Something to crow about

<p>Danuta Kean</p><p>There are not many bookshops that can claim official status as one of London's "Best Kept Secrets", but Bookseller Crow on the Hill, tucked away in Crystal Palace, south-east London, can. In March a list of "100 Streets with Secrets" in London listings magazine Time Out featured Westow Street, SE19. Its secret, according to the magazine, was that it was the home of "possibly London's most accessible local bookshop", Bookseller Crow on the Hill. </p><p>Time Out heaped praise on Crow on the Hill, the only bookshop featured, for its wide and interesting range, "wonderful" children's section and friendly and knowledgeable staff. "You get the impression they actually read books," the glowing review concluded. </p><p>Proprietors Justine Crow and Jonathan Main were understandably "chuffed". Not that the secret is that well kept among the locals of Upper Norwood, the leafy Victorian suburb of which Crystal Palace is the heart. In the first year after taking over ownership of the 1,100 sq ft shop in 1997, Crow and Main doubled the business' annual turnover, from &#163;180,000 to &#163;360,000. Since then, sales have increased steadily by at least 15 to 20% a year, thanks to an eclectic stock, excellent service, long opening hours, a large, well-displayed children's section and a layout that tempts customers deeper and deeper inside in search of surprises.</p><p>Crow and Main met when working together at the Pan Bookshop in the early 1980s-- theirs is also a personal partnership, and they have three children . Jonathan Main had a circuitous career route that included art college, tutoring and Foyles, where he was one of the few booksellers to survive beyond six months. He moved to the Pan Bookshop when it was under the management of Mary Williams, now manager of Prospero's in north London, and worked his way up to manager. His career might have taken off in a very different direction, after he caught the eye of then Picador editorial director Sonny Mehta. "Sonny had a lot of respect for Jon," Justine Crow says. </p><p>Her partner looks abashed, explaining: "It was at the time when Picador first published Raymond Carver, and I knew who he was and had bought his books as imports. I don't think it was anything else." Mehta was impressed enough to suggest that Main consider a career as a literary agent. Instead, he moved into repping, working for three years as a central and south London representative for Andr&eacute; Deutsch, when it was owned by Tom Rosenthal, and before it was sold to Video Collections International in 1995. </p><p>Vital experience</p><p> The experience was vital for the future co-owner of Crow on the Hill. "When I was a rep I went to virtually every bookshop in London for two or three years. After that I knew what I admired and what I definitely did not, and what we should be trying to be like." That translated into the creation of a comfortable space for shoppers, one that is as much about leisure as shopping. "I have never thought of the business just as a bookshop," Main says, "but as a place people might wander into on a Sunday afternoon and find interesting things. It is about the atmosphere, it is about being nice and relaxing for people to come into."</p><p> Crow's background was more bohemian. After dropping out of school at 17, she fled to Amsterdam, before moving to Brussels. By her mid-20s she realised it was time to find a more settled way of life. She returned to England, where her mother ran remainder bookshops in Horsham and Dorking, and found a job as a bookseller in Portsmouth. But the capital beckoned. She went to work as a junior at the Pan Bookshop and worked her way up to be Main's assistant manager. From there she moved to Hatchards on Kensington High Street, then managed by Loma Slater, and from there to Claude Gill on Oxford Street, to work for Sarah Shere, who, Crow says, "was fantastic". </p><p>But the honeymoon could not last. After Hatchards' owner, Wm Collins, was taken over by Rupert Murdoch it became, she says, "really corporate and I got fed up with it". In 1989 she moved south of the river to the Streatham branch of Words Worth Books as a buyer. The south London remainder chain wanted to expand into general bookselling. </p><p>"It was quite a culture shock," Crow recalls. Within a short time she was working at the company's Crystal Palace shop, and Main had left Deutsch to join her as general manager of the nine-branch chain, owned by wholesaler Meresborough Books. However, Crow says, "Meresborough seriously underestimated us and underestimated the potential of all the shops, especially this one." </p><p> Crow and Main's frustration was short lived. In July 1997, Meresborough entered a company voluntary agreement with creditors, due to losses at the company. The chain was broken up, and Main and Crow bought the Crystal Palace branch. They were free at last to realise their vision for the shop. "When we took it over," Main recalls, "the shop was two-thirds a bargain bookshop. It didn't have a third of the stock that it has now." </p><p>Regeneration generators </p><p> Main and Crow's acquisition of the shop contributed to a regeneration of the area. The two had a vision of what could be sold there, despite appearances to the contrary. "One of the first books that we bought in quantity when we took over was Thomas Pynchon's Mason&amp;Dixon ," Main says. "It was not necessarily something you would expect to sell in Crystal Palace at the time, but we sold quite a few copies." </p><p> Crow adds: "It was pretty desolate here. There were lots of traditional shops--an aquarium retailer, a fishmonger, a grocer, two pet shops--shops that you wouldn't see anywhere else in London now. A bookshop fitted in nicely, and it seemed that because some people started to take the place seriously others soon followed. I have argued that since we took over the shop--and this is not boasting--we have contributed to the local regeneration." </p><p>The two obviously feel an affinity with the area, which sits atop one of the highest hills in London and offers breathtaking views across the city. "We had worked in Streatham, Clapham, Camberwell and they were all so grim," says Crow of her arrival in Crystal Palace. "Then I came here and it was like when you come up to the top of a mountain and you look down on London and the sun is shining and the air is clear. What was also clear was that it was an area that once again was finding a bit of pride in itself. Families were moving in. The primary schools weren't bad. They were trying hard."