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I rarely venture further than Rough Trade when I head to East London, I’m not very keen on the whole urban decay chic thing that goes on around there and any mention of a place having a ‘scene’ leaves me rolling my eyes and running for the door. So when I visited Victoria Park Books, I was surprised to find myself, just a ten minutes from Mile End, in an area that could only be described as ‘leafy’. There I was, walking through a park, kicking piles of leaves in to the air and getting very excited about conker season; feeling very autumnal and a million miles away from ‘The Only Way is Dalston’.Hidden away in a quiet corner of Hackney, Victoria Park Books is one of a cluster of independent shops and restaurants which make up the ‘village’ of Victoria Park. It specialises in children’s books and is a fabulous shade of periwinkle blue. It’s also bright, airy and comes complete with a dog lying in the corner. Although only a small shop, the stock is well chosen with plenty of interesting new titles to catch your eye amongst the better known authors and series.I had trouble writing about Victoria Park Books without sounding twee, because Jo and Kris’ story of having a baby, leaving their jobs, buying and renovating a building to create a home and a bookshop sounds like something out of a lifestyle feature. Did I mention that Jo grew up in her family’s bookshop? If you are anything like me, you’ll need a second to stop day dreaming about that bookshop you are sure to own before she tells you her life isn’t as romantic as it sounds, apparently: ‘The idea is very romantic but the actuality means that you can never escape. It’s quite difficult to unpick the two things; at least we don’t have very far to commute.’
I used to work as a children’s bookseller and Jo shares a lot of my favourite authors and books. There are some great framed illustrations hanging in the shop, including the adorable Emily Brown by Neal Layton and a huge picture by the fantastic Chris Riddell, which he drew at the shop.Jo was refreshingly candid in her opinions when we chatted over a cup of tea, sat on tiny child-sized seats, gossiping about all aspects of the industry. Here are a few of the highlights:
I: You used to work for Waterstone’s, what do you think about their relationship with independents?
Jo: Well, they’ve said they are going to run Waterstone’s like Daunt’s, which sounds a bit like they are going to turn it back to 1987 and start running them like independents. Actually if there was a Waterstone’s near here I’d be concerned about that now. I think in the 80’s it was a really good shop with good staff and a good selection of books. We all knew what we had and we bought for our customers. So I think for independents in places where there are Waterstone’s it’s going to be quite hard now. We’ll see.I: You are working in the children’s book industry so you’re partly responsible for ensuring we have the next generation of readers. How do you see the focus changing? Are there still as many people coming in to buy books for their children as before?
J: That’s difficult to judge as there wasn’t a children’s bookshop here before, but we are developing a book buying habit amongst the people here. It’s particularly important in somewhere like Hackney, because it is one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. I have this hope that there will be a kind of literary flowering in about 10 to 15 years, and significant part of that will be in East London and might have had something to do with the four bookshops in South Hackney that have all sprung up in the last 7 years. A lot of children don’t have an access to books, and the libraries are closing, so I think that we are really important. If it all ends up being through publishers, Waterstone’s and Amazon, which really could happen, the children in areas like Hackney will be the children who lose out. They won’t go online to buy books from Amazon or a publisher and they won’t go to Waterstone’s because it’s middle-class, it’s not HMV, and anyway we wouldn’t get a Waterstone’s around here. That’s what bothers me.I: There is a real focus on Ebooks at the moment, how do you think bookshops fit in to that discussion?
J: The thing is, we’ve tried to embrace Ebooks, I’m not a technophobe, I’m happy to embrace it. And the advantage is there is still a netbook agreement on Ebooks and you don’t have to pay until you’ve actually sold something. I phoned the BA and they sent me an 82 page document which I duly read and all it told me was that I can pay Gardners so much money that it makes it unprofitable or I can work with an individual publisher, but you have to keep all the licenses forever to show that people have actually brought this thing from you and where they downloaded it to. And that’s the problem, the size of the server you need is just unmanageable. There was one publisher who were prepared to work with us and we looked into it and we just realised we couldn’t do it.
I: So it’s only viable for large companies?
J: Well, its multinationals talking to multinationals, that’s what it is and we’re too small, so they’re having a conversation over our heads and we can hear everything but we can’t do anything. And nobody is interested. I mean I’m not at all worried about Ebooks, I can see exactly how they’ll fit in. I think they’ll work very well alongside real books. Vinyl is making a comeback, because the quality of the sound is better so people want to own it. It’s the same with books, the quality of what you are looking at in a real book is actually much better the virtual version of it. So people will want it eventually.I: We both agree what a joy it is to see innovative kids’ books, which would you really recommend?
Jo: One of our bestsellers is a picture book called Naughty Bus which is a really unusual. It got refused by every mainstream publisher, every publisher in fact, so they published it themselves. I think it’s much more widely available now but it wasn’t initially and we sell loads of it. It’s fantastic, it’s so clever and there’s a sort of knowing quality to it; it’s just good fun and there’s nothing else like it.
Victoria Park Books is definitely worth visiting; it’s homely, welcoming and Jo’s enthusiasm for children’s books is infectious. It’s lovely to visit a bookshop that has the warmth of a family run business but is also so beautifully presented. Did I mention they have a dog?