Newham Bookshop celebrates 35 years as community hub
- Credit: Archant.
Many sports fans make the familiar pilgrimmage from Upton Park station to West Ham United’s football ground but sometimes a number of them unexpectedly discover another local institution just around the corner.
“Oh yes,” Vivian Archer, the manager of Newham Bookshop remarks. “We receive a huge amount of custom from West Ham fans, you’d be surprised.”
In fact, almost everything about the yellow-fronted bookshop at 747 Barking Road, teeming with teetering piles of books, bears a local touch - even the bags and the bookmarks showcase illustrations of the shopfront sketched by customers.
Arguably, Vivian is just as much of a fixture having sold books to the community for over two decades.
After working for 10 years as a professional actress, Vivian decided to leave the profession in the ‘70s and stumbled across a passion for bookselling after landing a job at a shop in Dalston.
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Vivian found herself applying for a place shortly afterwards at Newham Bookshop 26 years ago and she’s been there ever since.
She said: “I just love the community and I love talking to people. The interface and helping.
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“There’s a picture up there of a woman called Monica getting her nursing degree. And she gave it to me because she felt we were responsible for helping her achieve that.
“There are people who come back and say they bought their first book here and they’re now professors. It’s so fulfilling.”
This year, Newham Bookshop celebrates its 35th birthday - a huge achievement for an independent, not-for-profit, community bookshop in this age of tablets and e-books.
But Vivian is convinced that her customers have stayed loyal because there is a certain magic about the bookshop that cannot be found behind a screen.
She said: “The big bookshops are all the same, the stock is all the same. In here, you’ll find things you wouldn’t find elsewhere.
“We buy carefully, knowing we can buy for our customers. We’re not a head office somewhere. We’re in touch with the community.
“In the adult shop, we have a very loyal customer base that would die rather than buy a Kindle or a book on Amazon.”
Keeping in touch with the community in Newham is no mean feat as the borough is constantly shifting and changing.
Vivian points out the Asian section, the black history section, and others she has added as she’s watched different nationalities move in, observing what dictionaries sell.
The bookshop used to sell a lot of Urdu and Bengali ones, she says, but “of course, they’re second generation now” so Vivian finds herself selling a lot of Portugeuse and Polish reference books recently.
This constant change is continually inspiring to Vivian who said: “On a Saturday, we get new people wandering in going ‘oh, we’ve got a local bookshop!’ Young people moving to the area because it’s still affordable.
“We have such a diverse community and there are new people moving in all the time and that’s what keeps everything so interesting.”
Newham Bookshop also reaches out to the borough’s vast community of young people, using their contacts with publishers to take authors into schools and stock their libraries.
The children’s section, a ramshackle wonderland that takes up half the shop with colourful kid’s books from around the globe, also exudes a passion for inspiring the next generation to read.
The Bookshop has been so successful at reaching out to young people that it now works with schools in surrounding east London boroughs “because there isn’t a shop like it.”
Vivian says this involvement with the local schools must make an impact as she’s now started accepting work experience applications and every person that has ever been employed in the Bookshop is from Newham - something never specified on a job advert, those are simply the people who have applied.
She said: “As well as being local, we are all committed to books. The whole purpose of working in a bookshop is to share that passion for reading.”
Vivian is clearly keen to advertise how different the Bookshop is from the big franchises, proudly displaying a sign in the window reading “You books, your community, we pay taxes”.
She said: “I’m not a Luddite, we have to change with the times. But I can’t compete with Amazon. We are not going to be selling Kindles because others can do it, but we probably will be selling e-books eventually.
“I would say Amazon is probably the biggest threat to any independent store. The sad thing is, it gives the perception of books being cheap.
“So I’m forever bartering in here. We don’t say three for two, or half price, but it is worth saying to me ‘you know, this is quite expensive’.”
The community ethos of the Newham Bookshop has attracted many famous vistors to their events over the years, including Tony Benn, Geoff Hurst, Michael Foot, and the late Gilda O’Neill.
But Vivian sees many more arriving in the future as she believes she’s found the secret for a thriving bookshop - the community itself.
She said: “We want to thank this community that has supported us phenomenonally over the 35 years as well as our publishers, the schools, and our staff.
“It’s tough times but I actually think it’s a shop people want to come into and feel comfortable in.
“The secret is loving the area you live in, having a rapport with people, understanding the community because it is so diverse but there’s no section of the community that feels cut off when they come in here.”
There can be no higher praise than the words of unoffical poet-in-residence Benjamin Zephaniah, who is quoted on the Bookshop’s website saying: “I don’t just go to this bookshop to buy books, I hang out there.
“One day a really smart person will write a book about this bookshop and we will all live happily ever after.”
*Sandi Toksvig, TV and radio personality, will be leading a series of events to celebrate the Newham Bookshop’s 35th birthday at 7pm on Friday February 22 at the Stratford Picturehouse, Salway Road, E15 1BX.
She will be in conversation with Virago publisher Lennie Gooding about her new books ‘Heroines and Harridans: A Fanfare of Fabulous Females’ and ‘Valentine Grey’.
Friday 22 February at 7 pm at Stratford Picturehouse
Tickets are £5 from the Stratford Picturehouse box office, by calling 0871 902 5740, or online at www.picturehouses.co.uk/cinema/Stratford_London.
For more 35th birthday events, visit www.newhambooks.co.uk/blog.