Happy Birthday Broadway Bookshop!
Broadway Bookshop in Hackney celebrates ten years trading this week and continues to thrive, in contradiction of the commonly-held belief that the imminent death of all bookshops is at hand. As author and publisher, I have come to cherish independent bookshops such as this one and so I went along to meet proprietor Jane Howe in the hope of learning the secret of success in bookselling.
Although it has a modest frontage, Broadway Bookshop is like a warren inside, opening out as you pass through the narrow passage past the cash desk and descend the staircase into the huge burrow lined with books. The clamour of Broadway Market recedes and you find yourself as if in a private library where an atmosphere of literary calm prevails. Yet beyond this chamber lies another secret space, where only initiates are admitted. A tiny cavern beneath the street, stacked with boxes of books concealed behind a discreet green curtain, where Jane sits at her desk.
I was fascinated to learn of the women booksellers in West London who had inspired Jane and I realised that she is one of a trio of remarkable women booksellers who run bookshops in East London today – Denise Jones at Brick Lane Books, Vivian Archer at Newham Books & Jane Howe at Broadway Bookshop.
‘I first started to become a bookseller at Dillons, High St Kensington after I left University College London. You had to wear a plastic apron and a badge and you weren’t allowed to look at the books, only dust them – you didn’t open them. I had also been doing proof reading for publishers but I can’t spell so it was ridiculous.
Then I went to work for Mary Mackintosh at Elgin Books in Portobello. She was an American woman in her sixties and her shop was nicely furnished with lovely carpets and furniture and fresh flowers. She was my inspiration. She had this welcoming manner which all the customers loved. She used to let me do the window display which changed every week and she gave me free rein and I loved it. There was always a theme but I didn’t tell her what it was, she had to guess it – sometimes it was that all the books were the same subject and sometimes it was simply that the covers were all the same colour. As Notting Hill changed, the annual rent went from seventeen thousand to thirty-seven thousand and Mary tried to find alternative cheaper premises but she became ill and died.
From there I went to work for Sarah Anderson at the Travel Bookshop, a redoubtable woman who had started the shop twenty years before. It was also in Portobello and, alongside Elgin Books, was the other bookshop that inspired the film Notting Hill. We sold travel books alongside travel literature.
By then I was fifty, but I had a windfall which gave me an opportunity, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something for myself, I can’t just be a part-time bookseller for the rest of my life.’ Friends encouraged me to do it. They said, ‘You know enough.’ So I was looking for premises and my eldest daughter Bridget was studying at the Royal London Hospital. I heard there was an empty shop in Broadway Market and it was very cheap. I thought, ‘It’s a long way from the tube,’ but there was a market starting up and I was used to Portobello and I thought, ‘There’ll be loads of people.’ I went into the cafe next door and it was full of young people in their late twenties and early thirties and I thought, ‘These could be my customers.’
It was a perfect High St, it had a butcher, a baker and a fishmonger, and I thought, ‘Every High St needs a bookshop,’ and ten years later that has been proved right. It has become a community meeting place. You hear people saying, ‘I’ll meet you in the bookshop,’ or they call on their phones and say, ‘I’m in the bookshop.’ Sometimes they leave their children in the book corner at the back of the shop, I set it up there so little children can’t sneak out the door without passing the counter.
Recently, we’ve been under pressure to sell kindles and other things than books, and to open a coffee shop, but we haven’t done any of that – instead we’ve focussed our efforts on offering the very best, most-knowledgeable customer service we can give. We weathered the Recession and the Olympics, when nobody came because they had been told there was nowhere to park, and we’re still here.’
Jane Howe, Bookseller
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
The Broadway Bookshop, 6 Broadway Market, Hackney, E8 4QJ
All are welcome to a party at Broadway Bookshop tonight with drinks & food from 6:30pm and 10% discount on all sales including the CRIES OF LONDON
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