July 5, 2013
Independent Booksellers Week: Q&A with Jane Howe from Broadway Bookshop
by Zeljka Marosevic
All week long, we’ve been posting bookseller Q&As to mark Independent Booksellers Week, and to celebrate only some of the many independent bookshops and booksellers in Britain. We’ve featured Warwick and Kenilworth Bookshops, Housmans radical bookshop and The Bookseller Crow. Today, we interview Jane Howe from Broadway Bookshop. This beautiful bookshop is one of the shining stars of Broadway Market and the bookshop of choice for Hackney’s many writers. If you’ve been to the market and haven’t been to the bookshop, shame on you. Make a beeline next time you’re in the area and say hello to its dedicated and throughly well-read booksellers.
Tell us about your shop
The shop is a small, quirky place crammed with books arranged over three floors in what might at first appear a haphazard manner, almost as one might arrange one’s books at home. Fortunately our customers are patient enough to discover that the shop does in fact have a few organinising principles behind it — in particular our judgement as to what is worth reading. We are especially known for literary fiction but keep a stock of important books in most areas: especially travel, London, philosophy, children’s, music, poetry and natural history. We also like to promote smaller publishers with their own tables and displays: the combination of excellent design and intelligent writing of most small presses make these a pleasure to do.
Why did you decide to open a bookshop?
For me selling books was the best job in the world. I’d worked in two other excellent independent bookshops for fifteen years and I wanted to go it alone. So I looked for somewhere I could afford the rent even if I only sold a few books a day and that happened to be Broadway Market in Hackney, a most fortuitous choice. I took over a small former newsagent and turned their back yard into a second, larger interior space. Back then both Broadway Market and the whole Hackney area were very much more low key compared to now. Over the last few years the area has become known for the explosion of creative talent and entrepreneurship around here, and we’re proud to have been part of that in a small way. My instinct was simply that every high street needs a bookshop as much as it needs a chemist, greengrocer, etc. — but now this street has three bookshops . . .
How has your business changed in the past ten years?
It would be naive to think that we, like every bookshop, haven’t been directly affected by the Sturm und Drang of, firstly, Mr Bezos’s terrifying, non-tax paying leviathan, and, secondly, by the increasing switch to the digital buying and reading of books. It’s impossible to quantify how much these affect us directly, but they undoubtedly hurt us. On the flip-side we certainly benefited from the “taxpayer revolt” in December 2012, when many customers told us they were buying books from us rather than Amazon because of its tax avoidance strategies.
On a more positive note it does encourage us to be more creative in what we stock — books that make more beautiful or interesting objects, more obscure titles, etc., as well as remaining focussed on excellent service and providing a “space” which customers enjoy visiting. Fortunately, too, many of our customers are very loyal and know we pride ourselves in getting books for them quickly. My staff have even been known to walk customers’ books round to their houses after work . . .
Do you have a favourite book that you like to recommend?
My staff have very catholic tastes and I encourage them to recommend whatever they’re reading — which we also do in our monthly newsletter.
Which is the weirdest book you’ve had to sell?
We’ve always tried to have a fair few “weird” books, whether in our little erotica section (Bataille, anyone?), or amidst our selection of pamphlets on obscure aspects of Hackney. But we’re still trying to track down a copy of Malinowski’s The Sexual Lives of Savages for a customer . . .
How do you interact with your local community?
Broadway Market is a flourishing local community with one of London’s best known Saturday markets. We’re proud to be part of that. We have a regular events programme, which often features local authors, known and not so well-known, and we exhibit the work of local artists. We also work closely with a local school to supply their book needs. We are currently working with other traders to set up a local traders’ association. We also ask one of our regular customers each month to make a display of their favourite books for us at the front of the shop: the latest is Will Wintour, aged 9.
Why are independent bookshops so important?
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Most visitors to the shop are delighted to find us here, as it is immediately obvious that they’re in a deliberately curated shop put together with care and discrimination. All our books are chosen according to criteria we think are important, not dictated by an anonymous head office: Are they books we enjoy reading? Are they books we think are important, beautiful, challenging? As an independent bookshop that knows its customer base and individual customers very well, we can do this in a way no high-street chain can. We don’t need to bombard our customers with garish promotions, TV tie-ins, or toppling copies of the transitory book-of-the-day. Which makes it a much more pleasant place to visit (and work in).
What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked in your bookshop?
What should I buy my daughter who I haven’t seen for twenty years?
Who are your local authors and celebrity fans?
Hackney has a thriving community of artists and writers, journalists and bloggers. The local guru/shaman/North star is obviously Iain Sinclair, who lives a few streets away and has been a great supporter of the shop. He has done many events here and is always a source of wisdom and ideas. Unfortunately most of our celebrity customers are so well known that they’d rather we didn’t name their names, but we did have Tom Stoppard in last week.
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.