These days we hear constantly of the imminent death of the book and, by extension, of the bookshop and while it’s true that both have been well and truly hammered by a combination of circumstances: the demise of the Net Book Agreement, the rise of Amazon, e-books and, of course, the recession; it’s also true that some independent bookshops are not only surviving but beginning to thrive. Local communities are waking up to the fact that, if they want a local independent bookshop, they have to support it and, likewise, local independent bookshops are succeeding by becoming indispensable to their communities.
One such bookshop can be found in North London. Just off busy and – if truth be told – slightly scuzzy Wood Green High Road, the Big Green Bookshop is easy to miss. A fruit and veg stall obscures the view from one side of the road and a blackboard (bike-chained to a lamp post) pointing the way, frequently gets kicked over, on the other side of the road. Co-owners, Simon Key and Tim West prefer the term “community” bookshop to “independent” and, indeed, this is what they have created.
Tim and Simon were Manager and Assistant Manager respectively of the Wood Green, Waterstones which was closed in August 2007 – despite being the best performing branch in London. Head Office wanted savings and the Wood Green shop’s lease was due to expire. Simon blogged about it for The Bookseller magazine:
"It was the only dedicated bookshop in the area, and there was a real mixture of anger and sadness in the community at the decision. An online petition 'Save the Last Decent Bookshop in Wood Green' raised 726 signatures in a matter of days, and there was a demonstration outside the shop by local residents on the final trading day."
It was to no avail but, based on the tide of goodwill generated, the two decided to take their redundancy money plus a bank loan and open their own bookshop. To keep their friends and customers informed, Simon started a blog called Open a bookshop, what could possibly go wrong? (two blokes, one bookshop, no idea) which you can still read on their website. These friends and well-wishers turned up en-masse to help convert an Internet Café into what finally became the Big Green Bookshop. They opened on 8th March 2008. The name was chosen from a ‘name the shop’ competition held among local schools – the shop isn’t big but they did paint it green!
Sadly, three years later, after a particularly lean nine months and with nine months still to go on the bank loan, an unexpected bill turned up and threated to overwhelm the fragile balance of their finances. On 24th February 2011, the shop’s online newsletter contained a plea for help if the shop was to remain open.
“We absolutely love it here at the Big Green Bookshop. These have been the most rewarding 3 years of our working lives and we really don’t want it to end…It’s just that we can’t really afford to have another nine months like the nine we just had, and despite all your amazing support we are struggling. It was always our aim to try and be more than just a shop where you buy books, and since we opened we’ve tried to offer something for everyone.”
The letter baldly stated the facts and asked customers to buy an extra book, during the week of their third anniversary in March. The letter went viral(ish) and started to attract media attention. People from all over the world bought books online and local customers crammed into the bookshop to buy books and offer to help. Simon tweeted and blogged and created a “struggleometer” to represent how close they were getting to their goal. The result? They paid off the bank loan early and customers got to contemplate for a moment what Wood Green would be like without the Big Green Bookshop.
So what’s happening at the moment? Pretty much, business as usual.
Three mornings a week, there are Stories and Songs for the Under-Fives. Mothers (mainly) and toddlers cram into the shop to eat flapjacks, listen to Tim on the guitar singing ‘Wheels on the Bus’ or ‘Cold Spaghetti’. Actually, you don’t have to be a five-year old for this – you can hear Tim singing ‘Cold Spaghetti’ on Friday nights as he warms up the audience for the monthly comedy gigs – they’re not a rough crowd at the Big Green Bookshop.
There are monthly groups for knitting and board games on Sundays, a writers’ group on Wednesdays, three reading groups, a photo club, book swaps and numerous author and other events. David Vann, Alison Moore, Tan Twan Eng, Caitlin Moran, Evie Wyld and Graham Marks have been here recently. Even Maisie Mouse has visited and children’s authors are frequently taken to local schools.
This Tuesday, 4th December, Gavin Esler will be in conversation with journalist Richard Osley of the Camden New Journal and on Saturday, 8th December, the Mr Gum author, Andy Stanton, will at the bookshop signing copies of Here Comes the Poo Bus.
Simon has started his own interactive publishing imprint – Timeline Books – so far publishing limited editions of Greg (The Man who Fell Asleep!) Stekelman’s artwork in London Tales and, in November, a collection of Joseph D’Lacey’s short horror fiction: Splinters (Stephen King is a fan).
It’s been a busy few weeks for the Big Green Bookshop. They are finalising plans to open a Children’s book and toy shop in Brookman’s Park, Hertfordshire, in the new year and they have just received confirmation of funding to hold a Literary Festival in Summer 2013 finally putting Wood Green on the literary map, y’know, like Hay-on-Wye.
There aren’t many details as yet but it’s an exciting time for the Big Green Bookshop and no little bookshop deserves it more. Check out their website and blog or follow @BigGreenBooks on Twitter to find out more. Join their newsletter mailing list or visit the shop and buy a book. It’s at Unit 1, Brampton Park Road, Wood Green, London, N22 6BG, behind the fruit and veg stall.#