UPDATE Summer 2015: This shop has now closed
Kennington Bookshop is owned by Australian Paula Kaplan and managed by Nick Creagh-Osborne. The two of them took over the premises (306-308 on the Kennington Road, previously a DVD/video rental store) some eight years ago, Nick having considerable experience as a bookseller. He was at the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill for five years, and prior to that had spent several years managing the travel section of Harrods’ Waterstones. He also did a stint at the Marylebone branch of Daunt books. Before book selling his work involved arranging insurance programmes for petrochemical companies. Paula (as well as having owned the Literary Bookshop in Melbourne) had been an investment analyst, so between them they must have considerable business acumen.
The shop sells a mixture of new and second-hand books. Ground-floor level is mainly new books, with a few notable second-hand titles flagged up on display tables and shelves. The basement of the shop is a cosy retreat dedicated to quality rather than antiquarian second-hand books. As recently as three years ago this space had been used purely for storage. Nick tells me that its conversion into selling space was the result of a Eureka moment on Paula’s part, and adds that sales from the basement now represent a significant percentage of the shop’s weekly takings.
The second-hand stock is very keenly priced, so that browsers are unlikely to be put off when they lift the corner of the front jacket. I saw a lot of paperbacks priced at £2.50, so effectively you will be finding books at charity shop prices while browsing a far less random selection (on the contrary one that has been curated by an experienced bookseller).
This is a hardback copy of Laline Paul's novel The Bees, published earlier this year
Paula employs two part time booksellers, Will and George, who make an enormous contribution to the efficient running of the business during the week.
At the time of my visit (in mid-November 2014) the shop windows were displaying Christmas cards and advent calendars as well as books. Nick imports traditional German advent calendars which are much appreciated by local families who can only find modern designs elsewhere. Most customers who come in for a calendar end up buying a book as well. Although, as Nick points out, there is a finite window on this promotion, as come December 1st everyone who wants a calendar will have purchased one.
In common with the other bookshop owners and managers I have spoken to, Nick is appreciative of the efficiency of Gardners and Bertrams which means that the shop can offer an effective alternative to Amazon. Customers can order a book late one afternoon and it should be in the shop for collection the next day. They might not get a discount on the cover price but they won’t have to pay a delivery charge or arrange to be at home waiting for the package to be delivered.
The shop supplies books to several local schools and gets heavily involved in World Book Day. There are lots of mums with young children in the area, which is why the children’s shelves (organised in height order, picture books on the lowest shelf, teenage fiction on the top) are a significant section of the shop.
It’s not the biggest shop I’ve visited but by no means the smallest so I ask if he and Paula have ever been tempted to turn a corner into a place for serving coffee and cake. At this enquiry he opens a door behind the till and we step out into a courtyard at the rear of the shop, which is shared by a neighbouring cafe and other businesses. I can picture the scene on a summer’s day. The door at the back of the shop is left open. Customers make a purchase then go outside and order a coffee and sit at the tables for a chat with fellow customers or to dip into the book just purchased. I really must return in six months time!
Books with local area interest always do well (the shop’s bestseller this Christmas is likely to be Lambeth Past by Hannah Renier) as do books about politics. Paddy Ashdown and Jack Straw both live locally and have held successful signing events in the past.
There is also the Kennington Bookshop Supper Club and authors are often invited to give a talk before (or after) the group enjoys a two or three course meal.
The great joy of browsing in a well-run independent bookshop is that you are drawn to titles you haven’t seen elsewhere. I hope the few photos that illustrate this piece give you the feeling that that will indeed be so, should you care to visit The Kennington Bookshop.