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.
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.
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.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.