Owl Bookshop

IMG_1842Owl Bookshop, 207-209 Kentish Town Road, London, NW5 2JU

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.

IMG_1839The 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 IMG_1841people 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 IMG_1840about 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, IMG_1837where 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.  IMG_1838It 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.

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15 responses to “Owl Bookshop

  1. Sounds like a wonderful place. I wonder how the poor bookseller coped with that ape of a customer?

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  2. I just love the name of this book shop.

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  3. Wonderful review! I wish I could visit but it’s a long way from Chicago.

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  4. What a great post. I totally agree with you. My daughter loves so called ‘boy’ books. I’m curious to know what the man finally bought. My friend’s daughter used to love the Thomas books when she was small. I don’t know this shop, but I am going to search it out.

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  5. I wonder if the local paper has a Buckets and Bouquets column where you could re-publish the part about that objectionable little man. He probably lives locally and could do with a good bucketing Great post as usual.

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  6. What an excellent post! Every facet of it was interesting, complete to the Book Boor. And isn’t it lucky he came in, because it furnishes the perfect trigger for your conclusion!
    Go Jane Austen!

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  7. Thank you for liking my post on the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. And thank you for leading me to your outstanding blog. I have “done” London as a tourist and wish my son and my grandchildren lived almost anywhere else in the world so I could have somewhere new to visit. I now look forward to my next visit. You have inspired me to be a London bookshop tourist. Special time with what l love well – my gorgeous grandchildren and books. One satisfied traveller.

    Congratulations, too, on your comments regarding literature suitable for girls and for boys. A local toy shop tells me there is a demand for selling toys in the “boys” section and the “girls” section of his shop. In this way, girls were destined to miss out on chemistry sets and construction toys. Boys missed out on any toys that would help them become more than half-human adults. Top marks to any bookseller who can open the mind of the customer you mentioned.

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  8. Love this, as usual you make me want to go there and also borrow your idea to do my own bookshop review, with link to you for the idea of course. Recently i read Pride and Prejudice and loved it, I do still prefer Dickens for the immediacy of his character drawing but still a fine novel that should be enjoyed by more blokes.

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  9. What a wonderful account of a magical visit. That horrid man, however, needs to be better educated about both reading AND about not stereotyping people. Alas, I fear he probably won’t be.

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  10. I’ll have to pop in there sometime!

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  11. Pete Hulme

    This is terrible! Thanks to this post I have discovered yet another bookaholics’ paradise from which to acquire yet more tomes to pile on top of my wobbly bedside tower. Your story of the throwback ‘book bore’, as one of the comments described him, brought back memories of the mother in Hereford who, when she saw her toddler staggering through the doors of Waterstones, screamed at him from 20 yards away, ‘Come here! You can’t go in there. It’s too posh!’ So does book-phobia pass down from generation to generation to the detriment of all of us.

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    • Things like that are just sad more than anything. It’s a shame that a mother feels like her child has anything less than a right to books, but I fear that responsibility doesn’t lie with her but with a culture of elitism. I wish I knew how to fix it, but I’m trying to do my part (as all bibliophiles do) to spread the joy of books and show that they can be fun, welcoming and easy to access. Thanks very much for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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      • Pete Hulme

        I agree my snapshot was too simplistic and elitism has to take its share of responsibility. Part of my campaign against the unnecessary obscurity of many modern poems is fuelled by my awareness of how people are alienated from poetry as a result.

        One terrifying fact is worth bearing in mind as well though: to become comfortably literate a child has to be participant in an interactive exchange of something in the region of 30,000 words by the time (s)he reaches school age. Many homes do not achieve this target. Child-minding by television is only part of the problem. Other examples would be mothers with mobiles ignoring their children’s prattle as they gossip with a friend.

        And it is not essentially a ‘class’ issue (see http://www.education.com/magazine/article/30000_words/) for source of this quote: ‘kids from families of lower economic status whose parents did talk close to 30,000 words showed the same results as their wealthier peers: better academic success in third grade. That’s good news, because it means academic success has less to do with socio-economic status, race, and ethnicity, and more to do with words—which are free.’

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      • I am completely with you; I actually work with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whose parents don’t speak English as a first language and yet as long as the parents are involved, have ambitions for their children and want to help, the kids seem to do well in school. I suppose it’s more about getting rid of this idea that poetry is only for posh people and realising that actually it’s all around us and can be a really helpful, rewarding and liberating outlet, for all kinds of people.

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  12. Great stuff – especially re categories. I do think a lot of this is created by marketing teams, which in turn leads to ridiculous statements such as ‘only women read’ which I’ve heard too many times, often simply based on analysis of a few book groups. Academics should know better too – at college I wanted to study a module on Victorian women writers, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, etc – men were of course free to take it and I did – but even so, the way it was pigeon-holed and presented put off many and I lost count of the critical texts in which it was suggested that, as a man, these were books I must never presume to be able ‘to understand’. It was by far one of the most rewarding and relevant to life courses I took.

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