Ada Varley was born in a working-class family in Liverpool in 1919. Her mother was a housewife and her father worked in the building trade. As a child, Ada wasn’t surrounded by many books at home, however she loved going to the libraries to borrow books. She also acted out parts of a book, Little Women, with her sister. Even if her family didn’t have much money Ada worked hard to get a scholarship to a grammar school.
When Ada left school, she became an office girl at the Liverpool Overseas League Club. She joined the war efforts at the outbreak of World War Two in 1945. Ada was living in a little village in Blackpool before the 1970s, when she moved to Newham to be closer to her daughter after she got divorced.
Living just around the corner from the bookshop, Ada noticed a sign asking for volunteers to help teach adults to read. She began volunteering as a literacy tutor and studied courses on basic literacy and numeracy. One of her students was a young man who was slightly disabled. He was struggling with his reading and writing, but enjoyed the social aspect of her class. There was another young man who failed his exams many times, but he was very imaginative and enjoyed writing stories. Because of the bookshop many families in Newham were provided with English dictionaries, school resources and whatever books they might want to read for fun.
Ada kept on volunteering at the bookshop for many years. During her time there she met many authors and poets such as Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah and Gilda O’Neill. She enjoyed being part of a reading group and made friends.
Ada finally stopped volunteering at the shop when she turned 90 years old.
I made friends and met people via the bookshop. People who are still famous like Michael Rosen came to the bookshop a few times. And his book We’re Going On A Bear Hunt was very popular. And Benjamin Zephaniah, the Rastafarian poet, he came in.
It was very friendly. They had two cats at one time, which were popular with the children. It was a very friendly place. And parents came in and were interested in what the children were reading. John Newman who worked at the children’s side was very good at advising parents on what their children should be reading.
I more or less gave up volunteering when I was ninety. (laughs)
I thought that was a reasonable age to give up. (laughs)
It’s a very community-based shop. Very community-minded.
Andrew Lane grew up in Newham. His mother liked painting and his father was very good at reasoning and maths. As a child, there were three libraries close to Andrew’s house, and he would try to borrow the maximum number of books possible from each library to bring them back home.
Andrew’s school teachers helped him become a writer. One, called Sylvia, knew how to captivate him during storytelling and another teacher, Iris, challenged him by asking questions such as “Why are the characters doing these things?”
When Newham Bookshop opened Andrew had two bookshops he could go to close to his home. He remembered that Newham Bookshop sold ‘odd’ books which he couldn’t find elsewhere. It was a friendly place, and it felt like home.
When Andrew visits schools, he tells children who want to write that it is not very well paid. To be a writer you need to have creativity, but you also need to be able to plan the plot. Andrew compares writing a story plot to a bus route, you need to know where you are going in order to start your journey. He also encourages young people to read a lot of ‘bad books,’ and think about how they can improve them.
Andrew has recently developed an interest in the history of buildings and spaces. He is worried about losing connections with the past as new buildings and infrastructure are replacing old ones in Newham.
Irenosen was born in Benin in Nigeria and came to England to go to boarding school in 1988. Her passion for reading started with the stories her Nigerian grandmother told. They were fantastical, magical stories with a moral lesson at the heart. Irenosen thinks these stories planted the seeds for her style of writing: magic realism. As a child, she read her first books written by Roald Dahl at boarding school in England and loved them.
As a teenager, Irenosen attended St Angela’s School for Girls in Newham. Newham was an interesting borough with a great mix of people and cultures. She made many memories at school that shaped her life as a woman. The libraries in Newham were spaces of discovery and learning for Irenosen. She borrowed seven to eight books regularly.
As well as reading British authors, Irenosen read American authors such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison as well as Nigerian authors such as Chinua Achebe and Buchi Emecheta. Those books showed her what was possible in life, captured her imagination and sparked her creativity.
Irenosen is an experimental and investigative writer. Before becoming a published author she used writing to express herself, keeping diaries and writing for her school newspaper. She wants her readers to have empathy with her characters, who are often people not normally seen in stories.
Her writing is a form of activism. Irenosen is fearless in claiming her space as a black woman writer. She would like her books to encourage young black girls to feel that they can write about anything.
