Round Table Books is the hottest bookshop in town and its journey makes for fascinating reading. Last year, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education released a report that found that only one percent of the more than 9,000 books published in the UK in 2017 had a central BAME character. In response to this, publishers Aimée Felone and David Stevens set up a pop-up bookshop stocking only inclusive titles in October 2018. The response to this was phenomenal, leading to a crowdfunding campaign #ReadTheOnePercent, to finance a permanent store. Lo and behold, Round Table Books opened its doors in May 2019.
Spread the Word’s Aliya Gulamani spoke to their lead bookseller, Khadija Osman to find out more.
Aliya: Hello Khadija, thanks so much for chatting with us. I remember coming to visit the pop-up shop, and the brilliant reaction it got from the community. It must be a thrill that it’s now a permanent residence in Brixton?
Khadija: No one is more excited to have this place standing in the middle of Brixton than the Round Table team right now. Although other Brixtonites do work hard to try to top us. We often get people opening conversations with congratulations and telling us they’re proud of us. It’s a lovely way to be greeted.
Aliya: I love the name of the bookshop – how did it come about and what does it personally signify for you?
Khadija: I love the name too. In short it comes from Arthurian legend, King Arthur requested a Round Table so that no man could sit at it’s head and everyone in the kingdom of Camelot could be represented equally at it. The shop’s mission is to help represent everyone equally in books so really it’s just a perfect fit!
Aliya: You’re the lead bookseller in the shop and you work with Layla – how do you both share the responsibility of running the bookshop?
Khadija: Layla and I work hard on lots of different things, from choosing stock to advertising book clubs and one-off events, taking turns on different responsibilities. She’s in two days less than I am in the week but has cracking ideas and an eye for photo composition that I’m not afraid to say I’m a little jealous of. And when she’s working the till for me, I finally find the time to answer all of my one thousand and one emails so she’s really just indispensable.
Aliya: As well as doing this, you also manage the bookshop’s social media account (if you’re not following them, check them out @BooksRound), what other day-to-day responsibilities do you do?
Khadija: Even with the online Twitter and Instagram accounts we also have to do a lot more on the ground social advertising; connecting with schools, flyering and meeting people directly. Any small businessman will tell you their job is Marketer first. Then Retailer, Event Planner, MC and all around lovable schmoozer.
Aliya: I recently went to the bookshop to buy books for my youngest brothers and I was astounded by the brilliant collection of books. I came away with two great copies, both of which had a BAME character on the front cover. What have been the most interesting reactions that you’ve witnessed?
Khadija: It’s lovely to hear any positive reactions to our shelves because I have to put so much work into them. People are right to have complained in the past there is a shortage of accessible diverse literature but there are an amazing number of gems out there, both relatively new and in some more classic capacities.
But my favourite memory is probably still of a young boy who sullenly told me he didn’t like books while his bibliophile family fluttered around him about the shop, they were picking everything up. They just couldn’t get enough of the store but he was sure that there was nothing that would interest him. It was when his older sister told me “Raza is always like this in bookshops” that I remembered the book I had just fallen in love with. When I was able to tell him that a boy in one of our books – the cool older cousin in the book no less – was also called Raza that he lit up. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on it and stayed reading it the whole time his family shopped and when they left it was with that in their bag as well.
Seeing your name in a book is a powerful thing, we’re all a little wonderstruck by it but some names are a little rarer to find than others. I was very proud to make his day.
Aliya: Currently, what are your bestsellers and why do you think these particular books are so popular?
Khadija: One of our bestsellers is Planet Omar. I think a Muslim main character for a book with that young an audience is something amazing to have and people coming in recognise that. In an age of heavier Islamaphobia and a lot of fear in the air, it’s beautiful to get a happy young boy who just loves his family on the pages of a book.
Aliya: Can you give us a little preview into what may be coming up for Round Table Books over the next few months?
Khadija: Over the next few months, we’ll be using our HarperCollins Literacy Project Grant from the Indie Thinking initiative to do some literacy promoting events in the area that we’re very excited about. As well as that we’ll be beginning a Parents and Carers book club in which we review children’s books and hopefully get a better idea of what everyone is desperately wanting on their children’s shelves.
Aliya: And finally, can you tell us an interesting feature or lesser-known fact about the shop?
Khadija: I would hope that everyone knew at this point but as well as Round Table Books being a bookshop all about representing the underrepresented, the back of the shop houses the office of Knights Of . They are a publishing house that focus on diversifying the book world from the inside out and making sure their team are as broad and inclusive as the books on our shelves. If you come down, make sure to say hi to us both!
Published 3 July