By Jacqueline Johnson.
Shutting the door quickly, I turn off the alarm, turn on the heating and make a cup of tea. It is 8am, and this is the only routine that ties any one day to another in the life of Jacqson Diego Story Emporium. At this point I usually have a plan of what I think the rest of the day will look like, but invariably the day itself has other ideas. I work alone most of the time, with two very part time assistants. We close on Mondays to welcome visits from schools, or so that I can make outside visits myself. I try to clear my desk of paper work between 8am and our 9.30am opening, anything left begins a pile for tomorrow’s attention. The rest of the day is about books: sourcing books, reading books, sharing books.
Jacqson Diego Story Emporium is on Hamlet Court Road in Westcliff on Sea. Once nicknamed the ‘Bond Street’ of Essex, the road’s reputation is now marked by years of economic and social decline. The population of the area is mixed in both ethnicity and class, and this traditional high street is now home to an assortment of independents, charity shops, cafes, convenience stores, and the inevitable closures in the current climate. There is a defiantly positive vibe within the area, despite its outside reputation, and I opened the emporium in August 2012 consciously aware of a need for good quality books with provision for children to explore them freely, without pressure. My background is in literature, not bookselling. This, and a belief that education is not found in collecting certificates but in what we read, think and experience, underpins our ethos. We do everything expected of a good independent book shop, but we do it from a child’s perspective.
The emporium is designed as a space for children to be stimulated by the opportunities afforded by books, and this shapes my day. We focus on the child and not the parent: on their interests, their needs. They can browse, sit, think, draw, chat whatever their age. They move things around, ask us questions, read to us or are read to. Every child is different, and sharing books with each child is a different experience. We are led by whoever comes in and take time to find out about the child as a person, what they like to do, what they have read and why they liked or didn’t like it. Two children might enjoy the same book, but their reasons for doing so may differ. It is their reasons that that will help us to suggest another book from the few thousand on our shelves.
Our customer base is growing, but it is early days and it would be hard to suggest a favourite or best seller; our sales list is completely different from one week to the next. Classics are as popular as new books, and while we sell a majority of books in English we’ve sold bi-lingual books from Beowulf in Albanian to Aliens in Underpants in Mandarin.
Between customer visits, story times and book clubs, I am constantly writing lists: ideas for activities, to fill gaps on a particular subject shelf, researching and placing orders for a local school, deciding on topics and titles for our clubs. A constant problem is finding books that have not been marketed to exclude members of our monthly book groups.
As book covers become more and more pink and blue in design, we constantly find books which should have a broad appeal across genders are being obscured by the way that they have been packaged. This can also be true in terms of ethnicity. There are always going to be subjects that appeal more to one child than another, and in many cases a divide naturally falls, but we are finding that books are often limiting their audience by enforcing a target market. There is also a startling increase in the way that covers for the older child mimic adult markets, thus creating today’s child as a consumer of books for a particular market as they grow. We avoid these books when possible; I believe that it is in all of our interests to cultivate children as readers across genres and not limit their thinking and reading power.
Broadly speaking children still want the same thing they ever did from a book: to be thrilled. It can be funny or sad, scary or poignant, but they will always want to be excited by the experience. Do that and they will tell you it’s 10 out of 10. Fail and it will be ‘boring’ and a thumbs’ down. There is rarely an in-between, but within a group of children there is often a total divide in appeal.
As a childhood experience books are competing with many other activities, but many children still rate them highly on their lists of pleasures. I recently discussed setting up the business with a large mixed group of key stage 2 children. When I told them that many people had questioned my own business plans by asking whether ‘children liked books’, the noise that erupted, as they all shouted for attention to tell me why they loved books, was deafening. But nonetheless books have to compete with all the other activities in parents’ budgets and we need to be proactive in how we present reading as an activity. Jacqson Diego Story Emporium is run on a not-for-profit basis, with any profits from book sales subsidising our creative literary activities. It’s a balancing act to keep as many opportunities open to the widest audience and pay the rent, and it is mostly with trepidation that I approach cashing up at the end of the day. Usually I am pleasantly surprised, perhaps helped by low but realistic expectations for this first year, and I set the alarm and lock up with a smile on my face.
For more information about Jacqueline and her emporium, you can visit the website: http://www.jacqsondiego.com.
Or, even better why not visit the shop:
Jacqson Diego Story Emporium
142 Hamlet Court Road
Westcliff on Sea