John grew up in Tower Hamlets and loved reading when he was a child. He would borrow books from the libraries and save up his pocket money to buy comics at the Chrisp Street Market. He managed to buy The Famous Five by Enid Blyton at a little bookshop on East India Dock Road. John was a big fan of the illustrations in children’s books.
As an adult, John and his wife Julie moved to Newham in 1982. They had two children, named Joe and Mathilde. After wandering around near their new flat in Newham, John and Julie found Newham Bookshop. They began to offer their help on Saturdays for one hour to give the staff a lunch break. Back then, the bookshop was also a centre offering English classes for adults and parents. Julie, who was a teacher, taught literacy classes at the bookshop. John also worked as a social worker and took time off to look after his son Joe when he was a baby.
John sees himself as a reader first and foremost. Throughout his time working at the bookshop, he has seen the positive impact books have on people’s lives. He has become an expert on children’s books and often helps award prizes to the best children’s writers.
John describes the bookshop as a dedicated community organisation promoting inclusivity, diversity and social mobility. He is concerned about how technology might be affecting use of the English language, writing and drawing for young people.
The bookselling is not the major theme of it. The major theme is to inspire children to believe that they can read and they write and enjoy it, and maybe become writers themselves, or illustrators.
I do see my role as being a reader first and foremost. Because you can’t sell books unless you read. If you really want your children to progress, encourage them to read. Go and join the library and encourage them to read. The more they read the better they will be at coping with their schoolwork.
Michael Rosen says “There is a book for every child, you just have to find it.”
Karima was born in Sierra Leone in Africa. As a teenager, she lived in many West African countries. Karima first came across Newham Bookshop when she visited her aunt in England during her school holidays. Her parents were well-educated and held important jobs in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Karima graduated with a housing and construction degree from the University of Westminster and later studied Cultural Studies.
As a child, Karima’s uncle shared poetry with her on a mountain and her grandmother told her stories at home. They both influenced Karima’s love of storytelling. She didn’t spend much time outside and felt that her friends were the characters in Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton’s books. During the whole month of September, Karima wears yellow clothes to pay tribute to Roald Dahl’s birthday month.
As a book lover, it wasn’t surprising that Karima started to work part-time at Newham Bookshop. One of her favourite spaces inside the bookshop is Philosophy for Kids. It is a liberating and powerful topic for young minds to dive into. Karima always encourages children to read whatever they are interested in, and if they can’t find a book they want to read, to write it themselves!
The bookshop has been a sanctuary for many families in Newham. It isn’t only a place to buy books, but also a place to talk, listen and share. Many parents and children come in to talk about pressure at school and exams. Karima strongly believes that independent bookshops and libraries are crucial to a thriving community and society.
Newham Bookshop means everything. For people like us, who like reading, it means everything. It’s our oasis. It’s our place to be, to keep our sanity. You meet like-minded people. Whatever goes on, the community is aware of it, whether it be politics – we obviously sell a lot of political books – we get involved with local authors, we get children to come in and I love to read to them. When it’s Book Week we have about a thousand!
Another thing about the bookshop is again… there’s a war on poor people. If you close education for them and so on it’s (sighs)… I can’t even say it because it hurts. It’s such a dreadful, dreadful thing to happen.
Kay was born and raised in Newham. At the age of 6, she went with her sisters regularly to the local chip shop and came across the interesting displays next door on Newham Bookshop’s windows. Kay wasn’t able to go inside the bookshop on numerous occasions, despite her persistence, because of her sisters’ reluctance. She eventually succeeded in her quest and described the experience of going in the bookshop as mesmerising, just like walking into a book.
They were allowed to stay even if they were reading and looking at the books more often than buying them. It became a safe place where Kay went to read short stories and looked at the illustrations with no one bothering her.
In her adult life, she decided to home-school three of her four children from nursery to GCSE level. Newham Bookshop became her first calling point to get the English, maths and science books which would support her to teach her children.
Therefore, she spent a lot of time at the bookshop to get recommendations and advice. It was also an opportunity for her children to choose the books they were going to learn from. The reasons why Kay wanted to teach her children at home were because she noticed a rise in Islamophobia and racism in Newham following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, herself not having had a positive experience of schooling as a child in the 1980s, she wanted to shield her children from going through similar negative experiences.
