Dulwich Books, 6 Croxted Road, London, SE21 8SW
Searching for books is a great way to explore a city you think you know. I’ve lived in London for more than ten years. In that time I’ve lived in six houses in four different areas of this megacity. But that hasn’t stopped me from falling in love with independent bookshops in every corner of London. Even though I now live way South, I still go to visit West End Lane Books in Hampstead and Brick Lane Books in the East End. But that makes it all the more lovely when I get to explore my local area.
I live not too far from West Dulwich, which is the home of the delightful Dulwich Books. Dulwich is a weird place. Most of the land is still own by the Dulwich Estate, a charitable foundation that acquired it over a hundred years ago. Because it’s privately owned it means that the area feels really different to surrounding areas like trendy East Dulwich, Herne Hill and West Norwood. In additional to being very well-heeled, West Dulwich also feels like a rural village. The urban legend is that the original chairs of the Dulwich Estate trust, the plot of private land that West Dulwich sits on, were teetotal way back when, so there are no pubs in the whole of West Dulwich – though there are several great ones just outside the boundaries of the Dulwich Estate. They also apparently had something against double decker buses because all the bus routes that wind through the estate are singles.
On an unassuming street corner in Croxted Road, you’ll find Dulwich Books, as well as a smattering of other little shops including a bakery over the road. Modest and unpretentious from the outside, this little shopfront reveals a fantastic local bookshop, embedded in its community, with a smart and intentional selection of books and a friendly, welcome atmosphere. The staff here take bookselling seriously and every time I pop in I’m impressed with the thoughtful curation of new titles, old classics given a bit of attention, and staff recommendations. The bookshop is great for its extensive fiction selection, but I also like it for the the focus it puts on books about culture, politics and current affairs.
In the back of the bookshop, there is a fantastic children’s section. When I went in most recently it was half term and there were two families who were clearly using the children’s section as entertainment for the morning, with their little ones happily playing with toys and reading while the bookseller patiently chatted to their parents. I particularly like this bookshop because they’ve clearly put a lot of effort into sourcing diverse children’s books. In 2018, Arts Council England and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education published research showing that only 1% of main characters in children’s literature were people of colour. Compared to 32% of schoolchildren in London. This means that the stories children spend their childhoods reading are failing to represent them and their communities, and failing to represent the diversity of the city and country they will grow up in. This has a huge impact on who children think reading is for, and which stories matter. Seeing yourself represented does wonders for self-esteem and aspiration.
There are certainly lots of brilliant initiatives seeking to redress the balance, notably Knights Of publishers who have a pop up in Brixton Market. Dulwich Books shows how bookshops can be an agent for change, by stocking a good selection of children’s books with diverse characters and perspectives. Thank goodness for that.
The bookshop hosts a series of regular events, profiling local authors and hosting an annual literary festival across Dulwich and Balham. I can highly recommend signing up to their email newsletter which is always full of recommendations and events that are enticing enough to tempt you down to this part of London that transport infrastructure forgot.
So how to describe Dulwich Books. Old favourite? Local stalwart? Social hub? Source of inspiration? I think the world benefits from having multiple perspectives. So, all of the above.