141 Pitshanger Lane, Ealing, London, W5 1RH
Part of the social development of London recently has been the suburbs within suburbs, and Pitshanger has recently become one of these. A mile or so from Ealing Broadway in West London, it boasts a full range of shops to serve its increasing number of families and schools. The potential footfall has also increased in line with the development of the area and one place to benefit from that has been the Pitshanger Bookshop.
When I spoke to the Fiona, the woman running the shop who bought it eight years ago, she immediately enthused about her work and how the shop had developed in recent years. It seemed a remarkable achievement to have done all this herself (though she has help from Hazel, Ruth and Vanda), and it made me think about the power of enthusiasm and energy in such a project. Many cynics still say that the internet will eventually raze all shops to the ground, and that physical books will suffer both for not being a digital commodity and for the need to pay for transporting them, which adds to the cost. However, like vinyl records, they are something that is refusing to go quietly. The joy of handling something tangible to read, like a book, with your own private access has not experientially been emulated by the eBook, nor I would argue will it ever be. The independent bookshop has a huge part to play in keeping books away from the mausoleum and under people’s eyes, and this is clearly one that is helping to fulfil that aim.
Fiona said that when running the shop it helped her to look at people who visited it in terms of customer groups: older readers, families and the countless local schools. Mums made up many members of the bookgroups which, while they all seemed to prefer fiction, worked differently through their various recommendations. These could come from anyone, but books that reading groups had read and recommended collectively would always be out on show.
The shop has an excellent children’s section from pre-school KS2 to senior school and processes simple text orders from local schools and, like Owl Bookshop, are ensconced in areas of the community that self-generate further interest and orders. Without that, it seems that a bookshop would not survive. Fiona has the advantage of owning the shop so, unlike Camden Lock Books, doesn’t have to factor in impossible climbing rents into the subsistence calculations.
I asked about local authors and was directed to a corner of the shop where their work and books were on show. From the professional to the self-published, authors were all encouraged to write their own pieces which were put alongside their books, raising the profile with considerable success.
Fiona had only been at Pitshanger Books for eight years, but the shop has been open for twenty. She clearly enjoys the autonomous nature of running it, but admits that it was initially a labour of love, and when she first started there in 2011, it reduced her previous income by almost 80%. However, the fact that she lives locally and is always in touch with her community, even when the shop is shut, makes for a quality of life that many in the industry might envy. Unsurprisingly, she is often badly treated by her suppliers as a ‘little person’, as they can be particularly ruthless, inviting the dog eat dog image. She declares herself worried for the future of independent shops in general, feeling that people like her had to regard the enterprise more like a hobby if they weren’t to occasionally become dispirited. Her day-to-day concerns being which books to stock or more a case of what not to stock – space was always the overriding concern – but she found wholesalers to be brilliant, and said she had received good advice and expert opinion in the main from ‘The Bookseller’ – the British magazine, reporting on the publishing industry since 1858, and still surviving, with a circulation of 30,000.
Fiona described how there were always happenings in a bookshop that made you feel it was all worthwhile. One of her recent stories was about a young boy who had journeyed up to the shop at the weekend to buy a book he had been saving up for, and when he emptied out all his cash, found he was £3 short. An older man, a regular customer, had been listening in to the conversation and asked the boy why the book was so important to him. He said he had seen it in the shop a while back and had been saving up for it for nearly two months, so the man put his hand in his pocket to produce the additional £3 necessary. Great story.
Fiona admitted that she often found herself going into other bookshops on her day off to find new titles that she hadn’t seen online or in the Bookseller. Now that is a labour of love, though she declared that this was often when she had some of her most exciting ideas about changes or developments in the shop.
Another must-read she mentioned was ‘Bertram’s Buyers Notes,’ released every month and invariably possessing many good tips and suggestions. So clearly, I felt, this independent bookshops collective, whilst disparate and often as different as any two shops selling the same things could be, is nevertheless a community. Whilst not exactly thriving financially, it is certainly still a force spiritually, something which could be applied to the concept of ‘community’ in general these days. When that’s gone, there won’t be any need for anything local, for any shops, any advice or any help between people. Community demand keeps all this stuff alive. It might therefore be a good time to get down to your local bookshop now, and this isn’t charity, this is self-help, at every level…
Address: 141 Pitshanger Lane, Ealing, London, W5 1RH
Phone number: 020 8991 8131
Weekday opening hours: Monday – Saturday 9.30 – 5.30; closed Sundays
Nearest tube station: Hanger Lane (14 minutes), Ealing Broadway (19 minutes)
Buses: E2, E9