We’d say, “Oh, we just went to look at the books”. And then sometimes I would ask, “Oh Mum, can I have £5 to buy a book?” And she was like, “No, I haven’t got enough.” So, a lot of the time when I was younger, we wasn’t buying the books, but we were coming in to look at them. And Vivian knew that, because she’d ask us, “Do you need any help?” And obviously she’d see us coming in often, you know, they’re not buying. But that’s what I liked about Vivian, she never told us not to come back. She encouraged us, she just let us sit and read the books. And, and you know, she never bothered us.
Luan was born in Glasgow and grew up in Hackney with her mother and two brothers. One of her most cherished memories was when her mother read to her before bedtime. As a child, Luan listened to Winnie The Pooh on cassette tape and read Disney books. She would always find a book to borrow at Hackney library on Mare Street and her childhood home was full of books. At secondary school, Luan and her friend invented stories using some of their favourite celebrities as characters.
Luan studied print journalism at university. For seven years, she wrote many articles about business and social media, until she decided to become a primary school teacher.
Since relocating to East Ham, Luan discovered Newham Bookshop a short walk from her house. She bought many children’s books for her daughter and her students aged five to six years old. Luan loves novels and literary fiction. She is also interested in books which uplift people and made them recognise the importance of community.
Luan took an evening writing course and started to write her first novel. However, the novel was rejected by publishers multiple times. When her book called Nightingale Point was finally published the book launch happened at Newham Bookshop. Luan still finds it strange to introduce herself as a writer.
Her favourite part about writing is the characters. She advises young writers to write constantly and find a writers’ group to help them. Luan believes that stories need to represent everybody in the UK and not be stereotypical. It is important for her to show an array of different people and experiences in her writing.
When [my book] was coming up to publication, I saw Vivian, and she was being really excited about stocking the book. She didn’t even really know what it was about or anything, she was just like, “You’re local, we’re going to push your book.” And then she said to me about having the launch there. And, I had never even thought about it. Because I thought I’m going to have the launch in Daunt Books in Marylebone, because that’s what you do, you’re a debut, you want to make a big splash. And she sort of said to me, “But you’re an East London writer, and, this is where you’re from. Why are you having it all the way in west London, Marylebone, in a bookshop where you never really go?” And then, I thought about it, of course, she’s right, I’ve got to do it in Newham, so all my friends in my community could come. And that was lovely, and I’m so glad I did that. People come up to me and say, “I just bought your book off Vivian.” It’s really nice. I just feel so well supported by her, and by everyone in the bookshop. And you feel like they’re quite proud of you for doing it.
Pete grew up in Brentwood in Essex. He studied English at University and liked to read sports books, biographies and fiction. Pete worked as a journalist before becoming a football writer. It was his love for West Ham Football Club that encouraged him to write stories. Pete his written about his childhood memories of travelling to West Ham football matches using the District line, going from Upminster to Upton Park station.
Pete was in his thirties when his books first got published. He felt that seeing his name on a book cover was worth more than the money. Pete never thought he would have a career from writing about West Ham and football. He was chuffed when a man told him that he read one of his books knowing that the man hadn’t read a book for 30 years.
Pete misses the old days when there wasn’t such a distance between the football players and the fans. In the old days, football players went to their local cafe after a match to have lunch and relax.
Pete often signed his books outside Newham Bookshop before the West Ham football matches kicked-off. He met people from many parts of the country. Since the West Ham football ground is no longer located at Upton Park, there is sadness and nostalgia.
Pete dedicated a whole chapter in his book Goodbye to Boleyn to Newham Bookshop and another one on the pubs and cafes around the stadium at Upton Park. For him, Newham Bookshop made a huge difference to the community. The friendliness of the staff was at the heart of the bookshop’s success story.
I’ve written quite a bit about my childhood growing up, going to football matches, and that District Line journey from Upminster to Upton Park. There’s a whole sort of mythology attached to that train line for me, and it’s strangely romantic for a kid from Brentwood in Essex, coming to slightly edgy East London, back in the days of skinheads and hippies and everything else in the 1970s.
