Artist and author open independent bookshop in Highbury

Author Betsy Tobin and artist Tessa Shaw in their new Highbury bookshop Ink@84

Author Betsy Tobin and artist Tessa Shaw in their new Highbury bookshop Ink@84 - Credit: Archant

With soaring rents and cut-throat online competition, few are brave enough to open an independent bookshop in London these days.

Ink@84 shopfront

Ink@84 shopfront - Credit: Archant

But despite the grim stats, long-term Islington residents and friends Tessa Shaw and Betsy Tobin are confident that their new shop - Ink@84 in Highbury Park - will be a success.

“We’ve both lived in Islington for more than 20 years,’ says Betsy, who is the author of five novels include Bone House, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. “So we remember what it was like when we had independent booksellers, and we were lamenting the fact that we’re one of the only communites in north and east London that wasn’t supporting one.

“And we just thought that, with the density of writer types and media and publisher people in this area, that it’s something that the community really needed.”

Not every one was convinced that their plan would succeed, admits Tessa, a former journalist who now works as a photographer and artist.

“Friends would say: ‘Aren’t all independent bookshops closing? Are you barking mad?’” she says.

But for Tessa, part of the attraction was trying to prove that a new bookshop could thrive in the current climate.

Most Read

“I love books, and I’ve always liked doing things where people say it can’t be done,” she says. “I always have done throughout my career as a journalist and an artist.”

Plus, the future isn’t quite as bleak as you might think, adds Betsy, who points out that this is the first year for a long time when more UK bookshops have opened than shut down.

“E-book sales have flat-lined over the past few years, and sales of ebook hardware have also dropped,” she says.

“What we’ve found in the UK at least is that, especially with literary fiction and non-fiction, readers really prefer paper books. I think it’s in other areas - like genre fiction, romance and mystery - that digital is very popular.”

And Ink@84 is much more than a traditional bookshop: as well as stocking everything from from adult and children’s fiction, poetry and thrillers to biography, cookbooks, and books about politics and sport, the shop also doubles as a café and bar.

The friends have tried wherever possible to source refreshments from the locality. Coffee is supplied by Nude in Shoreditch, as well as a selection of wines and microbrews from Highbury Vintners.

They also sell a selection of board games, stationery and home ware - including several Japanese items.

“It’s not really a model we’ve seen before – at least not in London,” says Betsy. “We don’t feel anyone is doing quite what we’re doing in quite the same way in such a small, upmarket space.”

The shop itself, which used to be an estate agent’s, was designed by the firm Sceales Gunn Design in nearby Highgate, and has more of the feel of an art gallery than a bookshop.

“We wanted it to be something really beautiful, because we think books should be beautiful and bookshops should be, too,” says Betsy.

Eventually, the women hope to host workshops, readings and talks at the shop - and a few local authors have already asked about the possibility of hosting book launches there.

Will their business survive? So far so good: just two days after the grand opening, Betsy and Tessa were already frantically restocking their shelves - before they’d even finished taking their first lot of stock out of its boxes.

The response from the public has been overwhelming, they say.

“We’ve literally had dozens of people coming in here and say: ‘Thank God this isn’t an estate agent,’ and thanking us for opening a proper shop,” says Betsy.

“I think Islington really needs to take on board that the public don’t need any more estate agents. Even estate agents have come in and said that to us!

Tessa adds: “I don’t know if people will support us long term, but the vibe is really good.”