The Owl Bookshop
by Iqbal Ahmed
I usually cycled through Kentish Town to go to Camden or Central London when I lived near Hampstead Heath. I would see The Owl Bookshop on the way, looking as composed as the nocturnal bird itself in the bustling high street. I published my first book in 2004 and The Owl Bookshop was one of the first few bookshops in London to stock my independently produced book, thanks to their manager, Gary McLaren. When I published the second hardback edition a year later, Gary liked its cover design more than that of the first edition and displayed my books on the front table in the shop. This made all the difference and greatly helped the second edition sell faster than the first.
Whenever I walked into The Owl shop to deliver my books, Gary was there, interacting with customers. He is a familiar face in Kentish Town, having worked in the same shop for the last 34 years. In 2006 I invited him and his colleagues to the launch party of my second book. But they were hosting an event of their own in their shop on that day and were therefore unable to attend.
I moved out of the area in 2007 and cycled to town by a different route. But I recently chose to cycle through Kentish Town again and stopped by The Owl. It had been such a long time that I wasn’t sure if Gary would recognize me. However, he greeted me like an old friend as soon as I entered his shop, even though my face was covered by a mask.
Booksellers are usually very perceptive people. Gary has worked for The Owl Bookshop since the mid-80s when there was no such thing as a computerized inventory and he must have memorised hundreds of titles, both old and new. (I once worked with a bookseller who knew the ISBNs of some of her books off the top of her head). Gary, too, is himself an avid reader and a very erudite person, having worked as a bookseller for more than three decades.
The Owl Bookshop was opened in 1974 by Robert Macleod and Margaret Lally, who had formerly worked for Dillons bookshop in Gower Street. Una Dillon had started that bookshop in partnership with London University at a time when the bookselling business was a male preserve. Many decades later three remarkable women – Denise, Vivian and Jane – followed in Una’s footsteps to run three indie bookshops in East London. When I came to London, Dillons in Gower Street was still referred to as ‘The University Bookshop’ on a city map. Dillons was later bought by Waterstones and the shop was rebranded
accordingly. I had a personal connection with the Gower Street branch of Waterstones because I worked for them for a few months in 2000.
The Owl Bookshop changed hands and Kevin Ramage became its new owner. He moved to Scotland in 2010. I came to learn only recently that this bookshop has belonged to Daunts for the last 10 years.
The shop has changed very little in appearance since I first visited it 25 years ago. There was just one Daunts bookshop then, located in Marylebone High Street. They next opened a branch in Belsize Park, and today they have a second branch in Hampstead.
The tagline of Daunts is ‘Independent Booksellers’ and you find it written in capital letters on their bookmarks. The Owl has thrived because Daunts has let it remain an indie. A lady living in Hampstead once told me that she would never walk down the high street in Kentish Town because it was too crowded for her. But I liked the demotic liveliness of the Camden Town area when I lived in Hampstead.
Since it took ownership of The Owl Bookshop, Daunts has revived the age-old tradition of bookshops publishing their own books. In fact, one of the titles shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize is published by Daunts.
Waterstones was on the brink of bankruptcy when James Daunt was brought in to run the chain, perhaps more for his skills as an independent bookseller than a banker. That is why some people like to call him ‘the man who saved Waterstones’. He turned it around by making each branch function like an independent bookshop and a few years later it started to turn a profit.
Sometimes, when I drifted into the Waterstones shop in Hampstead, I would find an event with a renowned author like Allen Ginsberg or Hanif Kureishi taking place on its upper floor, whereas The Owl Bookshop held events for local authors. Gary must be well-acquainted with all of them since his bookshop is much loved by people living in the neighbourhood. The shop is also very enticing for children because it stocks a wide range of books for them, as well as a colourful-looking owl sitting quietly in its show-window.
Gary was putting new books for display in the window when I visited him recently. It was like meeting a kindred spirit after a long separation.