5 Mins With: Gary Mclaren, Owl Bookshop

Meet a familiar face who’s been behind the counter at Kentish Town Road’s bookshop for 30 years

Gary Mclaren: 'It's changed surprsingly little in its 40 years of trading.' Photos: Andy Stewart (ManFriday.london)
Gary Mclaren: ‘It’s changed surprisingly little in its 40 years of trading.’ Photos: Andy Stewart, ManFriday.london
So, how long have you been at Owl?
It opened in Kentish Town in 1974, where the Cafe Renoir currently is, and moved a few years later to the premises now occupied by Ladbrokes. I joined in 1986 when the shop was busy serving the needs of the staff and students of the Polytechnic of North London based in Prince of Wales Road.

The owners, Robert Macleod and Margaret Lally, had come from the original Dillon’s in Gower Street and, in a time before computerized stock control, provided a traditional and professional training in the mysterious art of bookselling. In 1999 then owner Kevin Ramage expanded the shop into its current location before moving up to Scotland in 2010. Daunt came to the rescue, and Owl continues to thrive.

Big enough to spend an hour or so....Photo: Andy Stewart (ManFriday.london)
Big enough to spend an hour or so….Photo: Andy Stewart ManFriday.london
How have bookshops changed?
The Owl has altered surprisingly little in its forty years of trading. There has always been a wonderful children’s section at the front of the shop, and many locals will remember after-school or Saturday shopping trips with their parents. The layout of the shop and its sections has remained pretty constant.

Behind the scenes, the advent of computers brought the biggest changes, speeding up the ordering process with next day delivery becoming the norm. The days of driving around London to publishers’ trade counters or waiting weeks for orders to arrive are long gone; we are now free to focus on keeping our shelves and tables full of the books our customers want to read, and those we can recommend.


A striking presence on the Kentish Town Road. Photo: SE
A striking presence on the Kentish Town Road. Photo: SE
What are your personal recomendations at the moment?
I recently finished the Booker-shortlisted All That Man Is by David Szalay, and I was so impressed I’ve been forcing it on colleagues and customers ever since. Truly brilliant books are few and far between, and I started to doubt my own high opinion of it, but now, a few weeks later, I still think it’s the best thing I’ve read for years.

One of my favorite authors, something of a guilty secret, is Elizabeth Von Arnim, perhaps best known for the wonderful The Enchanted April. I love her for Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and its funny and clever sequel The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen.

One of the joys of being a bookseller is happening across something good by chance, like P J Kavanagh’s 1966 memoir, The Perfect Stranger. The idea that there must be hundreds of other equally good books waiting to be rediscovered is an exciting thought. It’s moving, funny and compelling.

Capturing the morning sun. Photo: Andy Stewart
Capturing the morning sun. Photo: Andy Stewart, ManFriday.london
Are bookshops here to stay?
The answer is of course a very big YES! Bookshops are wonderful places in their own right, much more than just somewhere to buy books. It seems obvious now that Ebooks will never replace real books.

Reading is a fantastic, mind-expanding pleasure that can easily compete with other forms of entertainment or learning.

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Owl Bookshop is open daily at 207-209 Kentish Town Rd NW5. Find out more about their weekly events here

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