VICTORIA PARK BOOKS
London’s Village Bookshop
There are other ways of finding this bookshop of course, but one of the best is to approach it via Bethnal Green Underground station, as this provides an opportunity for a quick browse inside one of the UK’s best specialist museums.
Coming out of the Underground station walk in a northerly direction, crossing to the East side of Cambridge Heath Road and you very quickly come to the V & A Museum of Childhood. Entry is free, so even if you only have a few minutes to spare it is worth popping inside to reccy it out for a future more leisurely visit.
The museum does have a cafe counter, but there is a better alternative nearby. Immediately beyond the museum, turn right onto Old Ford Road. The Old Gallery (vegetarian and vegan) Cafe http://www.stmargaretshouse.org.uk/gallery-cafe/about-cafe – a social enterprise run by the St Margaret’s House community charity http://www.stmargaretshouse.org.uk/ – serves really strong coffee and has a friendly relaxed ambience.
Continue walking up Old Ford Road and then fork left along Approach Road. Cross over the canal and continue straight across the park. When you hit Gore Road, turn right, then left onto Lauriston Road up to a small roundabout where you will join Victoria Park Road.
Victoria Park Books is at 174. I was initially nervous that some strange numbering convention (of the kind that conspired against me on my visit to Newham Bookshop – see my intro to that piece for explanation) may have delivered me into just the wrong part of the street, but as luck would have it the shop is a few doors along to the right-hand side of this roundabout.
There really is a small village feel to this cluster of shops. By big city standards the roundabout is tiny and the street itself quite narrow.
Jo knows it is me immediately I open the door, claiming to recognise me from my Twitter photo. This is unlikely. That photo is very dimly lit and in bright daylight my appearance is predominantly much whiter – hair, beard. (Later that day, neither Philip Reeve nor Sarah McIntyre are sure it is me.) Anyhow, it’s a nice welcome, and I’m immediately offered a cup of tea.
“When it’s convenient,” I say, seeing there is a customer already in the shop.
“Oh, __________ is one of my regulars. She won’t mind”
Jo goes downstairs to make the tea, first establishing that I drink it without milk. “That helps,” she says.
This is the fourth independent bookshop I’ve visited in an ongoing series of features, and the second in London. It is also the second specialist children’s bookshop. And, I quickly realise, the smallest.
There is a downstairs basement area used for some book events, but all the stock is on the ground floor.
Jo sits at the till facing the shop’s door, which enables her to greet every customer as they come in. Midway through my visit she asks me if I have noticed common characteristics in the booksellers running the four shops. I think quickly of Vivian at Newham; of Nic at Mr B’s Emporium; and of Vanessa, Lizzie and Julie at The Book Nook. I say probably not. Everyone has been very different, as have the shops.
Jo herself ventures that she thinks she sees some common traits in a cohort of Jewish women booksellers in London. Later , when I look through the photos, and see one of Jo on the phone, I think I can see what she means, because it definitely reminds me of Vivian sitting in her Newham shop window, the matriarch of all she surveys.
The one thing that all four shops visited so far do have in common is their emphasis on events and their realisation of how important these are in terms of promoting sales, shop profile and customer relationships. In the past few months Jo has organised the following events: a new Children’s Literature Festival, Town Hall Tales with Benjamin Zephaniah and Michael Rosen in March; a day in conjunction with Dalston Library with actress Sarah Hadland; and a Lantern Show with The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life – to name but a very tiny few. On average the shop runs an event every week somewhere, and quite often several events in a week.
The shop has a very close relationship with a number of local schools for whom they bring in authors, both free of charge and fee paid, and put together lists of books around certain topics with teachers. They help stock school libraries and Jo comes in sometimes to do talks about Reading for Pleasure and run insets for staff.
Victoria Park Books is in its ninth year of trading, as of December 5th. It opened when times were good. Jo employed two part-time booksellers in the early days, one working mornings the other afternoons. But when the financial collapse hit she had to carefully review expenditure and realised she could not continue to afford to spend as much as she was doing on staffing.
