Last week I got myself very lost in Kentish Town, looking for Walden Books. Fortunately, most good stories get started when the heroine stumbles off the path. As I wandered up Kentish Town Road, growing more and more certain that I had gone too far, I became aware of golden light glowing out from the windows of this beautiful green shopfront.
The first thing I noticed about the Owl Bookshop is how ‘local’ it is; sitting on the high street, it is an integral part of the community. It’s the kind of place that probably has regulars. It’s the kind of place where a child can grow up, returning every week like a ritual, just like I did in another local bookshop far far away. The little chairs scattered around the shop invite you to sit down and read or sort out which books you’re actually going to take home. The majority of the books are retail price, but there are a few tables throughout the shop filled with books on sale for £3, £4 and £5, so a lack of money needn’t stop you from browsing.
It reminded me a lot of the Stoke Newington Bookshop and not just because the layout of the shop similar – indeed you could almost substitute Stoke Newington’s blue shelves for the Owl’s green ones and have the same shop. But more importantly, both have an almost tangible sense of community, and the booksellers who foster those communities are friendly, lively, energetic and more than competent.
When I walked into Owl Bookshop, one of the booksellers was patiently helping a woman decide what to buy for her friend who ‘likes good novels.’ Unbelievably, this was the only criteria she was able to give the bookseller, but instead of being annoyed, he seemed to enjoy the challenge, happily bouncing around the shelves suggesting books. She left with three so I think he must have done all right. As I skulked around the poetry section eavesdropping on other customers (my usual routine) I heard them talk to customers with complete ease about authors I’ve never heard of, being helpful and obliging and more than willing to spend as long as it took to make sure each customer left with the perfect book. I don’t normally ramble on about staff, but I’m making an exception because the good people at the Owl were truly impressive.
As they chattered away with customers, I was busily exploring the fiction section. In addition to a wall full of A-Z Fiction, there was a bay of bestsellers and new releases. I always love this in a bookshop; I think it’s a sign that the people who run it love, care about and pay attention to books. I was even more impressed to realise that these bays contained so much more than the mundane chart-toppers. It gets old to see the same books on display week after week in every bookshop, so it’s very refreshing to see a display of books that demonstrates a real knowledge of the publishing industry, as well as an understanding of what’s good, not just what’s popular. Not that those can’t be the same thing, it’s just that…well, come on. In a post-50 shades world, do I really need to qualify that statement?
Even the Classics section was better than average, redefining what we deem ‘classics’ by including books from all over the world. Some of these may not be canonical in the world of British academia, but they have stood the test of time nonetheless and gave me lots of new ideas for my ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.
The rest of the bookshop is really brilliant; I truly can’t say enough good things about it. And I’m stumped for clever ways of phrasing my praising. I’m just in love with the Owl, okay? A whole wall is full of travel books. The history and politics sections are relevant and well-stocked. The corner full of cookbooks is colourful and appealing. Beautiful art and architecture books have an entire section to themselves. I could have spent hours there looking through the interesting selection of interesting books I never knew I wanted to read until I saw them and then could not pull myself away.
The only small stain on my otherwise brilliant visit fame from another customer. He walked in with his sons and before he even looked around went immediately to the desk. He told one of the aforementioned brilliant booksellers that he was taking his son to a girl’s fourth birthday party. ‘I know nothing about girls and girly stuff’ he snapped, making every woman in the shop glad not to be the mother of his spawn. Each time one of his boys suggested something like Thomas the Tank Engine or a Scooby Doo book, he snarled ‘We’re not looking for a book you like, we’re looking for something a girl would like.’ I think he spent the entire time trying (and failing) to avoid sneering every time he said the world ‘girl.’ I stood there fuming as he indoctrinated his impressionable sons with some idiotic ideology about how girls like princesses and boys like trains, dinosaurs are for boys, sparkles are for girls. I wanted to explain to him that if he continued with his behaviour he would be guilty of unleashing two first class neanderthals upon a world that thought it was rid of this type of person.
This ridiculous dividing of literature into categories happens in academia too, where Jane Austen and Emily Bronte are studied by women but their male contemporaries, like, say, Dickens and Carlyle, are for the boys. Don’t people realise that Austen could be just as observant as (and even more bitingly clever than) Dickens? It’s worrying that we still allow artists to be pigeon-holed in any way, but gender-based judgements are the worst. The power of literature is that it allows us to transcend silly little differences like gender, class, nationality, race and see ourselves as human beings. Anyone who tries to pervert that noblest of goals is, in my humble opinion, a mere subspecies.
But what bothered me most was that he completely missed the point of this bookshop. By offering its readers an unconventional selection of titles, which are good regardless of whether they’re popular or well-known, the Owl asks us to go beyond our normal habits and discover something new. It asks us to try out books we would never have found ourselves, by authors we’d never heard of but probably should have. It invites us to open our minds and it reminds us that this openness, this ability to see beyond our own tiny little lives and experience the world in a new way, is the reason we loved reading to begin with. So here’s to the Owl Bookshop; the world needs more places like it.