I write about my life of supporting West Ham United. My last book was on the final season at Upton Park, so for that, I did an interview with Vivian and a whole chapter on Newham Bookshop. And I did an interview with Ken and Carol from Ken’s Cafe. So there was a whole chapter on them and there was a chapter on the pubs around Upton Park.
So yeah, it was very much a souvenir of the area and how it was going to change. It’s sad to see the ground gone and that rather ugly sort of grey monolith building going up where once there was a great football ground.
Suresh’s father, Joginder Singh, came to the UK in 1949 from a small remote village in India. His father worked hard to send money abroad to Suresh’s grandmother and the village community. Joginder settled in a house on Princelet Street, East London (close to Brick Lane). This is where Suresh was born and raised. Suresh’s father was a devout Sikh and taught him to avoid luxury and greed.
Suresh’s mother and father could not read and write, and remained illiterate until their death. They both wanted their children to do well at school and, therefore they sent Suresh to Sunday school and Whitechapel Library regularly. As a child, Suresh liked to ‘read’ shapes: buildings, pictures and geometry rather than texts. He later went on to study architecture.
At home, Suresh spoke Punjabi and found school hard. He sometimes didn’t understand the accent of his teachers and found it difficult to relate to some English authors. He wanted to listen to the stories from his father at home about the Gurus and the village in India.
Suresh always had an ambition to write a book. When his father passed away Suresh decided to write a love story to his father. His book, Memoirs of a Cockney Sikh, celebrated his father, who gave so much love and support to his family and many communities.
Suresh describes his book as a piece of architecture accessible to anyone. He is very happy that it is now held in libraries and at some Sikh temples, called Gurdwaras. Suresh strongly believes that his father would love the book, if he was alive today because his favourite pictures are in it.
Vaseem was born and grew up near Green Street in Newham. His father worked for a bakery when he arrived in the UK from India and he couldn’t read and write. Vaseem’s mother was born in Pakistan. She was a qualified teacher who strongly supported her children’s education. Mr Dring, an English teacher at Elmhurst secondary school triggered Vaseem’s passion for reading with books such as The Famous Five by Enid Blyton.
At 9 years old, Vaseem chose his first book by himself when he discovered libraries. He had a particular interest in fantasy books. When he was 14, Vaseem’s reading expanded to include science fiction and crime fiction. At school, during writing activities, teachers helped him to think about writing a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Vaseem wrote his first novel at the age of 17 and spent 23 years writing six novels whilst he was travelling to India and China. He received a hundred letters of rejection before his first book was published at the age of 40.
He has now published seven books in a bestselling series about the adventures of Inspector Chopra and his one-year old elephant, based in India.
During his childhood, Vaseem often went to Newham Bookshop to read and buy books. It was strange – and wonderful – for him when he returned to the bookshop as a published author. In 2019, Vaseem presented Vivian, the manager of Newham Bookshop with the Outstanding Contribution to Bookselling Award.
Vaseem emphasises the importance of independent bookshops by asking us “What society do we want future generations to grow up in?”
Vivian was the daughter of Jewish refugees who arrived in Britain having fled the Nazi regime in Germany. When Vivian and her sister were children they were surrounded by books. Their father was a great reader. He took them to a bookshop in Hampstead in North London every week to choose a book for themselves. Vivian enjoyed reading Russian and French classics and was fond of poetry.
After college, Vivian studied drama for three years at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Her successful acting career lasted for 10 years. Then Vivian worked in bookshops called Paperback Centres located in Glasgow and on Green Street in Newham. When these shops closed, Vivian became the manager of Newham Bookshop, which at the time was part of the Newham Parents’Centre. She has now done this job for over 30 years.
Newham Bookshop has held many events with famous authors such as Zadie Smith, and it now organises its own book events at venues like The Wanstead Tap. Many renowned local West Ham footballers such as Trevor Brooking were great supporters of the bookshop. They attracted long queues of fans outside for autographs and photos.
Vivian reads several books a week, but firmly believes that if you don’t like a book you shouldn’t force yourself to read it until the end. She describes Newham Bookshop as a centre for ideas and a community asset. For three decades, Vivian has played a crucial role in making sure that Newham Bookshop caters to the ever-changing needs of the local area.