Now she employs one part-time bookseller (who arrived mid-afternoon, wheeling his bike through the shop, taking it out to the back garden) and 3 weekend staff but otherwise runs the bookshop single-handed. Her husband has a full-time job in computing and helps out when he can with events and looking after the bookshop’s own IT.
The shop has recently established a bookstall at the Half Moon Theatre and Jo is commissioning a local carpenter/craftsman to build a shelving unit on wheels in the same colour and style as the shelving in the shop so that it can carry the Victoria Park Books branding.
The bookstall is manned each Saturday (sometimes by Jo herself) and during the rest of the week books can be purchased via the theatre’s Box Office staff.
There was a steady stream of customers in the shop while I was there and it was really noticeable that nobody completed a transaction without engaging in some form of conversation with Jo.
Quite a number of transactions involved book ordering. In a shop as small as this, with quite limited stock, the importance of being able to obtain books quickly is paramount. And Jo is grateful for the efficiency of book distributors. “We can’t beat Amazon on prices,” she says, “but we can be as quick and as reliable.”
Customers choose whether to be notified by text, email or telephone call when the book is in, usually by the next day.
The shop has a resident dog, Harvey, who craves attention. Half way through my visit, he was ever so slightly in disgrace for coughing up a small amount of sickness when the limited shop floor was almost entirely taken up with a child’s buggy. Henry had to to be temporarily put out into the garden at the back of the shop and registered his displeasure by leaping up at the door. He was soon inside, back in the warm. Jo and her husband bought the premises as both business and living accommodation. They still live above the shop with Harvey and their daughter Tilly.
All the customers on the afternoon of my visit had genuine enthusiasms of one kind or another. I was particularly struck by a mother and two dark-harked teenage daughters. One of the girls read out aloud this well-known passage from The Twits, saying it was the favourite thing she had ever read:
“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
And then she said, in conversation with Jo, about reading Harry Potter, “I hate how much I love it even though I see the flaws in it.”
The ‘village’ had had a seasonal event at the weekend. Mulled wine had been served inside the bookshop, which also hosted a book signing event. When a large-framed, bespectacled young man came in to the shop together with two or three friends he started describing the problems he had had with the Father Christmas outfit, in a rather strategic area.
He was looking for a present to give to a young relative. Jo picked out a signed copy of one of Chris Riddell’s Ottoline books, noting that Riddell was also political cartoonist for the Observer. Another one of this group was anxious to buy a copy of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back but the last copy had been put by for a member of staff. “That’s fine,” Jo said. “I can let you have this one, and order in another for the member of staff.” So everyone left happy.
Jo is selective in what she stocks. She has to be, given the size of the shop. London booksellers still enjoy regular visits from book reps and Jo has built up a good relationship with the reps that visit her shop. They know what she likes to stock and what her customers like to buy and are able to make recommendations accordingly.
In contrast to the Book Nook in Hove, which sells children’s books exclusively (with the possible exception of one or two novelty titles), Victoria Park Books does have an adult section. It is in just one corner of the shop but it fills the shelves from floor to ceiling.
It makes sense, given that the majority of customers are either adults browsing with young children, or adults looking to buy something for a child – why not catch their eye with an adult title while they are in the shop.
“Most of my customers like books full-stop,” says Jo. “Just like me. So why not have some adult books too?”
It was actually the adult section that taught her she did not need to try to stock every new children’s book that was published. Your stock does not have to be comprehensive in order to sell and turn over. Her adult shelves are necessarily VERY selective. But the books still sold.
Jo is chair of governors at the local primary school her own daughter attends. During a rare quiet spell in the shop towards the end of my visit, as the light was fading outside and the interior ambience of the shop was slowly filling with a cosy golden glow, she had to make a series of phonecalls pertaining to a certain form and a very unreasonable deadline. For a recently-retired primary school deputy-head like me it was instructive to witness this telephone call (while taking a few last-minute photos) and to reflect how fortunate the school is in having a chair of governors who can communicate so forcefully and so effectively.
As well as the customers who came in to the shop to browse and buy, there were also a fair few locals who just opened the door to say ‘Hi’, to say how much they had enjoyed the day on Saturday (with reference to the mulled wine) or even to pop downstairs and grab an empty cardboard box.
It’s what village life in the big city is like, you see.