The Bookseller Crow is celebrating its 21st anniversary with Jonathan Main and Justine Crow as owners. Tim Relf meets one half of the dynamic - and occasionally irreverent - couple who make this South London independent special
Approach the Bookseller Crow and the first thing you’ll notice is the sign above the front window. It’s old - so old, in fact, that it’s got a now-superseded phone number on it.
"Nowadays when people pull the front off buildings and old shop facades get rediscovered, everyone remarks how charming they are - so why would we change it?" says Jonathan Main, who runs the south London store with Justine Crow. "Besides, people can get your number in countless ways in seconds these days."
Walk inside and you’ll hear music playing - often loudly. Admittedly, the couple are music lovers, but there’s another, more subtle, more commercially savvy reason for this. As with the sign outside, it helps define the atmosphere they’re trying to create.
Atmosphere is, according to Main, one of the most important ingredients for a successful independent - and it’s something they’ve worked hard at since taking over the Crystal Place store in 1997.
"I take the music quite seriously," he says. "I like to play stuff that people might not have heard or heard for a long time."
The result is a broad range, which includes jazz, world music and reggae (Bryan Ferry was on when BookBrunch called in).
Visiting a bookshop should represent an "adventure" for customers, and the playlist is just one element of how you define the look and feel of the place, Main says. Here, also, you’ll encounter rows of paper doves - inspired by a Mexican street festival, they’ve hung from the ceiling since the early 1990s, originally doubling up as a Christmas decoration and a peace statement during the first Gulf War.
Name to remember
Even the name is part of that elusive quality, atmosphere. "Hairdressers often work hard on coming up with names. Sometimes they’re a bit naff, but at least they wouldn’t go for something boring like 'The Crystal Palace Hairdresser'. We wanted something that added mystery, something memorable." The result obviously took Justine’s surname, but was also a nod to the "arrogant, curious and intelligent birds" that frequent the local park in large numbers.
A huge part of the personality of a shop is defined by what it stocks, Main says. As with the playlist, it’s an eclectic mix: modern fiction, American lit and crime mixed with local history, kids’ books and graphic novels.
As well as the books you choose to put on the shelves, you make a statement through the ones you don’t - and Main is unapologetic about this. A few years ago, he ended a Facebook post with a sentiment along the lines of: "If you want the f*****g Boris Johnson book on Churchill, go somewhere else." "It’s not about censorship, but it wouldn’t have reflected my personality - or the shop’s - to sell that.
"The way to success is not to copy the front table of Waterstones or the front page of Amazon. It’s about cultivating tastes of your own. You’ve got to provide something distinctive and alternative. You make your own bestsellers by virtue of your recommendations."
Nowadays the SE19 postcode has become more of a destination. "Lots of parts of London like to style themselves as villages when they’re not - but this really does feel like one, with everything operating around three roads which form a triangle. There’s a great food market, good restaurants and a distinct lack of chain outlets. There’s a nice feeling of independence."
This wasn’t always the case, though. "Plenty of people thought we were mad, when we took the place on," he recalls.
Back then, the shop was a branch of the now-defunct small chain Words Worth Books, which Main and Crow were working for. "Essentially, it was a fairly tatty bargain shop by that time, but we knew it had potential. We wanted to find a location that didn’t have a bookshop, but could just about sustain one. I’ve never particularly cared for the central London bookselling scene - I’m a working-class bloke from the East Midlands."
Although Main clearly has a huge enthusiasm for books, he reckons he wasn’t obsessed with them in the way some who go into the trade are. Instead, as a former fine art student with an interest in filmmaking and writing, he was drawn to the "bohemian" atmosphere that surrounded the book world. He’d also always been fascinated by authors - and went to the same secondary school as Robert Harris. "He was the brightest kid there, even though he was an old fogey even then. He wore a blazer with a hankie in the pocket; me and my mates were screen-printing Che Guevara on the back of ours.
"I’ve always been as interested in retail as I have specifically bookshops. We tried to take inspiration from some of our favourite shops, such as the designer Paul Smith’s. They’re different, they have a quirkiness. It’s the same with American stores - Avid and Word, for example. It’s always been a guiding principle here that we wouldn’t do anything snooty or pretentious."
Chic and cheerful
They’re clearly getting something right. Time Out once described the Bookseller Crow on the Hill as "possibly London's most accessible local bookshop", and, more recently, the Independent called it "shabby but wonderful".
It’s had its tough times - the worst period about 15 years ago when the combination of a local supermarket temporarily closing and roadworks caused by the installation of a one-way system led to a dramatic drop in footfall. But the prospects for the independents are bright if you get the ingredients right, Main insists.
"You can’t rely too much on stuff exterior to books to prop up your business, because the things people diversify into are not necessarily constants. Reading tastes might change, but there’s less fashionability about selling books than some other items."
The threat from Amazon has probably "stabilised", but the increasing popularity of the area has brought problems of its own. "With property having become more desirable, rents aren’t just creeping up - in some cases they’re doubling. Our business rates have gone up from £670 a month last year to about £800 a month now. Next year they could go up again - taking the annual bill to nearer £12,000."
It’s a serious business, so Main is adamant you have to make it fun - and social media provides an ideal vehicle to do just that, by introducing a little irreverence to what he sometimes feels can be a "too traditional and stuffy" industry.
For many years he blogged, but switched to Twitter because it was less time-consuming - a big consideration given they’ve always opened the shop seven days a week until 7pm (plus he and Crow also have three grown-up children, so spare time has not been plentiful).
He also figured if he used Twitter, with its emphasis on brevity and transience, he would be "less likely to cause offence". There had been, for example, one incident involving a reader pretending to be an outraged vicar on his blog after he made a lighthearted comment in the shop about multiplying book tokens in the manner of loaves and fishes.
With nearly 9,000 followers, the Twitter account offers a simple way to communicate with publishers and publicists, and is a great tool for getting to know authors. "Often, the authors who are good at Twitter are the ones who will be good at events," Main says.
Main loves putting on events, which represent an important part of Bookseller Crow’s offering. "I’m not interested in having an event with someone just because they’re a household name. It’s often up-and-coming novelists. I’ll always remember Canadian Miriam Toews. This was the only bookshop event she’d done at that stage and the place was packed. She immediately got it and it turned out she used to work in a bookshop. That was special."
He describes hosting the 2015 UK launch party for Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism as a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience - not least because he’d been instrumental in getting Drury, one of his favourite American authors, published in this country by Old Street. "I had spent probably 18 years trying to encourage a publisher to do it," he recalls.
"A bookshop is the sum of its customers and a good one acts as a magnate for the interesting people in its catchment area and beyond. I have met - and continue to meet - some absolutely brilliant people who have become the shop’s friends and have enriched the past 21 years incomparably.
"The last two or three years have been really good to us," Main concludes. "The shop has got a settled, strong personality."
Speaking of personality and atmosphere, he’s off to change the music again. Bob Dylan, this time. Loud. "In 21 years, I’ve only had three people complain about it being too noisy," he says.
Bookseller Crow at a glance
Floor area: 1100 sq ft
Bestselling book of 2017: River Effra: London’s Secret Spine by Jon Newman (Signal Books), closely followed by Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli (Particular Books)
Number of staff: Three-and-a-half
Number of events each year: 60-plus (not including book groups)
Pictured: Jonathan Main and Justine Crow