by Iqbal Ahmed
When my second book was published in 2006, I hosted a launch party at the hotel where I worked. I decided to invite a few indie booksellers who had lent me their invaluable support after the publication of my first book two years before. I knew it was going to be a long shot for them to attend my party on a weekday. However, I was well acquainted with the staff of the London Review Bookshop and they obliged me by attending the launch. I stood in the lobby of the hotel before the start of the event to welcome my guests and saw a lady and gentleman whom I didn’t recognise. The lady introduced herself as Vivian Archer from Newham Bookshop and her colleague was John Newman.
I was most surprised that they had travelled all the way from Newham’s to attend my launch in North-West London. At the end of the event, John bought a copy of the limited edition of my book that I had produced for the London Review Bookshop.
I usually distributed my books to indie shops in London by bike, carrying the books on the bike rack, but had sent them to Newham Bookshop by post because the shop was located outside my usual cycling route. Given the enterprise they’d shown, I now felt that it was my turn to pay a visit to Vivian and John at their shop.
A few days after my launch party I received an email from Vivian, ‘Help! Your book is sold out.’ This clinched my decision to pay them a visit – it was like a Mayday call – and I had no choice but to rush to her shop with a few more copies of my book.
I knew West Ham only as the name of a football club before I visited Newham’s in Barking Road and found that it was situated close by Boleyn Ground, West Ham United’s football stadium, outside which could be seen a bronze statue depicting England’s World Cup victory in 1966.
Even though I had heard much about Vivian, I was still bowled over by her generosity of spirit when I visited her at Newham Bookshop. She gave me the contact details of a reviewer who was interested in reading my book. I considered that was something above and beyond her role as a bookseller. In fact, I found a well-known poet volunteering in her shop when I visited. Vivian gave me a tour of her shop which was like an Aladdin’s cave, bursting at the seams with books, seemingly more of them than there was space to stack them.
Two years ago, I received an email from Newham Bookshop stating that they were shortly going to relocate. I was very concerned to hear that it was moving out after 40 years residence – until I realised that they were moving only two doors down the road. There was an outpouring of support from the patrons of this long-standing indie bookshop to help them relocate to their new premises,
which wasn’t unexpected because the shop is much loved by the locals in East London.
I emailed Vivian recently to let her know about my latest book. She responded swiftly, offering her congratulations, and a few minutes later sent a second email to order a few copies for her shop. I decided to deliver them myself rather than posting them because I wanted to meet her again after such a long interval. I had planned to launch my book on the 27th of March but there was a lockdown and bookshops were included among the ‘non-essential’ shops that were ordered by the Government to close for three months (unlike Belgium, which made special allowance for bookshops).
I got off the Tube at Upton Park and walked towards Barking Road. An acquaintance who lived in my own neighbourhood once corrected me when I asked him if he had moved to Barking. ‘No, no, it’s Barkingside’, he asserted, no doubt wanting to be associated with Essex rather than the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.
When I reached Barking Road, I wasn’t sure if the Newham Bookshop was located on the left or right-hand side of the road and asked a woman sitting outside a cafe for directions. She pointed to the bookshop, just two doors down from me. Boleyn Ground stadium has disappeared but the statue celebrating Britain’s World Cup victory has survived.
I put a mask on before entering the shop and saw Vivian sitting behind a counter fitted with perspex. She didn’t recognise me at first but when I handed her my books, she got up and welcomed me back warmly into her shop.
She called her assistant, Karima, to show her my book. Karima, who is very passionate about books, has worked in Newham Bookshop for the last 12 years but has known the shop as a customer for 30 years. She was placing new books on the shelves and showed me Kamila Shamsie’s children’s book, Duckling, which had been published just the day before. The children’s section has been a backbone of this bookshop ever since it opened in 1978. Karima also showed me Michael Rosen’s new collection of poems.
Vivian offered me a complimentary copy of a book, one of hundreds of copies donated to the shop by a publisher as a gesture of goodwill. When you talk to Vivian, it is easy to understand why this bookshop is so popular with writers and publishers alike. She is suffused with motherly love for new writers.