Happy birthday, Newham Bookshop!

Thursday 1 March 2018

The familiar frontage - it is what
it says on the fascia board
Today is  World Book Day, and the beginning of the month in which Newham Bookshop - managed by Forest Gate stalwart, Vivian Archer  - celebrates its 40th anniversary.  In this article we examine its history, the challenges it has faced and its golden autumn.

Thanks all round - but especially
to Newham Bookshop
The bookshop emerged, in March 1978, from an initiative begun five years previously in an attempt to confront low educational achievement in Newham. 1973 saw the establishment of Newham Education Concern (slogan, "stick our NECs out"), in Plaistow, by some concerned parents.

Within two years the pressure group had established the Parents Centre, which thrived for over 20 years, promoting educational advancement in the borough.  One of the Parents' Centre's offshoots was a small publishing arm, which produced a number of fine historic, autobiographic and photo-books celebrating the borough - including those shown in the picture, below.

Some of the Parents' Centre's
impressive publications
Before the Centre was established, local parents could not get hold of good educational materials to help their kids at school, so the idea of an Education Shop emerged.  It was initially located in an old Eel and Pie shop in Prince Regents Lane.

One of the pressure group's founders, and for the last 30 years Secretary of the London Voluntary Sector Training Consortium, Ray Phillips, said this of the present shop's origins:
When we moved to the Boleyn in 1978, we set up a separate company to develop a proper Education Shop for the sale of play materials and books. Later, we were also able to refurbish the double-fronted bookshop, with the now familiar space split between children's and adult ranges. After a difficult start, we never looked back.
Ray wrote that in a booklet to celebrate the shop's silver anniversary in 2003. And the final sentence could not be truer, today.

The shop is community-owned and the management committee consists of volunteers. The overall manager, Vivian Archer, joined the shop 30 years ago. She is ably assisted by another Forest Gate stalwart, John Newman, who manages the children's section. CJ Gajjar, was in charge of that when we visited.

CJ with just some of the extensive children's stock
Vivian's background is in drama.  She studied at the Central School for Speech and Drama in the late 60's, where she made a series of acquaintances - like the Redgraves, Ken Loach and others - who spurred her on. She spent 10 years as a working actor, with roles on both the stage and TV, before moving to the more settling world of bookshop management.

Her first experience was in Hackney, before moving to Newham in the 1980's. She has built up a network of influential literary supporters, including poets John Hegley and Benjamin Zephaniah (who wrote a poem to celebrate their silver jubilee) - and one-time children's laureate, poet and Radio 4 stalwart, Michael Rosen.

Benjamin Zephaniah - an early and loyal supporter

Michael, who will be appearing in one of the events being hosted to celebrate 40 glorious years (see footnote), had this to say about the shop in 2003:
Newham Bookshop is simply the best bookshop I know.  In the years I've had something to do with it, I've seen the way in which it is a place that reaches out to the people who live, work and study nearby. With meetings, signings and readings, the bookshop announces to the community that it is interested in ideas, people, history, education and life itself....
In Michael Rosen's view: "Newham
Bookshop is simply the best bookshop I know"

It is a showcase for what a bookshop should be about and I can only wish that many other booksellers ... would come and see what is possible, when you treat the people ...  with respect and interest. May the bookshop live on and all who work in it!"
Newham Bookshop's survival has been remarkable, and down to the dedicated staff and volunteers who work for and with it.  Consider the challenges it has faced over the last 20 years alone.

Until 1997 a scheme known as the Net Book Agreement (NBA) was in operation - which meant that all new books had to be sold at a publisher's fixed price in every shop and outlet. There was a level playing field in the industry , designed to protect small independents, like Newham Bookshop.

The scrapping of the NBA meant a free-for all in the book market. It saw the emergence of large chains such as Waterstones, who, along with established sellers like WH Smith,  could now bulk purchase, and sell new and popular books at discount.

Supermarkets jumped on the bandwagon too and handpicked pot-boilers and books from popular authors, bulk purchased and sold them - often as lost leads - at huge discounts, sometimes far below the price shops like Newham Bookshop could even purchase them at.

Unlike these 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap' competitors,  Newham Bookshop stocks a huge range of books on politics, history, literature and local interest and the children's bookshop is a must for relatives looking for books and educational toys and aids for the very young.

Vivian says that you can almost track the different waves of immigration coming into Newham, by the sales of the various bi-lingual dictionaries and phrasebooks sold at the store.

Vivian, surrounded by some
of the shop's many thousands
of books
Having ridden the storm of seeing the sale of best-sellers effectively taken away from them, independents, like the Newham shop began to face two more massive challenges as the 21st century changed people's leisure and shopping habits.

Kindles emerged a decade ago  - 'to make hard copies of books and their retailers redundant'. Newham Bookshop did not bow to the proclaimed inevitable, but persevered.  The result has seen "the dead Kindle in the cupboard" emerge, as readers have reverted to the hard copy book.

