207-209 Kentish Town Road, Kentish Town, London NW5 2JU
Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town Road first grabbed our attention for its many impressive talks and events. They also have a child-centred focus, offering a Sunday children’s reading at 11.30, where anything from one to eleven kids might turn up – but even if it’s only one, the lucky so-and-so will get a personalised reading all to themselves.
The shop has a dedicated Oyster card, necessary because they deliver books to local schools of which there are 10. Staff will carry orders on the local bus (if it’s too far to walk) and deliver them personally – a remarkable service in any age of bookshops, but especially now. The shop is in regular contact with all of these schools and many children from five to eighteen come to the shop on a regular basis, remarkable in days when young people are often accused of being more interested in their phones than reading books.
A special day for the staff was described as being one when children come round and actually buy books themselves without an adult in sight – one recently bought the Chronicles of Narnia and read them from beginning to end, returning with updates every so often.
The excellent connections with local schools are augmented by connections on Facebook and Twitter where the shop offers recommendations. If there is an age focus it tends to be the 60-plus and pre-teens audience. There was a regular footfall while we were there, even though there was only one member of staff in the shop. She was very busy at the till even though it was mid-morning on a school day. She spent a lot of time with a lady reader shopper who must have been around 80 years old, answering her questions with enthusiasm and dedicated patience.
The shop itself has been around since the 70s and is crammed with different kind of books, with the main content focus on children’s books, general fiction and politics. There is a dedicated children’s area of the shop which felt very welcoming, but not scrubbed so no one felt they could sit down or relax there. Their relationship with local schools is unique as the schools contact them and order direct rather than going to other places or ordering through Amazon – the relationships are sustained by that personal touch. For adults, as we found, currently everything seemed to be focusing on Brexit – there were lots of political books of all persuasions in a way that we had not seen for a while. The strong political element was also clear as the shop is in a Labour area in Camden. There were lots of books about Corbyn and Brexit and the current developing dystopian view of the world. Quite worrying in some ways – but good to see that it seems to be encouraging the enquiring minds of local readers.
The Owl Bookshop couldn’t have been more receptive in talking with us about their role in the community – it is clearly on many levels a very successful independent bookshop.
In terms of the people that do talks and events, Melissa Harrison (‘All Among The Barley’) was appearing that week. The shop does charge for their talks and events to cover costs, but £5 didn’t seem particularly excessive for the offering of direct contact with well-known and loved writers. The events tend to be 6.30 for a 7pm start, with the odd glass of wine thrown in, or probably passed to you gently, and the events seem to be very well attended from what we could see. They tend to get generally between 50 and 70 people. Some of the other events are free, some are £3 and some £5.
They offer a loyalty scheme where you get £5 for every time you spend £100 at the shop. They retain a list of books that people have bought so they can ask if they’ve already got the book if they can’t remember whether they’ve bought it before. I’ve never heard of a service like that, though I confess I have sometimes suddenly felt a desire to read something only to discover I had bought it two years ago and not yet got round to reading it (another example of focusing on the over-60s…) Online membership of the shop means you will always get information about forthcoming events in plenty of time to plan attending them. Their list of local regular readers and shoppers is at over 300 people so they don’t have to work nearly as hard to get people in there, and can take advantage of their immediate population. The great news I discovered before leaving was that Howard Jacobson will be doing an event on 29th July 2019 to publicise and talk about his new London-based novel, ‘Live a Little’.
Address: 207-209 Kentish Town Road, Kentish Town, London NW5 2JU
Phone number: 020 7485 7793
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 9:00am – 6:00pm; Sundays, Bank Hols 11:00am – 6:00pm
Nearest tube station: Kentish Town, Kentish Town West (overground)
Buses: 46, 88, 134, 214, 393