. Whether you are buying Martina Cole, John Berger or Cressida Cowell, all books are sold with equal enthusiasm.
This is not a bookshop with lofty aesthetics and design as its guiding principles. The shopfront is worn and looks like it hasn’t been painted in some years, but it is not unwelcoming. The windows are full of posters, cards and fliers, making it busy, but happily so. Inside the layout is simple: two shops that are connected at the back, one for adults and one for children. There is as much shelving as there could possibly be in both stores, with just enough room to walk around and browse. The children’s side is decorated with character-themed bunting. Working its way around the ceiling is a beautifully painted wooden beanstalk vine.
There is no doubt what the shop sells: there are so many books, stacks of them. They are stacked on top of each other, stacked in front of the shelves, even stacked on the floor; in some places a shorter customer could struggle to look over piles that run along the unit dividing the adult
bookshop. There are clearly marked categories in which the books are shelved, but owing to the number of books, the proximity of the sections, and the size of the shop, it feels like the boundaries between them are blurred. The many layers of books gave me the feeling that the shop was a snug labyrinth, one where you are likely to get lost in the number of books, not the shop itself. I must confess that anyone who has worked with me might expect me to find Newham Bookshop too cluttered and too messy – but I loved it the minute I walked in.
Again, as I find in many independent bookshops, the local books section is by far the most popular. One of the shop’s consistent bestsellers is Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi’s The Sugar Girls, about the Tate & Lyle factories, which operated from an area nearby known as Silvertown. Educational books were once the biggest part of the business, but these sales have dipped, replaced by sales spread across other categories. Archer tells me that since Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came to prominence she has seen more and more younger customers coming to buy books from the Politics section. Philosophy, Psychology and Popular Science have become important too, Adult Fiction less so. Dictionaries have always been popular, particularly bilingual dictionaries – Archer explains that you can tell which demographic is moving into the area by the dictionaries that are being sold.
Newham Bookshop sells books at a huge number of events, averaging out at about three a week. Many events are held at local pub The Wanstead Tap. Over the years Archer and John Newman, who runs the children’s shop, have developed relationships with authors, organisations, schools, festivals and publishers. They sell books all over London, with part-timers often helping to staff the stalls. We discussed the art of selecting the appropriate titles and quantities for events (not an easy thing to get right, but
something the bookshop is skilled at), that expectations from partners often contrast with reality, and how at least a nominal ticket fee can help attendance and even book sales. The shop also actively gets involved in the local community, schools and London-wide charity events. They recently raised a good sum of money for the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
I talk to the customers as they browse the bookshop. Several tell me that Newham Bookshop is the only bookshop they will buy books from, and that the shop will always order in what it doesn’t have in stock. Archer greets each one, and they chat about the books they buy; it seems, for many, talk is all part of the visit. The customers are diverse, with very different needs. All interaction is natural and spontaneous. A visit to a bookshop, a conversation with a bookseller, is also a process of validation, recognition and belonging. Record shops can also provide this function too – the sense that while you might be reading or listening to something different to your immediate friends and family, you are not alone, you are part of a larger community. This is often why we turn to books in the first place, to find voices that extend or mirror our own thoughts, to guide us, and booksellers play an important role in this process, a role that is not dissimilar to the books themselves. For me, it is so disappointing when you are in a bookshop and you see the assistant ignoring the signals given by customers who wish to make a connection.
This is not something you will experience at Newham Bookshop. Archer, CJ, Newman, and the rest of the team are, and should be, treasured. Whether an experienced reader and book buyer, or someone who is trying to expand and develop your reading, you will get a warm welcome, guidance, help, and start a relationship that will continue for years – a home from home. Something we all need at times.