There aren’t many bookshops in the UK run by a bona fide screen star.
Situated in east London, Newham Bookshop is something of an institution. It has been in the same place – bar an along-the-road shuffle of about fifty yards – for almost 45 years. For most of that time it was a stone’s throw from the West Ham Football Club ground in the London Borough of Newham, until the Hammers upped sticks and moved to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.
And for nearly all of that time the beating heart of the bookshop has been Vivian Archer.
I’ve known Vivian since I was a child. Or at least I used to go into the shop as a child for my annual book treat. We had little money in our house growing up, so spending on books was a rarity – my father wouldn’t countenance the idea of wasting money on stuff ‘that someone had just made up’. A trip to Newham Bookshop was akin to a visit to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but without as many oompa loompas doing backflips in the aisles. Over thirty years later, when I was (finally!) published with my first crime series, I went back to the bookshop and really got to know Vivian.
Or at least I thought I did. Until the day I discovered she was once an actor and had had starred in Ivanhoe, the TV series, as well as Z Cars, West End theatre, and a range of other roles. In Ivanhoe she played Rebecca, a part, she tells me, that was doomed from the start. “Ivanhoe falls in love with Rebecca, and she with him, but alas the fates conspire against them, and so he toddles off back to the other woman… His loss!”
Newham Bookshop is a not-for-profit bookshop supported by paid staff and volunteers. Vivian has dedicated her life to the shop. Why? In her own words: “I love books. I love talking to people about books. And I love working with local organisations such as schools and charities, fundraising for youth projects and others such as the Magpie Project for homeless mothers.”
Vivian often puts on book auctions, strong-arming her legion of publisher and author contacts for book freebies (no one dares refuse Vivian), raising money for great causes, such as, recently, for Ukrainian refugees. (She raised nearly £9,000!).
The bookshop has a packed events calendar and has had some of the biggest names in the world through the doors. Famous authors such as Michael Rosen, Bernadine Evaristo and Benjamin Zephaniah are par for the course… “And some local chap called Vaseem Khan,” she adds, mischievously.
I asked Vivian about her most memorable visitors. She said: “We had former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in once. The street had to be cordoned off. Sadly, a couple of months later she was assassinated. We had the actor Danny Dyer in, film star and EastEnders regular. Danny is a local Canning Town boy and they were sleeping in the street outside the shop from the night before just to get a glimpse of him. And we’ve had all sorts of famous sportsmen such as the cricketers Courtney Walsh and Nasser Hussain.”
Even as we speak, she is getting ready to host Mark Noble, recently retired West Ham footballer, as he comes in to sign his autobiography.
I asked her what keeps her motivated after all these years. “Getting people to love books is a tough business, but we do it via grassroots work, getting the kids in. Sometimes we’ll have them in for initiatives where they get a free
book – for some it’s the first book they’ve ever owned. The lockdown has changed the business. People discovered us who hadn’t before; and many more decided they preferred to support their local indie bookshop than go online.”
Little wonder that in 2018 Vivian was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Bookselling Award by the Booksellers Association, their inaugural lifetime achievement award. She had a tear in her eye. As did I – because I was the one handing it to her on behalf of the BA.
If you had to capture the essence of what a local bookshop can mean to a community then Newham Bookshop epitomises that bond. Indeed, if I can claim to have had some success as an author, Newham Bookshop can claim to have played a part in that journey. And in return it gives Vivian a great thrill to know that a bashful, floppy-haired little boy who once came into the shop under her watchful eye now enjoys a modicum of fame in the literary arena. (She hasn’t yet asked my publisher for a finder’s fee, but it’s only a matter of time).
Finally, with a little twinkle in her eye, she says this: “And we adore crime writers!”
Speaking from experience, I can tell you that it’s no bad thing to be loved by one of Britain’s most well-respected booksellers.