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A radical approach
If a week is a long time in politics then 30 years must be a lifetime in bookselling. Yet Newham Bookshop, which next month will celebrate its 30th birthday nestled in a thriving multicultural east London community, has outlived Ottakar’s, seen the NBA crumble and Waterstone’s spring up from a single west London shop.
So what’s its secret? Independents are sometimes the Eeyores of the industry—bleakly pessimistic about their future. Yet Vivian Archer, who manages the bookshop along with John Newman, says their fate is in their own hands. “The days of doing nothing have gone, especially for the independent sector. The important thing about running an indie is knowing to move very quickly when you realise that things aren’t working. It’s vital to anticipate what’s going on and come up with what people are looking for.”
Archer says the shop has no choice but to move quickly because of the area it operates in. A stone’s throw from West Ham’s football ground, Newham Bookshop is at the centre of an ever-changing community, one of the largest immigrant centres in London. The surge in demand for Polish and Lithuanian bilingual dictionaries is a good indicator of where the latest arrivals are from.
Archer has been at Newham Bookshop for 20 years and in the trade for 30. Born in Hampstead (“very posh” she jokes) to German parents who fled the country before the Second World War, she was a jobbing actress in the late 1960s and ’70s. Television appearances included “Ivanhoe” and “Z Cars”. As she modestly puts it: “to be totally honest, I looked unbelievable and dead right for the 1970s”.
Archer’s theatrical background comes as no surprise; she’s extremely engaging company, with a gossipy sense of humour. Responses to questions usually take about 15 minutes by way of several entertaining anecdotes. By the late ’70s her time treading the boards had reached an end. “I knew my limitations so I felt it was best to get out before I had to go on the dole. I had a good run—I never regretted doing it for a living but I never regretted giving it up.”
A friend was running a radical bookshop in Dalston so she started helping out there. This quickly became a career and she spent most of the 1980s working for the Paperback Centre, the old political bookshops run by the Workers Revolutionary Party. She managed one of their branches in Green Street, just around the corner from the Newham Bookshop, and made a home in the area. When the WRP imploded in the late ’80s, taking the Paperback Centres with it, Archer got a job at the Newham Bookshop.
The political bent has never left her, and she has an evangelical zeal when talking about the power of this trade. “Bookselling is an incredibly powerful way of speaking to people. Most of the areas I have worked in are big, working-class areas where it’s so exciting to have customers who come back and say: ‘I bought my first book here years ago,’ and are now professors or whatever. To get the right books into people’s hands is really exciting.”
This political ethos also has an influence on the events the shop runs. It’s proactive in dealing with the local community, holding frequent events in schools and talks with authors. Archer cites an event with former Somalian child soldier Ishmael Beah as a perfect example of how events can drive sales and establish links with locals. “Many of the audience were asylum seekers and were able to hear what he had done. It’s very empowering and that’s why we do events. If you get the right person in you can change people’s attitudes to books.”
Archer picks authors for events “on instinct”. A recent lunch with mathematician Marcus du Sautoy led to Newham Bookshop holding an event with him and selling out of the hardbacks of his latest book, all at the full £18.99 cover price. “Our customers prefer the interaction of a Q&A rather than a signing,” she explains. “I think we are now being seen as more of an outlet by publishers. We have a good track record.”
The shop’s margins “aren’t bad” as publishers and wholesalers become more competitive in offering terms. However, she acknowledges that it is going to be difficult for the industry as consumers’ disposable income continues to fall. “It’s going to be tough but I think the key thing is it’s a tough few years for everybody. We are responding all the time to the changes that are happening in the market and in the community.”
However, her serious thoughts on the business soon take a typically humorous digression. “The one thing I really yearn for is if just for one week we could get the Net Book Agreement back,” she laughs. “Just so we could see how everyone fares on a level playing field. That would be interesting.”