Kindle's manufacturer, Amazon, have not given up, however.  They are now the dominant force in the retail book market, and almost all the competition is suffering badly.

This fateful combination of negative book trade factors has had a dramatic effect.  Over 550 -almost half - of small UK bookstores have closed in the last decade.

On top of these factors , Newham Bookshop has had to overcome its own very local difficulty recently.

Twenty times a year the shop could count on a bumper sales day, as West Ham supporters, from near and far would descend on the shop on match-days, snaffling up some of the wide range of club-related books on sale - or perhaps to meet an old crowd favourite player who would cheerfully sign their autobiographies in the shop.

No more. West Ham's move from the Boleyn to the London Stadium in the Olympic Park has cut off that regular piece of passing trade. None of those associated with the new stadium will enable fans to buy what they want from the Bookshop there.

Despite the very formidable obstacles Newham Bookshop has encountered, particularly over the last two decades, the shop soldiers on.  And this is in no small part to the goodwill and contacts that Vivian has built up over that period.

So, on World Book Day, the shop will receive visits from possibly hundreds of local school children, ready to exchange the tokens they get for the occasion for books in the shop.  Last year they had 1800 visitors on the day. And all because the Bookshop has cultivated great relationships with schools in Newham, Redbridge and Barking over the years - bringing authors to schools and helping with school libraries and book sales.

CJ welcomes you to
World Book Day
Vivian has matched her great contacts in the book trade with one of Forest Gate's quirkiest ventures, to provide great evenings of local entertainment and education.  The, now regular, book events at the Wanstead Tap are almost guaranteed sell outs and big local crowd pleasers.

It is a real win:win:win:win combination. Authors love coming to the relaxed, invariably packed venue, and meet engaged audiences at the Tap, Forest Gate comes out in force for the events, Dan Clapton entertains, gets alcohol sales and cements his place on the map as the area's best events venue and the Bookshop gets sales. An almost ideal combination.  And as Dan says - "Viv lines 'em up, I say 'yes' and a great evening is had by all!' See footnote for details of forthcoming events.

Vivian's car is like a travelling bookstore.  In addition to author's events at the Tap, she regularly services events at Conway Hall, and for 5x15 sessions in Notting Hill, as well as other venues, across London.

As Michael Rosen has said, much of Newham Bookshop's success is down to its relationship with the communities it serves. So, the bookshop plays an active part in trying to retain the now-famous World Cup statue in its original home - just opposite the shop - rather than have it moved to the soulless London Stadium.

Of the community - campaigning for
the community in the fight
to keep this landmark local
Vivian is a trustee of a charity set up in honour of East End author, Gilda O'Neil, and as such is promoting Holding the Baby - sponsored by the charity, a travelling exhibition, around Newham's libraries sharing memories of childcare and parenting in the East End in the 1950's. It is launched today (1 March 2018 at 5.30 in Plaistow library) and will tour the borough's libraries for a year.

Vivian used her contacts and entrepreneurial skills to persuade publishers and authors to donated signed copies of their books to her, to auction, with the proceeds going to the survivors of Grenfell Towers.  Over £7,000 has been raised to date.

So, Newham Bookshop is in the community, and of the communities it serves. And it is this formula that has ensured its success against very formidable obstacles.  Long may it continue to prosper - for all of our sakes!

A busy shop window, for a busy shop

1.Anniversary celebrations. Newham Bookshop has arranged a series of exciting events at the Wanstead Tap, to celebrate its anniversary.  Over the coming months renowned authors such as Misha Glenny (of McMafia fame), Michael Rosen, Stuart Cosgrove and Helen Pankhurst,  will be appearing, together with important evenings with authors discussing books on autism and others on the future of the Labour Party.For contact details see below.

2. Contact details Newham Bookshop is based at 745-747 Barking Road E13 9ER. Opening hours: Tuesday - Friday 9.30 - 5pm, Saturday 10 am - 5pm. Phone: 020 8552 9993.

Its website is https://www.newhambooks.co.uk, e.mail address: info@newhambooks and Twitter account (8,000 followers):  @NewhamBookshop.

3. Events bookings Tickets for events are sold via both The Wanstead Tap and Newham Bookshop websites. A handy hint: The Tap often sell out before the Bookshop. If you want to go to an event and the Tap says 'Sold out' - try the Bookshop - you may be lucky!


  1. It is one of my biggest regrets about my beloved Hammers leaving Upton Park for the greatly improved facilities of Stratford that I don't get to cross Barking Road on match days and look to see the books and events posted in the window of this wonderful bookshop or get the chance to pop in for a quick chat with Viv. I do go there now and then and browse through the great stock. It is far and away the best bookshop I have come across in East London. Long may it run

  2. Love this bookshop. It’s the best independent in east London by far. As a teacher and a grandmother the selection of children’s books is marvellous.


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