</p><p>Catering for varied tastes</p><p> As well as a strong market for serious literary fiction and children's books, the shop has found an eager audience for issue-based non-fiction. Michael Moore's Stupid White Men , for example, sold well as an import long before it was published in the UK by Penguin, and Naomi Klein's No Logo was at one point the shop's bestselling title. Other recent hits include Andrew Collins' memoir Where Did It All Go Right? , which performed well without the aid of discounting.</p><p> The area has a strong local heritage, so the shop has healthy sales of local history; gay and black writing also sell well, each having its own display sections near the front of the shop. </p><p>Main and Crow are great believers in being proactive when it comes to media coverage of titles, and use The Bookseller 's sister journal Books in the Media to pre-order titles. "I learnt a lesson long ago when I went into a bookshop and asked for something that the bookseller said they didn't have 'because there was no demand for it'. Yet there I was asking for it," Crow recalls. "I swore that I would never use that as an excuse."</p><p>The market that the shop has tapped into includes the older, moneyed residents who live in some of the large Victorian mansions. "Some of them tell us that they don't go to Hatchards anymore because we are here." </p><p>Its stock, Main says, helps differentiate Crow on the Hill from the run-of-the-mill chains and supermarkets, with their cut-price bestsellers and value-added offers. A few doors down is a medium-size Safeway that stocks discounted bestsellers and against which it would otherwise be hard to compete head to head. </p><p>Their stock is also a matter of pride. "I don't like shops like Waterstone's, Piccadilly," Main says, "because there is nothing that seems to have been chosen. If you are going to stock everything and chuck it into a big room you don't have to be a bookseller to work there. To me it is just like white noise. I am constantly amazed that the books we are selling really well are nowhere to be seen in other shops. I think, why aren't they promoting that, because that is one of our best selling books?"</p><p>Good independents exude a strong sense of their proprietors' characters. Crow on the Hill is no exception. As well as reflecting the tastes and changing lifestyle of Main and Crow, the bookshop has developed a strong children's section as the couple's own family has grown. And their sense of fun is reflected in the name. "I think most bookshops are really boring in the names they choose," Main says. "People think this is a funny name for a bookshop, but they wouldn't think it was funny if it was a restaurant or a hairdressers." </p><p>Both give their own reasons for the choice. Crow says: "First, I had the more interesting name. Second, there is the Crystal Palace Park, which is full of crows. Thirdly, it is just a lovely name to use." Main says: "Bookseller is what we do, and it ensures that we are near the top in the phone book. Also, we nicked the idea from the Screen on the Green cinema in Islington." </p><p>The name is the basis for the distinctive logo, designed by Main, which adorns everything from shop fascia, paper bags and bookmarks, to Crow's syndicated books column in the Families series of magazines, distributed free in shops throughout London.</p><p>Off the publishers' map</p><p> Where independence seems to be a hindrance is in organising events. Some large publishers have proved to be less than helpful when Crow on the Hill has requested an author for an event. This can be illustrated by their experience with Fourth Estate over Jonathan Meades. Meades' latest novel, The Fowler Family Business , is set in Upper Norwood, a favourite place on the Meades map of London. When Crow on the Hill called Fourth Estate to organise an event or at least some signed copies, they were turned down without, it seems, much thought. "It was as if they couldn't believe there was a decent bookshop in Crystal Palace."</p><p> For more enlightened publishers, events at Crow on the Hill can attract a lot of customers, thanks to a catchment area that extends beyond East Dulwich in the north. Main and Crow even harbour the dream of setting up a local literary festival. The only real obstacle is time, which is in short supply because of the shop's long opening hours, family commitments and wider interests of the two. Main regularly works a 70-hour week, aided by two staff, Joy Haney and Leon Sansick. Like some other independents, Main takes the view that staff should be paid a living wage, and consequently pays well above the trade average.</p><p>He has no regrets about the long hours. "A regular customer said to me the other day that I was a man with no life," he jokes. "But you would not think anything of those hours if I was a chef patron of a restaurant. Gordon Ramsay works those sorts of hours." And Gordon Ramsay has the same kind of passion that makes Bookseller Crow on the Hill such a favourite among locals and Time Out journalists. n </p><p>danuta.kean@bookseller.co.uk</p>