To mark Bookshop Day this Saturday as well as our undying love for independent bookselling, Repeater is launching an exciting new blog series. In this first instalment of our short guide to radical independent bookshops, we spoke to Vivian (she/her), who has been Manager of Newham Bookshop in London for 34 years.
Why do you think independent bookshops like Newham are important?
Newham is one of the poorest areas in London. It’s also one of the most diverse areas, making it a very exciting place to live. From day one we really had to be able to speak to our local people. We continue to do that and that’s why people feel happy and safe here. They know that we respect them.
Newham bookshop has been running since 1978 – a massive achievement. As an independent bookshop in a market dominated by mainstream booksellers such as Waterstones, have you ever faced the possibility of closure?
No, we haven’t struggled to stay open. But there have been some very very tough times as bookselling is an unpredictable industry. We have always had to just work harder and go out into the community more.
You started off as a source of books and education for the Newham Parents’ Centre. Does this founding mission translate into your work today and, if so, how?
Initially there were classes upstairs for adults and children to help with reading. We felt that the bookshop should be a place where people could wander in and either leave again if they wanted or say that they would like to read more of the books but have a problem with reading.
These classes were funded by the council and have gone now, but the mission still translates today. We have two shops – an adult’s and a children’s. We still want people to feel that they can walk into a place that isn’t a stark office and feel welcomed. They are free to wander around and let us know if they would like to read the books but need some help. Our customers are people who really do need books and our support.
Do you specialise in any specific titles or genres?
We have quite a broad range, including probably one of the biggest local sections in London. Terraformed: Young Black Lives in the Inner City by Joy White, published by Repeater, has been unbelievable for us and never stops selling. In general, anything that is about London is very popular.
Alongside quite a big political section, we also have, and have always had, a huge section that represents our broad ethnic community in Newham. This is a big section and really important to us. We go out of our way to make sure that people can relate to us and find a book that they identify with.
Do you do any work with local schools and the community?
Always. Schools come in, but we also go out to schools. We do presentations about specific books, bringing in the authors, and we do presentations about the importance of reading. We also do a lot of community work, including a load of joint work with libraries. Libraries are so important to us, to everybody, and we think that it is crucial that bookshops have a relationship with libraries. Newham has really preserved the libraries; they are key.
We are very lucky now because there are a lot of Newham-based authors, and every single one of them will say that it was the libraries that inspired them. People like Vaseem Khan, Selena Godden, and Onjali Q Raúf. It’s wonderful.
Our community work did not stop during lockdown. Lockdown was very good for us because so many new people discovered us, including people who had been working in the West End. We were also able to do some fundraising for local charities alongside other artists and authors. David Gilmore and Polly Sampson gave us signed CDs for fundraising. Jess Wade and Fourth Estate also supported us with Angela Saini’s book Superior: The Return of Race Science; we were able to get 900 free copies and distribute them to people in the community. Overall, we raised over 7,000 pounds during lockdown and distributed these proceeds to local food banks, The Magpie Project – which is fantastic – and Making HerStory, founded by Onjali Q Raúf.
You host author events at The Wanstead Tap. How are these events conceived and organised?
We do loads and loads of events, and have had some amazing people going back through the years. This shop is too small to do events because we get a lot of people. We will do book signings but for bigger events we have always had a relationship with The Wanstead Tap. I’ve been friends with the owner Dan for years.
There are lots of exciting events coming up soon. We’ve done a whole series. On September 28th we had our second Ian Sinclair and John Rogers event. We’ve also got events with Robin Ince and Paul Mason coming up, and some others that are unannounced. Sometimes we do events at other venues, such as The British Library, and get asked to provide books.
We do all the books for the events for 5×15. We used to do them when they were live, and continued to support them throughout lockdown by supplying the books for online events. That worked very well.
We don’t have a separate team for organising these events. I like organising events, and work primarily with Dan at The Wanstead Tap.
How would you summarize Newham bookshop and its work in 3 words?
Welcoming, exciting, and innovative.
You can find out more about Newham Bookshop by clicking here.
Interview by Immy Higgins
Featured image credit: Pete Fallon